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The Mammy – to 140 fostered children

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Rio (right) with her family, her  father is cradling a baby she was fostering

Rio (right) with her family, her father is cradling a baby she was fostering

Rio Hogarty with presenter Grainne Seoige prior to the People of the Year awards 2010 ceremony

Rio Hogarty with presenter Grainne Seoige prior to the People of the Year awards 2010 ceremony

A Heart So Big by Rio Hogarty with Megan Day

A Heart So Big by Rio Hogarty with Megan Day

Rio with her foster daughter Rebecca

Rio with her foster daughter Rebecca

Rio after getting her hair done

Rio after getting her hair done

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Rio (right) with her family, her father is cradling a baby she was fostering

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Since the 1960s, Dubliner Rio Hogarty has fostered over 140 children. In recognition of this achievement, she received an award created especially for her – Most Inspiring Mother of the Year – at the Annual People of the Year Awards in 2010. And many of us have heard of her because of that.

But there is far more to Rio than all the children she has cared for – impressive though that is – and she tells the story of her remarkable and unorthodox life in her newly published memoir.

Rio grew up in Kimmage in the 1930s, a childhood she describes as "magical". Her playground was the local Holy Ghost Fathers' farm where her grandfather worked. Very early on, Rio had a highly developed sense of empathy and fairness and scant regard for authority figures. Aged only eight, she threw a clod of earth at one of the priests for twisting the ear of a playmate. At 12, noticing the distress of a school-friend at the hands of a violent father, she took her home – to stay. Thus began a lifetime of helping unhappy children whom Rio felt deserved the love and nurturing she experienced in her childhood.

Rio met Hughie, who worked in a butchers, and they were soon married with two small children. But it was no problem for them to take in another child. In the early 1960s, when her unmarried friend Janet found out she was pregnant, the child's father did a runner. Rio helped Janet to hide the pregnancy, thus avoiding the shame of being labelled an unmarried mother. When the baby was born, Rio took it and raised Janet's child as her own.

Money was tight and Rio supplemented Hughie's wages by running a dress shop. She also traded in the Dandelion and Finglas markets with her friend Doris and they had a small van.

Rio and Doris soon realised that the big money was to be made in being a wholesaler who supplied the other traders in bulk, but to do that they would need a truck instead of the van.

And that meant getting a HGV licence. This option wasn't available for women in the Republic during the 1960s, so they went to the North and did their test there.

Having given up the dress shop, she and Doris took turns, one driving the truck around Europe collecting goods while the other babysat all their children at home.

It was at a truck stop in France that Rio found two boys who had been abandoned by their alcoholic mother. She took them home to Ireland, with her trademark disregard for rules and regulations. It took her two years to find their relatives and she is still in touch with them, 50 years later.

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So dire was the poverty in Dublin of the 1960s that there was a steady supply of hungry, homeless kids who needed help. A kindly trader named Robbie would bring them to her at the Finglas market. Sometimes Rio would just give them food and let them rest in her truck, sometimes they came home with her.

During the Troubles, Rio took 35 children, aged two to 17, fleeing from the violence in the North into her three-bedroom home. Over the next three years, they kept coming and she ran her home like a military campaign. The kids nicknamed her home "Camp Rio".

It wasn't until the 1990s that Rio actually had her first official foster child, a six-year-old boy, scarred at the hands of the nuns in an orphanage. A one-woman army, Rio confronted the head nun, documented the abuse and campaigned for the home to be closed.

Rio wasn't averse to bending the rules. She hi-jacked a taxi and drove herself to hospital while in labour with her second child, smuggled butter into the South when it was cheaper in the North and stood up to armed robbers.

But it wasn't all work for Rio. The life and soul of any social gathering, she sang with Ronnie Drew and Luke Kelly in New York and dined with Frank Sinatra. Now, a great grandmother in her mid-seventies, Rio is still singing and sharing her big heart with foster children.


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