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'I buried an emotional bomb, then it went off'

IT WAS a beautiful summer's day. Alison Canavan brought her 10-month-old son James to visit her father's grave at Dardistown Cemetery, beside Dublin Airport, this month. She wanted to formally introduce them: "James was looking up at the planes as I said to my dad: 'This is James.'"

It is all part of the healing process for Alison. She can remember the last conversation she had with her dad. The day before he died 12 years ago, he spoke to Alison in a room at Blackrock Clinic.

Alison was, she recalls, in complete denial that he was in any way terminally ill. He had gone in with a blood clot. It was a routine check. Alison was going to Portugal that evening to shoot a commercial. In the room that day in Dublin, her dad told Alison that he was very proud of her. He told her to look after her mother and her younger sisters. She says: "I was looking out the window of Blackrock Clinic going, 'What's he talking about? He's not going anywhere. He's not going to die.'"

The next day, at lunchtime, May 18, 1999, Tom Canavan was dead. Alison, who had arrived in Portugal, flew straight home when she was told that morning that her dad had become very ill. "I was in Portugal when I realised I was going to lose dad," she says. "That day was heartbreaking and the pain was unbearable. I needed him so much, and still do."

She adds that when she was on the plane home, knowing her dad could be dead, she was looking out at the clouds at 35,000 feet thinking: "Please don't let him be up here."

His famous daughter, who was discovered by model agent Eddie Shanahan when she was 15, has been one of Ireland's top models for almost two decades. In one month in 2002, she was on the cover of five magazines.

She was earning $10,000 a week and living in a $3,000- a-month penthouse in Manhattan. She has worked for the Ford Models agency in London, New York and Paris, and shared catwalks with Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington.

Alison would have given all that up for a bit more time with her father. "I miss him terribly," she says over dinner in the Shelbourne hotel. "I tried to move on with life way too quickly. I feel I buried my emotions, and pushed them down and down and down. It's like burying a bomb. Eventually it will go off."

And what happened when the bomb went off for her? "I suffered from depression and an inability to communicate or to explain how I was feeling. I

went out and partied. I probably drank my way through a lot of it. I started suffering depression in my early 20s after losing dad. That's how I caught my post-natal depression so quickly. I couldn't express how I was feeling, I internalised everything, which causes depression."

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The post-natal depression after the birth of James wasn't helped by the fact that she had split up with James' father -- her long-term American beau Rob Francellos, who lives in San Francisco -- before she found out she was pregnant.

I ask her could she and Rob not have worked it out for James. She shakes her head. "They were differences that a child was never going to fix," she says. " Never. We weren't getting on. We broke up for very good reasons. We saw life very differently. We had very different views. I did love him but it wasn't strong enough for me."

How did she feel flying home to Dublin pregnant? "I didn't know I was pregnant until I got home to Ireland. I was very upset. I always expected to be married and to be in a stable relationship to bring up children. I do think it would be lovely now to have someone to share the responsibility and share all the joys; to see him growing. I'd love for things to have been different, but it was something that was completely out of my control, to be honest."

James Joseph Canavan was born on September 16 last year in the Coombe Hospital. He is named after her grandfather, who died when Alison was in her early 20s.

Alison is nothing if not brutally honest. I know her from around the town and she always wears her emotions on her Bastyan sleeve. She tells me that she started to go to a counsellor two weeks ago. I ask why. "Because I want to be the best mum I can. I don't want to carry any anger, and counselling is helping me figure out how to let go of the past. I want to be able to forgive people who have truly broken my heart. I can't sit around hoping and praying that people will do what they should or what I expect them to. I've learnt not to think so much with my head and try to look deeper and let go of the hurt and pain."

Alison, 33, has four sisters: Jennifer, 35; Laura, 29; Grace, 25; and Kate, 23. She admits her father's death was extremely hard on all the family. "Kate was only 11," she says. "I was working in London and I came home because mum took it really badly, obviously. My older sister Jennifer was just brilliant with Grace and Kate."

Alison adds that they were all hit in completely different ways by the death because "we all had completely different relationships with him. Twelve years later, I still find it difficult to talk about it. For me, my security was gone."

She can remember being in Greece when she was 19 and had a bad experience on a shoot. She rang her dad at two in the morning, crying her eyes out and he had her on a flight at 6am. "My dad was like a mythical character, who, no matter what trouble you get into, will come to your rescue and protect you and save you and the world," she says.

I ask Alison if the reason she is single is because other men can't live up to her dad's standard of a superhero? "I don't think so. I have been in long relationships ever since. Do I think it has affected my relationships? Yes, probably. I don't think I ever grieved. From the time I became pregnant, I started grieving for my father, I think. I suppose last year was one of the worst and best years of my life."

Giving birth to James was obviously the best bit ("James is probably the best thing that ever happened to me"); breaking up with James's dad was the worst. "I was terrified," she says. "I was on my own. That's a very frightening prospect. I'd broken up with my boyfriend." She met Rob when she first moved to New York eight years ago. She was introduced to him by her sister's boyfriend.

"We went out for quite a while," she explains. "Then we broke up and he moved to San Francisco. Then we got back. But things just didn't work out. We were going in very different directions. We separated. Then I found out I was expecting when I got home. It was a very difficult time, because I am really traditional in how I view families. I always wanted to be married. I wanted to have a family."

Looking back on her childhood in Castleknock, Alison remembers the family home as "a mad house. We killed each other. My sister Jennifer was really extrovert and I was really quiet. Then things totally turned around. In my teenage years, I became outspoken, and kind of wild and crazy, and Jennifer became really quiet."

Her mother Margaret is in the choir with the RTE Concert Orchestra. "She went and sang for the Pope recently," Alison says, beaming. "She is going over to New York to sing at the 9/11 anniversary. She's the most selfless person I know. She has done so much for me and all my sisters. She is the greatest mother on the planet." (Indeed, Margaret is babysitting James while Alison has a bite to eat with me.) In terms of her mothering skills, Alison says she wants to be the best mum she can. "I want James to appreciate life," she says. "Enjoy a great education. Follow his dreams, fall in love and be happy."

Having been signed by Eddie, Alison represented Ireland in the Ford Supermodel Competition in Las Vegas when she was 16. The rest is history. She has modelled all over the world. "I grew up in the fashion industry," Alison says. "I saw lots of girls destroy themselves. You have to be very strong to come through it unscathed. My family constantly reined me in. Some girls didn't have that, or would be desperate for success at any cost."

She even had that perfect top-model accessory -- a stalker. "I've had a few," she says. "When I was very young, a guy used to sit on my green every day and stare at the house. Very scary. My daddy fixed it. That's why I miss him; your daddy can do anything."

Is beauty skin deep, I ask. "To me, if you're not a nice person, no matter how beautiful you are on the outside, you're ugly."

She says her biggest flaw is that she "trusts too easy and gives too much of myself too quick". The quality she most likes in a man is, she says, "confidence and honesty". Alison's first love was Shane Keogh, whom she dated "on and off" from the age of 15 until she moved to New York, aged 26. "He was my soul mate. He was my only true love. He was my first kiss too."

And her first lover? "He wasn't. He wasn't my first lover. I'm not going to say to whom I lost my virginity. Jesus. It wasn't at 15. I was a bit of a prude when I was younger."

At what age did the prudery subside? "In my very late teens," she exclaims. She also went out with Dunnes Stores heir Andrew Heffernan for three months when she was in her early 20s. "He is a lovely guy, but that was centuries ago," she says. "Like another lifetime. He is still a great friend of mine." She adds: "It is very difficult to find someone special, who gets you for you -- someone who understands what I am."

And what is that? She roars with laughter. "I can be very complex. I am very analytical. I am always trying to figure things out and answer questions that might never be answered." She meditates.

Does she worry about the lack of a father figure in James' life? "I do. The only thing I can do about that for the minute is try not to run ahead of myself. I would be one of those people who think ahead. 'What am I going to say when James asks this? What am I going to say when James asks that?' I can't control that.

"I have to live right now. The one thing I know is that looking externally for someone to make you happy is never going to happen, no matter who you are. Being happy in yourself is the most important thing. That is what I think I have achieved. I am now content. I wake up in the morning and I don't feel I'm missing anything, for one of the first times in my life."

I ask her has she become disillusioned with affairs of the heart since she broke up with her ex. She smiles. before taking a slow sip of her rose wine. "No," she says. "I still believe in true love."

Then her phone goes. The real true love of her life is waking up for a feed.