Friday 23 August 2019

'After Emma died, I got a card from her saying, 'Don't be sad, just be happy and live your life'

Novelist Emma Hannigan, whose life was an inspiration to so many
Novelist Emma Hannigan, whose life was an inspiration to so many
Katie Taylor. Picture: Sportsfile

Emily Hourican

"She was a person who I looked up to, but she was the one saying I was her hero. I just couldn't believe that."

So says boxer Katie Taylor, Olympic gold medallist and lightweight world champion, about her friendship with Emma Hannigan, the best-selling author of 13 novels, who will, says her father Philip, be remembered ultimately for the love she showed others.

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"When all is said and done, her books are going to be there forever," he says, "but I've a feeling that in the hearts of people, her ability to reach out and be positive would probably be the biggest legacy."

These reflections come from a documentary about Emma's life, part of the Cloch Le Carn series, to be screened on Tuesday on RTE 1. In it, friends, family, people whose lives Emma touched, share their recollections of her alongside interviews and photos - of Emma as a baby, a child, a teenager; in her bedroom, under a Nik Kershaw poster, wearing a checked baseball cap; in her Ballymaloe uniform.

The photos give way to clips of her as an adult, on The Late Late Show and The Daily Show, talking about the realities of her life: the radical preventative surgery undertaken when, as a young mother of two children, she found that she had the BRCA1 gene; the diagnosis of cancer that followed all the same; the return of that cancer - again and again - and her repeated, indomitable efforts to beat it.

In every shot of Emma, from the time she was tiny, there is the same all-consuming grin and sparkling eyes, the same warmth and mischief. The same determination.

"Emma had the most amazing, black sense of humour," says author Cathy Kelly. It was to be the basis for a strong bond. "We became incredibly close very quickly, it was like having a soul sister," Cathy says.

Cathy was one of those who encouraged Emma to write. Another was Rachel Allen. "She was just so witty," Rachel says, talking about the diaries Emma kept during their time at Ballymaloe together, from which she would read extracts. "We all said to her, 'Emma, you've got to write'."

Write she did - 13 novels with bright, sparkly covers that contained humour, warmth, romance, shopping, but also deep matters of the human heart: betrayal, pain, loss and grief. It was the same combination of dazzle and grit she showed in her life. "I don't know what it takes to be that strong," says Cathy Kelly. "I think it's something very few people are given, but she had it."

There is a clip of Emma on The Late Late Show in 2011, wearing a glittery, raspberry-coloured dress, and saying: "I can't choose if I have cancer again, but I can damn well choose what I do about it if I get it. And that is to fight it."

Even more poignant is a clip from The Daily Show in which she appears, glowing and gorgeous - "I've beaten cancer for the eighth time."

That remission, tragically, did not last. "Emma's positive outlook concealed," says her father Philip. "Every time she got cancer, we lost a bit of her."

In February of 2018, as Emma wrote in a Facebook post that has been read thousands of times, "the time that I knew was borrowed must be given back soon". Even then, she thought of others. "The last time I saw her was a week before she died," says Cathy Kelly. "In hospital… We talked about her funeral, and how she was planning it because she didn't want anyone else to have the pain of planning it."

A week after Emma died, Cathy received a card from her. "She was saying 'don't be sad, just be happy and live your life'," Cathy recalls. Rachel Allen too received a letter. "I remember opening the envelope and seeing her writing on the front and thinking 'Oh, my goodness…' and even in that she said, 'Mind yourself, take time out…'."

A few weeks before she died, I texted Emma, to ask did she mind if I wrote about her for this paper. I wanted to try and put into words something of how amazing she was, but only with her agreement. "That would be lovely if you write something," she texted back. "My poor mum hated the title 'dying author' so if you could have a cheerful title that'd be so appreciated. Stay well, strong & most of all, stay as you," she finished, signing off "love & light & so much love".

It was every bit Emma - direct, funny, unselfish, loving. In all, Emma had cancer 10 times. She became the inaugural Ambassador for Breast Cancer Ireland, and in the last two weeks of her life, raised more than €100,000. In the year since her death, her family have continued the work she began, fundraising to try and ensure no other family suffers in the way they have.

So far, their efforts have been wonderfully successful, but there is no stepping back. "Thank you to the many thousands of people who donated," says Philip. "Perhaps business leaders can now join Emma's campaign, by making corporate donations. We have to stop losing people like Emma."

Emma shines, clear and bright, through the documentary. "She was a great example of how to live life to the fullest," says Katie Taylor. "If I ever had a daughter I would love for her to grow to be like Emma."

'Cloch Le Carn' is on Tuesday, 7pm, RTE One

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