Monday 19 February 2018

Christina Noble: 'Candle wax eased sharp pangs of hunger'

The State is still failing its homeless children, the angry children's charity crusader tells Claire Mc Cormack

CRUSADER: Christina Noble (centre) with actresses Deirdre O’Kane and Sarah Greene, who play her in the film, at The Irish Gala Screening of ‘Noble’ at the Savoy Cinema on O’Connell Street, Dublin. Photo: Brian McEvoy
CRUSADER: Christina Noble (centre) with actresses Deirdre O’Kane and Sarah Greene, who play her in the film, at The Irish Gala Screening of ‘Noble’ at the Savoy Cinema on O’Connell Street, Dublin. Photo: Brian McEvoy
Claire Mc Cormack

Claire Mc Cormack

Fifty eight years have passed since charity crusader Christina Noble was a homeless 12-year-old sleeping rough in Phoenix Park.

But she remembers her hungry years with utter clarity, especially those days when the gnawing pains in her stomach became so intense that she nibbled soft candle wax in a church to allay the cramps.

She is no longer angry about what happened to her, but still consumed with a burning fury that children around the world are still being betrayed. In fact, the 70-year-old humanitarian worker and founder of the Christina Noble Children's Foundation says her turbulent upbringing made her "a winner". She also says the Government is "still failing" disadvantaged kids and says raising funds for her organisation has become "the biggest challenge of her life".

Christina - or Mama Tina as she is known by thousands of children she has saved from the streets of Vietnam and Mongolia - lives in an ordinary house in a Lucan, Co Dublin, housing estate. Almost every brightly coloured wall of her home is covered with cards, drawings and photographs of her Vietnamese and Mongolian "babbies". Many have grown up to become doctors, engineers, nurses and architects, largely thanks to the work of the Dubliner.

Other frames display photos of her sons and daughters - who all work in the humanitarian field - and her grandchildren, Georgie and Thomas. Photographs, awards and messages from people she has inspired, including Mother Teresa, Queen Elizabeth II and former Irish President Mary Robinson are also on display. But Ms Noble insists: "I'm no saint, I'm just an ordinary woman, I don't want to be put on a pedestal.

"I've never been a victim, I've always been a winner and I want all my children to be winners too. There is no in-between."

Surviving the industrial school system, homelessness and sexual assault during her turbulent early life has made her tough. "The hole where I slept is still there in Phoenix Park. It is way down at the back near the Conyngham Road wall. I lived there for a long time," she adds.

She sometimes ate cardboard and warm wax that dribbled from "big huge candles" at John's Lane Chapel on Thomas Street in Dublin. A good meal was crusts and leftovers from picnics in the park.

Being homeless made staying clean a daily ordeal. She brushed her teeth with salty water and washed her underwear at tenements near the Liberties.

But the greatest calamity as far as Christina is concerned is that more than half a century after she was left homeless, more and more children are facing the same uncertainty.

She points to the latest figures released by the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government that revealed more than 3,000 people are living in emergency homeless accommodation across the country. Of these, almost 1,100 are children.

From February to March this year, the number of children in emergency accommodation increased by 22pc.

The latest figures from the Dublin Region Homeless Executive found that a frightening 151 people had no place safe to sleep during a single night count in April.

Meanwhile, "rough sleeper" figures from the Cork Simon Community show a "seven-fold" increase over the past three years.

Niamh Randall, national spokesperson for the Simon Communities, told the Sunday Independent that child homelessness leads to "a greater likelihood" of experiencing mental health and behavioural problems.

Ms Noble remembers the reality of life on the streets and says people should look behind the cold statistics about what homelessness actually means. She recalls when she was on the streets that her heart was constantly racing. She was afraid of every sight and sound and distrusted strangers - including the police.

"You walk the streets and the roads and the dark lanes and beside the frozen canal in the winter. You sleep in the park and you hide like an animal," she said. "No words can describe the shame and the nothingness you feel that the world doesn't see you when you walk. Eventually, you stop seeing them because it's the only way to survive mentally.

"The Government can't see that we are still failing the disadvantaged and most vulnerable."

Depictions of Christina Noble's life received top honours at last weekend's Irish Film and Television Academy (IFTA) awards. Actresses Deirdre O'Kane and Sarah Greene were awarded IFTAs for performances in Stephen Bradley's biopic Noble. Meanwhile, In A House That Ceased to Be won the George Morrison Feature Documentary award.

Sunday Independent

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