Adi Roche - 'I was drowning but the children of Chernobyl rescued me'
I'd barely pushed open the door of Isaacs restaurant in Cork when an elegant lady waves at me from her perch in the corner.
Adi Roche, humanitarian, peace campaigner and former presidential candidate, could have taken a rain check - she's suffering from a bout of back pain brought on by excessive work, a relentless schedule and a dogged refusal to slow down, but she's eager to chat about Chernobyl Children International, the charity she founded in 1991, and how the money raised over the years has saved so many young lives.
"My doctor tells me I should take things easier but there's too much to do and I love travelling around the country meeting the fantastic volunteers who work so hard for our cause," she explains in her trademark upbeat manner.
At the table beside us an elderly gentleman gathers his things and as he leaves turns to Adi with a smile and says "lovely to see you again" - though Adi isn't completely sure how they know each other. For the last 23 years the Clonmel-born dynamo, of Cork parents, has enjoyed a two-way love affair with the city by the Lee and she's now well and truly one of their own.
It was in her home, not far from here, that one afternoon she and her friend and colleague Norrie McGregor, now the co-ordinator of Chernobyl Children International, received a fax message which would change their lives forever and those of thousands of children living in Belarus and the Ukraine.
We quickly order our starters. Warm chicken with rustic potatoes and smoked bacon for the woman who says "I'd eat for Ireland" but doesn't have a pick on her, and grilled Clonakilty black pudding with glazed apples and a potato pancake for the man who claims not to eat 'too much' but who should lock himself into a gym for a month!
"Where were we. . . oh yes, the famous fax," says Adi. "We were in a tiny bedroom in my house in front of a two-bar electric fire when the message noisily came through. We'd sent out our fax number to other anti-nuclear campaign groups across Europe and those opposed to the first Gulf war but somehow a doctor in the Ukraine got hold of it.
"It read: 'SOS APPEAL, FOR GOD'S SAKE HELP US GET THE CHILDREN OUT', they signed it off saying 'we are a team of doctors and we can no longer be silent'. We looked at each other in shock but sent an immediate reply saying 'We'll take kids'.". . . and so it started.
Twenty-three years on, Chernobyl Children International has pumped €96.5m into the areas most affected by the 1986 nuclear disaster. Over 24,700 children have come to Ireland for vital medical treatment and recuperation.
Radiation levels in the children, who stay with Irish host families during the summer months, can drop by up to 50pc by the time they leave and the charity flies surgeons into the Ukraine to carry out life-saving procedures on babies and infants.
But when a wave of economic misery washed over Ireland a few years ago, all of the charity's work was jeopardised. People just weren't donating and scandals in the charity sector last year dealt another major blow. Drastic action was needed.
"I was crying asking 'what are we going to do?' I thought there was no way out of this. We were operating out of our reserves and taking a battering. Our board decided to re-position the organisation. We let some staff go, sold off our warehouse and ploughed money straight back into organisation. We decided we weren't going to do road convoys any more so we sold our fleet of trucks. So now there's a much greater emphasis on teaching, education and offering medical help," explains Adi.
I ask Adi how she has the energy to lead the charity, often travelling out to Chernobyl herself making documentaries, rescuing children in need, lobbying, fundraising, speaking at the United Nations and doing so much more.
"I couldn't do it without my husband Sean, he's my anchor. He's always backed me 100pc. He's a retired secondary school teacher and has great faith. I'm not a Mass-goer really but he prays enough for the two of us. I wouldn't have been able to do any of this without him", she explains lovingly.
Adi has never taken a wage from the charity so Sean has kept the show on the road at home from a monetary point of view.
The couple never had children and Adi admits that was hard to take. "I was like any other young married woman and was very anxious to have children," she explains, her voice now much softer, adding "but it just wasn't meant to be. And while I used to get sad about it I look back now and say 'for God's sake if I had my own children there was no way I would have been able to devote myself to the charity'. I don't think it takes a physical umbilical cord to have that close connection with babies and children because I really, honestly believe I've felt the complete adoration and love a mother has for her child so many times in my work with the children we've helped."
Her sister Len adopted one of the children saved from certain death 19 years ago. "Ali (Hewson), my angel and great friend, and I were in this home for abandoned babies and we came across this little baby boy, who was four months old, on the left side of his face he had a massive tumour, it was shocking. He was in a straight-jacket in the cot - we were determined to get him out of there because he was basically being left to die," she says.
And that they did. Alexei is now in first year in Maynooth studying politics, economics and philosophy, he's Adi's godson and he spends every Christmas Day with her and Sean.
Family is clearly very important to the former Aer Lingus employee. Between bites of Isaacs' famous fish cakes, she tells me of her inspirational parents who worked with those who had little and her grandmothers who shaped her thinking.
But she also recalls a time when the family was put through the mill.
Convinced to stand as a presidential candidate in 1997 representing Labour, the Democratic Left and the Green Party, her campaign got off to a flyer with many predicting the environmentalist was destined for the Áras.
But just weeks into the campaign, things started to go horribly wrong. Adi believes she was the victim of a political smear campaign by rivals aimed to discredit her candidacy.
Allegations of bullying made by a former workmate derailed her bid and when her brother Donal - a formerArmy officer - was described as 'a republican sympathiser'. The impact on her family was huge but, as Adi explains, it was her late father, Sean, who suffered the most.
"My father was diagnosed with an accelerated form of Alzheimer's as a result of the stress at the time. He was a different human being at the end of the campaign from the man at the start of it. There he was looking at his baby thrown to the wolves.
'He used to go campaigning for me but, when the smear campaign was at its height and my parents were in shock, he'd go back and canvass the same houses without realising it. Within two months of the campaign ending my father ended up in complete advanced dementia.
"And then there was the impact on my brother (Donal) as well," she adds. "My darling brother. . . my wish is that he gets his good name back. They destroyed him, he spiralled into absolute darkness. Each member of our family were destroyed in different ways."
And she admits that the fall-out from that campaign took a massive personal toll.
"I couldn't even walk down Patrick Street here in Cork for two years afterwards, I was drowning inside. It destroyed me, I really struggled to come through that dark period in my life. I was so frightened of everything, I can't explain how shattering and awful it was," she says.
But as time ebbed on she began to put the ordeal into context.
"If someone has such darkness in their own hearts (to lead such a smear campaign) then they have to live with that. I recovered from, what was I suppose, a kind of emotional and psychological breakdown but the work was key to getting me back on track and my loving husband and great family and friends got me through it."
Now, many years later, Adi says she's learned from her life experiences and with strong allies, such as Ali Hewson and others, she can see only bright days ahead in both her work and personal life.
Over the course of our long lunch she's recalled some painful memories but by the time we sip our last drop of coffee the smile has returned. We get up to leave and as we do she looks at me and says "maybe it's too early to do this but come here til I give you your first Christmas hug of the year.''
And so she does.
A life in brief
Born: 1955 in Clonmel, Co Tipperary.
Family: Parents Christina and Sean, brothers Donal and Cruthair and sister Len.
Spreading wings: After finishing secondary school in Clonmel, Adi secured a job in marketing with Aer Lingus. She left in 1984 to lead a campaign against US President Ronald Reagan's visit to Ireland.
Married: Sean and Adi set up Chernobyl Children International in 1991.
Honours: Multi-award-winning international campaigner and speaker at the United Nations on humanitarian issues.