Saturday 24 February 2018

I'm in the mood for telling

NOTES OF SADNESS: Anne Nolan as she is today, after deciding to talk about the sexual abuse she suffered in her childhood years. 'My dad was doing it to me,
so I didn’t think there was anything wrong. Some people know they are being abused when it is happening to them, but I didn't.' Photo: Gerry Mooney
NOTES OF SADNESS: Anne Nolan as she is today, after deciding to talk about the sexual abuse she suffered in her childhood years. 'My dad was doing it to me, so I didn’t think there was anything wrong. Some people know they are being abused when it is happening to them, but I didn't.' Photo: Gerry Mooney

She was the eldest of the Nolan Sisters, living an exciting life, touring the world to play for the group's adoring fans. And yet behind the glamour was a dark family secret of fear and pain that cast a terrible shadow over Anne Nolan and destroyed her marriage. Now living quietly in Blackpool with her daughters and working in an office, she has decided to break her silence. Ciara Dwyer met her

'I REMEMBER our Dad reading bible stories to us when we were young," says Anne Nolan. There isn't a trace of irony in her voice. The Dublin-born woman, who is best known as the eldest in the Seventies pop group the Nolan Sisters, is recalling her happy childhood. And it was happy, for the most part.

"I had a great childhood." (She was the second of eight children, the first daughter.) "My dad would bring us all out to Skerries or Howth, the whole family would head off. We went for a ride on a steam train and if we went to Bray, we'd have picnics or fish and chips on the promenade. He used to cut our hair for us when we were little and change our nappies when we were babies. He was a very hands-on dad, excuse the pun."

And then she laughs a little. This isn't so much a nervous titter; rather Anne Nolan is able to look back at the misfortune she suffered and smile.

"I had a wonderful time up until the time the abuse started, and even after that I still used to go out with my friends and play in the park. I didn't let it blight my life. I didn't feel like a victim because I had a fantastic life."

We are sitting in the Hilton Hotel, Dublin, and although in her mid 50s now, Anne remains recognisable as that glamorous Nolan Sister. Dressed in a red top with matching lipstick, she still cuts an elegant figure. The giant liquid brown eyes are the same -- bursting with warmth -- and what people once said of her appearance is true; with her slightly wide-apart eyes, she bears more than a passing resemblance to Jackie Onassis. Her hair is shiny and in a sleek bob. The years have been kind to Anne. It is refreshing that she looks like a woman comfortable in her skin, not obsessed with retaining a youthful image. Troubles, of which she's had a few, have not engraved her face. Instead she gives off an air of serenity.

These days, Anne Nolan is known by her married name Anne Wilson. She lives a normal non-showbusiness life. Divorced from her ex-footballer husband Brian Wilson since 2006, she lives in Blackpool with her two daughters Amy and Alex and works in an office in an insolvency service. Having lived the high life performing in the Royal Albert Hall and then experiencing the down days -- when the Nolans had plumetted to playing in Butlins and bingo halls -- she decided that she wanted stability and a steady wage.

Some might accuse her of jumping on the celebrity bandwagon by bringing out her autobiography, but she explains that it had nothing to do with that. She was worried that other people had heard that she had been abused by her father -- and she didn't want to read anyone else's version of it in a tabloid newspaper, so she decided to tell her story.

In her autobiography, Anne's Song, she has written about her life, and part of that includes how her father began to sexually abuse her when she was 10. But like with so many stories of sexual abuse, Anne realises that this is a complex subject and she discusses it with great sensitivity, fairness and even compassion. She is aware that people will latch onto the sexual abuse section in the book, but she thinks that her life story merits an autobiography and it isn't just about the abuse.

After all, she and her sisters scaled the heights of the music world and were even invited to sing with Frank Sinatra. People forget that the Nolan Sisters, who later became known as the Nolans, were huge. Ask anyone of a certain age if they remember them and they will almost certainly be able to burst into a few bars of I'm In the Mood for Dancing or Give A Little Bit of Attention to Me. What Irish person didn't claim them as their own when they saw these glamorous sisters on Top of the Pops in their satin trousers doing their dance routines?

"I didn't write the book just to say, 'Look I've been abused,'" says Anne. "I put the abuse into the book because I wanted to write an autobiography and I really felt that I'd rather tell the whole story or not write it at all."

Before she launches into the sex abuse, she talks about her parents. It is clear that they were decent folk and she honours their memory and the happy family life they helped create for her and her siblings. This is far from a blame-game book.

"My father was called Tommy Nolan. He was a singer, known as Ireland's Frank Sinatra. He had his own radio show and he was on Telefis Eireann on its very first night, with the Bachelors. My mother, Maureen Breslin, was very well known too. She used to sing at the Capitol and the Royal. My dad was a very charismatic person. People were drawn to him. He was very funny and had a good sense of humour. He was articulate and well read."

Her father always had a day job, while singing at night, and Anne's mother made sure that she fit her own performances around her life as a mother. Sometimes they would sing together. It was natural for the family to have sing songs and sing in harmony.

When Anne was nine, she became ill. She had pains in her legs and painkillers were not effective enough. Eventually she was sent to a convalescent home in Cabinteely. She spent 18 months there. (Her sister Maureen hadn't been well either and she joined her for a shorter spell.) During that time, Anne's mother had been to England and was convinced that she and her husband could perform together in the working men's clubs and make some decent money. She was instrumental in securing them regular singing work in London. The family emigrated to Blackpool, leaving Anne in the convalescent home, with only an aunt in Dublin to visit her.

Anne went to Lourdes and her mother was convinced that that cured her -- to this day Anne doubts this. Finally Anne was reunited with her family. (She had extensive tests in England and nobody could find anything wrong with her.) As she was still a little fragile, she was kept home from school for the first year, while her siblings headed off. Her mother had found a day job to supplement the singing but Anne's father, now singing full-time, was home with her during the day. Most of the time it was the two of them home alone. It was then that the trouble began.

"It was just before my 11th birthday," Anne says. "Dad took me on his lap and started touching me down below. I didn't think anything of it, and he would almost do it every day. He had an erection, but I didn't know what it was. I didn't know anything about sex. Eventually I started to get orgasms. It was a nice feeling, and my dad was doing it to me, so I didn't think there was anything wrong with that. Some people know they are being abused when it is happening to them, but I didn't know that I was being abused. He was making a fuss over me, telling me that he had missed me when I had been in the convalescent home."

The family moved house, though staying in Blackpool, and with all the children around the opportunity never presented itself for Tommy to touch Anne. She hadn't told a soul about it but having talked to schoolfriends about boys, she had begun to get an inkling that what he had done was wrong.

"There had been a gap since the abuse and then one night I had a terrible headache. I got up and went looking for painkillers. I could have gone to my mother -- she and my father didn't sleep in the same room -- but I went into my dad. He gave me a tablet for my headache and told me to get into bed with him. The abuse had stopped by then -- it was about two years since he did anything -- and I remember being uneasy getting into the single bed with him. I slept on the edge of it. In some ways it's worse in so far as I questioned myself as to why I got into bed in the first place. I fell asleep but when I woke up the next morning my nightdress was moist and I didn't know what it was. I presume he masturbated on me. I felt his penis on the outside of my nightdress and I jumped out of bed."

After that, Anne's father tried to molest her again but this time, certain that it was wrong, she gained the strength to turn him away. In the kitchen, when she had her period, he made a pass at her, and with a kettle in her hand she spilled the boiling water to protect herself. Another time after drinking, he went into her bedroom, where her sisters were sleeping in their bunk-beds and he tried to get his hands under the covers but she told him to stop. Then there was no more of it.

The final inappropriate incident with her father was after the family had sung in a working men's club in Blackpool. Her father drove her home alone. He pulled in at a quiet spot and suggested that the pair of them run away together. He was 40 to her 16. She got out of the car and that was the end of it.

After that the Nolan Sisters' career started to soar and Anne put her past behind her. She felt a great sense of relief later on when her father gave her away on her wedding day. Finally she was free. She never confronted her father for his sins, and when he died she cried as she watched her distressed siblings, but she did not mourn for him.

She believes that her father was ill because he was like two different people -- a good father and the strange man who abused her. Her mother got Alzheimer's disease and died in a nursing home. Anne knew better than to bring theabuse into the open as she knew the truth would have killed her mother; it would also have created havoc if she had told her siblings.

But in another way, her experience with her father had left its mark. While she says that she enjoyed a loving and healthy sexual relationship with her husband Brian, in the beginning she told him about what her father had done to her.

"I told him, but to be fair to him, I also told him that if he ever told anyone else, I would deny it. His hands were tied."

Anne's husband could no longer look at her father in the same way and years later he partly blamed bottling up this secret as the reason that their marriage collapsed. He had a breakdown. Eventually, Anne and Brian parted.

Much to her credit, Anne says that she had "got over" the sexual abuse. It was her marriage break-up which proved more painful.

"The worst thing that happened to me in my life was my marriage breaking up. It was the only thing that ever brought me close to suicide and the only thing that stopped me doing it was thinking about my girls. Having them was the best thing that ever happened to me, better than a whole career."

"We were married for 24 good years and we got divorced on our 28th wedding anniversary. I thought we'd be together forever. I wanted us to try again and get counselling but he wouldn't give us a second chance. I sometimes see him and his partner in Blackpool. That's the worst part. I know it sounds horrendous but if your husband died, at least you'd be left with the good memories. When we first broke up I thought -- I wonder if he touches her the way he touched me. I wonder if he says the same things to her and buys the same flowers."

But she doesn't dwell on this too much anymore. Anne enjoys her life with her daughters and her friends. She is still close to her family. Some have wished her well with the book and some have remained silent about it.

Last year, she did a bit of singing while in Spain and really enjoyed it. When I ask her for a request, she sings a few bars of Give A Little Bit of Attention to Me.

"I don't crave the limelight. I'm finished with all of that. But I wouldn't mind the money," she says, then laughs like the cheery survivor that she is.

Anne's Song by Anne Nolan with Richard Barber is published by Century, price €17

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