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The lives and times of Brighid

'I'VE had an amazing life, an astonishing life, despite all the things that have happened," says Brighid McLaughlin. "I've been lucky to live the life I have and known the people I know, and had Siobhan."

When she mentions her sister who was murdered last year, I am afraid to say anything. Brighid rocks in her rocking chair and smiles. It is four hours since I entered her quaint Dalkey cottage and we are both worn out.

"Would you like to see some photos?" she says.

She pulls out three albums and talks me through them. There she is in a straw hat and safari jacket in Arizona, Brighid the intrepid explorer. She stands on the streets of Turin, after a night at the opera. The tenor Jose Cura is sparkly-eyed beside this Hollywood starlet with crimson lips. One minute she is in a chunky jumper, her hair falling over half her face like a dishevelled Veronica Lake, the next she is in satin, dressed like a Twenties flapper.

In another photo, she is sitting on a black man's lap, smiling. His skin is shiny ebony.

"That was in Montserrat," she tells me. "He was six foot four with lilac eyes. He was a fisherman and a folklorist. Martin Weekes was his name." They lived in a traditional house there for a year and a half, with the volcano erupting in the background. "Finally, I had no fear," she says.

In another snap, she is in a kimono jacket, smiling at her friend, the writer Stan Gebler Davies. "I love older men. They're experienced and I love learning things." Another photo has her in tweeds, smoking a pipe.

I recognise a photo I took when we were on a trip to Austria for this newspaper. Neither of us could ski, so we spent our day rolling down the snowy Alps, giddy gigglers. All of us on the trip wrote about the ski scene, but Brighid didn't.

One day she disappeared, dodged the official excursions, and came back having interviewed the man who invented condoms. That was typical of her. She always took the road less travelled.

There she is on her wedding day, kissing her husband Michael Shanahan, both bursting with happiness. She proposed to him. "He said, 'Absolutely. I thought you'd never ask.' No, I didn't get down on one knee. I would never get down on my knees for a man." They went on their honeymoon before the wedding. "It was a very sensible thing to do. A lot of people have miserable honeymoons." They went to California, took in a boxing match in Vegas, then swanned home for the wedding. "He was the love of my life," she says. "Just look at him - he's like Cary Grant."

Michael drowned three years ago, on July 4. "Independence Day," she says with irony.

So many people feel like they know Brighid McLaughlin. They have read her articles over the years, enjoyed her adventures and grieved for her losses.

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There were her tales with the Anglo-Irish.

"I was the first person to criticise the Anglo-Irish. Lady Mollie Cusack-Smith told me to f**k off. She was cruel. I said, 'I'm not going to be your servant.' Their fridges were empty, yet they were arrogant. They had it too good and were pompous." The exceptions, she says, were the Leslies in Castle Leslie, the Knight of Glin, Desmond Fitzgerald - and, of course," my dear friend Dom Dom (the Late Lord Oranmore and Brown) and his wife Sally, who died just over two weeks ago.

She is a huge boxing fan and was the only female correspondent at the Mike Tyson/Evander Holyfield fight in Vegas. (She wrote about it for Punch magazine but the sports pundits had not heard of London's literary publication and thought it was a boxing magazine.) She was ecstatic sitting in the front row, being splattered with blood as the boxers slugged away.

And then, of course, there were her pieces with writers. She turned up in Tangier to interview Paul Bowles, in a Berber hat and with a bottle of whiskey in hand. In London, she and Kingsley Amis clashed. And the most interesting person she ever interviewed was the poet Michael Hartnett. "He had a soul for life and there was his sense of humour," she said.

If you go into Grogan's bar, you will see that Brighid is one of the faces in the stained glass, along with the other literary characters of Dublin. But to say that she is a bit of a character reduces her to a label, and if one thing is certain, it is that she defies description. She is like a butterfly which flutters into different worlds, absorbing each one and adapting to it.

So, when I look at the photos with so many different looks, living so many lives, it is as if she is an actress, taking on different roles. One minute, she is standing with a strange tribe in a rainforest like an anthropologist, then she goes from Margaret Mead to Marilyn Monroe in a flash.

The Brighid I know - and I do not know her very well - has always made me laugh, especially with her stories behind her stories: the disasters; the time she drank her contact lenses when she was in the jungle, thinking it was a glass of water; getting all dolled up in satin elbow-length gloves for an Anglo-Irish dinner, then hobbling down, having forgotten one of her evening shoes.

One minute she can seem a little dizzy, in that dreamy literary way, the next she is the bravest soul about, fearless and unbelievably strong. When she would go on her travels, she would tell the taxi-driver at the airport to deposit her at the roughest, most dangerous spot. Not only would she remain unscathed but she would revel in the underworld.

As the years passed, her own personal story has become the big story; her breast cancer and subsequent mastectomy. (She is in great health these days - rowing and cycling for her daily swims in the Forty Foot, which she hopes to keep up in winter.) There was the near miss when her husband Michael almost drowned. Then, a year later, he did drown.

On that morning, he headed off down Coliemore Road for his swim and Brighid ran out onto the road after him, in her white towelling dressing gown, she blowing kisses and he catching them.

"He was too happy," she says in response to the whispers that he was about to drown himself. They had booked for lunch in a Dalkey restaurant that day and he was having a quick dip before it.

"I absolutely don't believe it was suicide," Brighid says. All the evidence is against it - their bliss, their plans, their loving world.

She first met Michael Shanahan in Finnegan's pub in Dalkey. She was 38, he 55. She was sitting there with her sister Niamh and was chuffed with herself, having just done a fishing course and caught her first trout in Cong.

"He was very charismatic and bright and charming. You can't beat a handsome man."

I met him once. I was having tea with Brighid in her cottage when this smiling silver-haired man came in and lit some night lights in

'When I got cancer my faith became stronger. I said to Michael, "There's a new man in my life." He

said, "Who?" I said,

"Jesus." "God help Him," he joked."'

a stand. We had been giving out about men, but he told us to stop, then said that the candles werefor Buzz, as he called her.He glowed with love. I thought there was a serenity about him and deep contentment.

What was it about Michael? Why did she love him?

"He understood me and he adored me. Despite all the confidence, underneath it all, I'm fragile. He stopped me worrying about what people thought. He was generous to the point of incredulity. He had magic. He used to read me stories at night - Joyce Carol Oates. He was the first personwho looked after me in that way. "We swam, we had picnics on the beach and he took a lot of time off work when he first met me. We moved into the Dalkey Island Hotel, and were the last residents there. He grounded me. When I had cancer, he brought me Champagne in hospital and he was very careful about shaving my hair off. He did it with a barber's razor."

As I listen to Brighid speak about Michael, it all sounds so idyllic that I want to hear something which makes it less like a dreamy film, something human. Did they ever annoy each other?

"He used to give out to me for overtiring myself. He taught me to say no, he always said that I was oversensitive. I always had faith in God but when I got cancer my faith became stronger. I said to Michael, 'There's a new man in my life.' He said, 'Who?' I said, 'Jesus.' 'God help Him,' he joked."

"He was a shopaholic. His car was always stuffed with food,wine and clothes. He'd come in with more stuff and I'd give out to him, saying, 'Where am I going to put this?'"

After Michael's death, Brighid plunged back into journalism and broke some big news stories.

She also discovered her talent for stone-sculpting and she began to paint seriously. Art has always been in her life. She sketches and paints but now it is the paint brush that gives her solace. When she is creating, her mind is at peace. Three years ago, she started painting for long stints and her sister Siobhan commented how she had never seen her so happy, so at peace. Now she paints to try to distract herself from the raw wound of Siobhan's murder.

"As my mother says, we didn't just love Siobhan, we were in love with her. She was the wittiest and a great mimic. There is a big silence without her. These days, I hold onto a few close, much cherished friends and I have lots of buddies and I trust all of them. But the older I get, the less I know about people. I used to say that 99 per cent are fantastic and one per cent bad, now it's changed to 90 per cent good. Siobhan's death has set me back. You think you know something. My family are on their knees with grief, we will never be the same, there is no joy in anything."

But for all that, there is a relentless resilience to Brighid. She has taken to painting full time and has two new exhibitions. And there has been a new love. She lived with a man in Ballybofey for a year and was happy until she could take no more of the Donegal isolation. Now she is back in Dalkey.

Her idea of a perfect day is rowing to the Muglins with her friend Catherine Martin. They fish for mackerel, then pull into Dalkey Island. Catherine has a flask of tea, Brighid has a swim, then they row home, Brighid cooks the mackerel over the fire and then spends the rest of the day painting.

Brighid has lived so many lives, it would take books to deal with them. You think you know her, at least a little, and then she stuns you with more unknown facts. She worked as a librarian, she studied theology in Maynooth, when she was 15 she was selling Easter lilies on the street and going on marches for the cause. Her parents sent her to boarding school to keep her out of trouble. She brought disc jockey Ian Dempsey to her debs and wore a black dress (he nearly died). She was married before, but on her honeymoon, as she took a photo of her husband in Trafalgar Square, looking at his face with the lion's paw in the background, she realised she had made a mistake. Through no fault of his, she had changed her mind.

In her cottage, there is a framed Sacred Heart. She loves Black rappers like Puff Daddy and Snoop Doggy Dog, who come out with highly misogynistic songs, all about doing their bitches.

There is no point in trying to make sense of Brighid, she is a mass of dizzying contradictions, delightful, sometimes eccentric, but never dull. She has been through too much, as she says herself, but still she will not be broken.

"I'm quite proud of myself.I have to be strong for Seanie (as she calls her sister Siobhan). I'm completely traumatised by it andI always will be but I have thisincredible strength, not an easy strength. It didn't come to thesurface until now. I've lost 15 close friends in the last ten years - that's the disadvantage of having friends who are old. But I won'tgo under, I will go up, I refuse togo under.

You know what? I believe her.

Brighid's art exhibition, Holy Show, will be opened by legendary Kerry footballer Mikey Sheehy at the John Hurley Gallery in Tralee on October 27 for two weeks. A permanent collection of her work can be seen in the Leinster Gallery, South Frederick Street, Dublin. After Christmas, there will be an exhibition in the Vanguard Gallery, Cork.

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