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From Irish orphanage to saving lives in Vietnam: The inspirational Christina Noble

A new movie explores Noble’s life, and how she has helped thousands of children. It airs tomorrow night on RTÉ One.

The IFTA Award-winning In A House That Ceased To Be airs on RTÉ One tomorrow night at 9.35pm. Here is our interview from last year with the director Ciarín Scott.

IMG_1849 Christina in the Gobi Desert Source: Steve O'Reilly

Because everything that has happened to her or her family… it does give her an extra special ability to understand and empathise and be practical.

CHRISTINA NOBLE HAS lived a life that most of us can hardly imagine – she spent time in a children’s institution, escaped, fled to England, and has survived many, many difficult experiences.

Now a new documentary, called In A House That Ceased to Be, directed by Ciarín Scott, gives us a fuller look into her life, and how she has gone on to help thousands of children.

Christina Noble’s story

christina noble 1

Christina’s story forces us to look back at Ireland when children were regularly sent to institutions which were far from positive or nurturing environments.

It was a time when such institutions damaged already damaged children, and when the impact of this was not acknowledged.

Separated from her three siblings at the age of 10 after the death of their mother, Noble was sent to an orphanage, where she was told that her brother and sisters were dead.

She escaped the ‘home’ in the West of Ireland, ending up in the Phoenix Park in Dublin, where she slept in a hole in the ground.

Christina moved to England at 18, married young and had three children, Helenita, Nicolas and Androula. But her life continued to be difficult. It was in the midst of these difficulties that she dreamed, in 1971, about Vietnam.

christina noble pic Christina Noble and children Source: YouTube

In the dream, children reached for her, imploring for her help.

In 1989, Noble moved to Vietnam, setting up her foundation in Ho Chi Minh City, to help street children.

Today, she runs a second operation in Mongolia. She has used her difficult past and tough childhood to reach out to children who also need help; children who without her would have nowhere to call home, no one looking after their education or wellbeing.

The documentary

Source: CiarinScott/YouTube

Director Ciarín Scott spent five years on and off filming the documentary, visiting not only Ireland but countries like Mongolia and Dubai with Noble.

Tomorrow, the feature documentary gets its worldwide premiere at the Stranger Than Fiction film festival in the Irish Film Institute (IFI) in Dublin.

“It is the audience reaction to the film that is so really extraordinary. It’s very powerful and emotional and people really, really respond to it,” said Scott.

She hadn’t heard about the Christina Noble Foundation before being asked to direct the film, but once she got to know her, Scott knew that she wanted to delve further into Christina’s life.

“Quite a lot had been done about Christina and it all seemed to be quite similar,” recalled Scott.

And I wanted to make something that would be deeper. I couldn’t compute how she got from her frightful childhood to having a dream of being on the other side of the world, so I wanted to explore that.

An exploration of a life

noble 3

In the documentary, we get to see Noble visiting the institutions where she and her siblings lived. There, her past is brought back to her, a past rife with difficult memories.

“It’s the untold story that had never been told about her. The story of what happened to her,” said Scott.

Through her story, the film lays bare “the true childhood horrors in institutions in Church and State”.

Really it’s a powerful meditation on the nature of good and evil.

It’s a film about a childhood destroyed and a life reclaimed.

The film goes back to the beginning of Noble’s life, and brings us right up to today.

christina noble Christina visiting an institution

It can’t have been an easy shoot, for Christina or crew. Scott agrees.

“For her it was… some scenes were really, really raw and truthful. I think even though you’ve got a job to do, you’re still a human being. I think seeing her pain of what happened, particularly to her family. That was something very moving to observe.”

The film might begin in darkness, but it ends in light.

noble 4

“I’ve always said that the film has emotional logic and it does. It’s driven by things happening to people – good and bad.”

Christina’s love of singing is woven into the story, in a way that contrasts the darkness of her early life with the lightness of the Doris Day and Hollywood musical songs she loves to sing.

“That started to give me that counterpoint of this happy Hollywood musical songs and, we’d be standing in Clifden in the industrial school. You could feel the walls… you could feel the horror and the pain that the children had gone through.”

“She says at one point, by singing I wanted to fight,” said Scott. “She is a great fighter.”

Scott wanted to show the real pain that has been left after a childhood of abuse and institutionalisation.

“No one has never seen before what happens to a family and what is left of a family 53 years later, and the film goes into that, both in her work and in her brother and two sisters,” she said.

christina noble 2 Source: YouTube

Does the film give a much fuller version of who Christina Noble is?

“It’s a much fuller version than we’ve ever seen,” agreed Scott. “And I think that very strongly and not just to make a film but because this is the truth and life of her work.”

The film also shows the depth of her work today.

“It’s not just she saves them, she actually gives them back their childhood. Children are rescued from extreme abuse and poverty. She has this extra ability to understand what children need.”

A House That Ceased to Be is now on general release. 

First published 26 September 2014

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