“In Ireland they like to call me ‘Mother Teresa with balls’, but you can take that out if you think the expression is too crude.”
That was one of the first things that celebrated Irish children’s rights activist Christina Noble said to me after we began our interview and it’s safe to say that this remarkable woman was not at all what I expected.
Like many others, I pictured Christina Noble as some sort of modern-day, Mother Teresa of Saigon, however, the woman I interviewed was all this and more – funny, fiery and passionate – someone whose spirit and determination has enabled them to do great things.
Her foundation has set up more than 100 projects that provide education, healthcare, and protection for close to a million Vietnamese and Mongolian street kids, and she’s achieved all of this while overcoming a poverty-ridden childhood that would have defeated most of us.
While the word hero is thrown around far too casually today, Christina wasn’t having any of it.
“Some people like to call me a hero but I don’t want to hear myself called that. I’m not important, I’m just a mum and a lover of children, a lover of people – and never let anyone call me anything else, please.”
Hero or not, is that Christina Noble has overcome horrific hardships, found purpose in serving society’s most vulnerable and done it all with a smile on her face and a song in her heart, and now her incredible story’s been made into a critically acclaimed film, “NOBLE“, which is being released this week throughout New Zealand.
She started our interview by recounting the horrors she faced while growing up with her siblings in the tenements of Dublin in the 1940’s – the pervasive hunger, the death of her mother when she was ten, and living with a father who spent the little money they had on drink.
“I went through hell and so did my family. We suffered every abuse imaginable. But we had love and we didn’t tolerate anything else, ever.”
However, Christina and her siblings were separated shortly after the death of her mother and sent to different orphanages around Ireland.
She spent a little over four years in a school run by nuns before eventually fleeing to Dublin where she found herself sleeping in a hole in the ground that she dug to try to escape the cold.
“When you’ve lived the life that I did as a child, wandering the streets on your own in the morning at 2 or 3 waiting for the daylight to come in and you go down to the hole in the park and cover yourself up like a little animal … you don’t think people can see you, and in the end, you start not to see them.”
“I ended back up in an institution and when everything has been taken away from you, your mother, your father, your brothers, your sisters, your home, your friends, your humanity, you just ask yourself sometimes, which world do I belong in?”
When re-telling her story to me becomes too much, Christina turns to singing to instead.
As a child she used to busk to support her family and throughout her life singing is something which seems to have given her strength.
The song she sung to me was ‘Fields of Athenry’, an Irish folk ballad that tells the story of a young man who was imprisoned for stealing food in order to feed his starving family. This song touches on Christina’s memories.
In the 1970’s a strange dream of Vietnam changed Christina’s life forever.
“I had this dream, it was so vivid, I saw naked children running down the road fleeing from napalm. The children were reaching out to me, one of the girls had a look in her eyes as if she was pleading with me to take her to safety.”
“I didn’t know what it meant – I didn’t even know where Vietnam was – but I knew that it meant something.”
Almost twenty years later Christina went to Vietnam, where seeing orphaned, homeless, children in the streets of Ho Chi Minh City made her determined to help these children.
“These children, these babies, needed me, they just needed one person to stand beside them and support them. That’s all, just one – and everything that I have done since then, I’ve done for the children.”
Christina began by putting on a Christmas party for the children in a hotel – something which was unheard of at the time – and set about raising money anyway she could.
“I begged and I pleaded. I sang in pubs and cafes – I worked like a dog, non-stop, and did anything I could to raise enough money to help these babies escape poverty and hardship. I didn’t have much but I did have love – and I negotiated with my heart.”
Eventually Christina was able to convince two executives of Enterprise Oil to accompany her to the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and promptly put babies in their arms telling them, “don’t tell me they’re different and don’t tell me that they don’t have basic human rights.”
From their initial contribution and her huge efforts since, the Christina Noble Children’s Foundation has transformed the lives of around one million children, providing them with food, shelter, healthcare, education and most importantly – love.
Directed, written and co-produced by Stephen Bradley, the biopic is the brainchild of his wife Deirdre O’Kane, one of Ireland’s most beloved stand-up comedians, who stars in the film.
Since opening, “NOBLE” has been met with rave reviews and has won a number of awards on the festival circuit.
The film artfully cuts between Christina’s time in Vietnam setting up her foundation, her childhood spent in Dublin, and her life as a teenager and young mother in England.
While both Christina and the filmmakers acknowledge that the film is just ‘a tiny pinch’ of her life, it more than captures the essence of a tenacious woman determined to make a difference – someone for whom suffering broke everything but her spirit.
Christina hopes that “NOBLE” will act as a catalyst for change and encourage people across the world to stand up for the rights of all children.
“Every country has problems, whether it’s Ireland, New Zealand or Vietnam. Never has it been such an uncertain world for our youth and children – we’ve got to stand up for their rights and say enough is enough – we’ve got to give these kids back their childhood.”
At the start of our interview Christina warned me that we’d run out of time as she had a million stories to tell.
Her warning was prophetic, and after over half an hour of song, stories, and even a poem for her father we ran out of time – but not before she delivered a final message to the people of New Zealand.
“Tell the people of New Zealand that I said hello, they were very kind to me when I was last there a long time ago. And tell them that talking is easy, but what we have to do is act.”
“We have an absolute human duty, to stand up for people across the world, no matter who they are – we’re all from the same branch whether you like it or not.”
This article originally appeared on the Human Rights Commission website.