copyright Victoria Mary Clarke, 2004
Adi Roche was not somebody that I liked. To be fair to her, she was not somebody that I had ever met. I was judging her on an impression formed several years ago, when she was running for president and I kept seeing posters. Something about the pictures had put me off, even though in principle, I would have definitely voted for her. And she was certainly somebody that I admired. To have taken on a cause so enormous and so hopeless as the biggest nuclear disaster the world has ever known, this was certainly to be admired. And to have succeeded in improving the lives of thousands of children affected by the disaster, to have sent more than thirty million euros worth of aid to the survivors, to be European Person of the Year, Cork Person of the Year, Irish Person on the Year, to have inspired the documentary that won this year’s Oscar, the list of reasons to admire her is endless.
I don’t know what it was about Adi that I didn’t like. I liked Samantha from Sex and the City, without ever having met her, but she might be a total bitch. Perhaps I suspected Adi of being too perfect, too saintly, inhuman. What would a woman be like, who had achieved so much for so many, in such a short time? Frosty, I suspected. Sincere, but frosty. Deadly earnest, full of facts and figures, a schoolmarm, or a Head Girl. Humourless. Make-up-less. Sensibly dressed. Definitely not a Sex and the City fan.
We were meeting at her house in Cork, which she shares with her husband Sean, a music teacher, and where she has her office. I expected to be shown into a conference room and given tea by a minion, before being allowed exactly an hour of her time. I swotted up on the Chernobyl Project and arrived early, in case I might get a telling-off.
If the world was always the way we expect it to be, things would be very dull. Adi Roche answered her own front door, dressed in a vibrant silk skirt, and top, with a glitzy necklace, heels and full make-up. The house, from what I could see of it, was light and bright and tastefully furnished. She showed me into a cosy study with a rainbow coloured crocheted blanket on the sofa, a Roland keyboard and lots of books. And offered to make me tea. I asked for decaff. And noted that she was attractive, very attractive. And that she hadn’t drawn breath once since opening the door, having explained that the room we were sitting in was once two rooms and had been the HQ of the Chernobyl Project up until recently.
Green tea was what she was having herself, as she was detoxing at the moment. Would I be alright while she went down to the kitchen? Did I need something to read or something to do?
I said that some of us are quite happy doing nothing and she giggled. While she was gone, I was tempted to snoop, but thinking that might be too rude, I compromised by allowing myself to scan the room from the confines of the chair. There were photos, -one of her with Ali Hewson, patron of the project and Adi’s close friend, and with Dolores O Riordan, from The Cranberries, who has contributed a song, some photos of the Chernobyl children. Books about Chernobyl, books about Jesus and about spirituality, a book about Petra Kelly, the founder of the Green Party. A laptop, a television, a ‘No More Hiroshimas’ poster. A KD Lang CD stood out from the pile.
‘You must have thought I’d gone to China for the tea,’ she said, returning with a tray and buttered brack. ‘I was up all night baking the brack. Not!’ More giggles. ‘But seriously I was up all night and I’m knackered. I must look awful.’
She didn’t look awful, quite the opposite. I told her this and she blushed. She speaks animatedly, entirely comfortable with my tape machine. Some interviewees are hesitant to give anything away, answering your questions with a yes or a no, where possible. But not Adi. She proceeded to volunteer her story fluently, without pauses where my questions would normally be. Occasionally I stopped her, and she good-humouredly told me to yell ‘Cut!” if she was going on a bit.
Her husband, she said, was away on a retreat, or she wouldn’t have been allowed to stay up all night working. But there is just so much to do. This year, a documentary about the Chernobyl Project called ‘Chernobyl Heart’ by American film-maker Maryann De Leon won the Oscar for Best Documentary. Straight away, a meeting was called to figure out how to maximise the benefit to the project. Adi is talking to some A-list movie-stars in America with a view to having high profile patrons over there. Will George Clooney be one of them, I asked? She wouldn’t say. ‘He has seen the film, though,’ she told me, cryptically.
She will be the keynote speaker at the UN HQ in New York, on April 27, to commemorate the eighteenth anniversary of Chernobyl.
‘The key reason that I agreed to work with Maryann was that we both had the same objective which was to break the silence and unmask the lies. The world has to know the truth about Chernobyl. But when we were filming it, we had no idea that this could end up on the world stage!’ she says.
Maryann had seen an exhibition in New York that Adi had produced for the UN, about Chernobyl and had got in touch to say that nobody in America knew about it.
‘People were actually thinking Chernobyl was upstate New York!” she says, clearly horrified. ‘I even talked to Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins about it, and they didn’t know much about it. It is only the likes of Martin Sheen who has a history in the anti-nuclear movement that really knew about it.’
And he’s from Tipperary, I pointed out.
‘What can I say?’
In 1997, Adi ran for president. That was when I saw the posters. It had seemed like a good idea at the time.
‘I had this wonderful idea that it would be a Green presidency, which would take the issues that Ireland has been very strong on, the nuclear issue, environmental issues and bring them to the world. We could be an example for other countries and I was very enthusiastic and very excited about that. It would have been absolutely dynamic, but things happen for a purpose and you have to be philosophical about why things don’t happen as well as why they happen.’
Having only been an outsider, living in England, at the time, I wasn’t sure what had gone wrong, I said.
‘Oh you’re so lucky!’ She gave a hearty guffaw. ‘Oh, you don’t want to know! I went from topping the polls to bottoming the polls.’
Her campaign was, she believes, subjected to a carefully orchestrated smear campaign, to be brief.
‘And basically, because of my personality, it wasn’t water off a duck’s back,’ she says. ‘I caved in, as a human being, I just caved in. I disintegrated in front of everybody’s eyes. I was a very broken person, after it.
Afterwards, she says, it took several years to get back to normal.
‘Thank God the organisation didn’t suffer,’ she says. ‘And it was the catalyst for my brother Donal to take a case against the State.’ The final nail in her coffin, politically was the emergence of a story about how her brother was dishonourably discharged from the army, for suspected IRA activities. This resulted in a campaign to clear his name which is ongoing.
‘I learned a lot about myself, about my own fragility as a human being,’ she says. ‘And that’s all good, even if it was hard at the time.’
The campaign was backed by two of the most celebrated people in the country, Bono and his wife Ali, who is also a patron of the Chernobyl Project. Ali has always been a notoriously private woman, generally shunning the glamorous parties, the designer clothes, celebrity magazines and chat shows. If she does appear, it is to further a cause, she is not seen getting trolleyed in Reynards at three in the morning, even if her husband does have a penchant for partying. If there is an opposite of Posh Spice, it is Ali Hewson.
‘I couldn’t emphasise enough how un-rockstar Ali is,’ Adi agrees. ‘She’s a very private person and she often jokes about how she lost all of her privacy when she was introduced to me. Because she had to sacrifice what she had of it. Until that time she was able to go into supermarkets and nobody knew who she was. She still goes into supermarkets, that hasn’t changed, but the recognition factor has changed. I just made the appeal to her that through her identifying with this cause, that it would make a huge difference, that it would literally save lives. And that we could never ever quantify in financial terms the benefit of having Ali as a patron.’
So you persuaded her to do it? I asked.
‘Oh, absolutely. It’s all my fault!’ she laughs.
Having made the commitment to the project, Ali proved to be a perfect choice of patron, lending her uniquely unsullied and underexposed beauty and charm as well as hard work and loyalty. Together with a film crew, Adi and Ali researched and filmed a documentary called ‘Black Wind/White Land’, which Ali narrated and which won numerous awards.
Since then, several more documentaries have been made about the project, and Adi has written a best-selling book about it.
The latest documentary gets it’s name from a project called ‘Chernobyl Heart’, which funds operations on children who are born with heart defects because of the effects of radiation while they are still in the womb.
‘On a philosophical level, it’s also about reaching out from the hearts of the people of Ireland to the hearts of the people of Chernobyl,’ she says.
Adi attended the Oscar ceremony. And was relieved, rather than elated, when they won.
‘Because the whole thing was very long drawn out,’ she explained. ‘There are six and a half thousand Academy members and they have to be persuaded to see your film, so that they might vote for it. That’s why the likes of Jim Sheridan and Johnny Depp are converged on LA for that six week period leading up to the ceremony. Schmoozing, that’s what it is. But when you don’t have a big agency, you have to do it through networking, which is what we did. Jim Sheridan, Gabriel Byrne, Pierce Brosnan, Finnoula Flanagan, Bono, Ali, Paul Mc Guinness, they all helped to get people to see the film.’
Before flying out to LA, Adi attended the IRMA awards, in Dublin, where she was giving a speech, went to bed at five and got up again at six to fly out to the Oscars and was wrecked by the time she got there.
I presume Aer Lingus flew you first class? I asked. But no, they didn’t.
‘I did get in touch with my former employers and I have to say that I was really surprised that they didn’t agree to a flight. I had to go for the cheapest flight so I went British Airways. And we were reared to Buy Irish!’
Fifty percent of Adi kept her mind on making the most of the Oscar, making it translate into cash for the project. But fifty percent of her was enjoying the glamour.
‘We walked down the red carpet next to Ben Stiller, me and Norrie from the office,’ she says, showing me photos of the night. ‘And to be honest our jaws were dropping open. Norrie kept telling me I was swallowing flies!’
She was given a beautiful red dress by Mariad Whisker, and she borrowed a pair of genuine Manolo Blahniks.
‘The first time in my life I had worn real Manolos!’ she assured me. And after standing around in them all night, she was ready to cut her feet off, so she went in search of a chair, and befriended the bouncers, who fed her the gossip about who was who and who they were with. It was hugely exciting to see it all up close, she says, all the nips and tucks and botox. But when they won the Oscar, it meant spending the next twenty four hours giving interviews back to back, from her hotel room, in her nightie, while everyone else was drinking champagne and celebrating. The experience of going to the Oscars was interesting, she says, but in truth it will have meant nothing at all, if it doesn’t help the Chernobyl children.
Adi Roche isn’t really a politician, as her presidency campaign proved. She’s too concerned with actually helping people to be a politician. But politics and campaigning is in her blood. Both of her parents were in Fianna Fail and as a child, she spent much of her time working for the Party. She is at home, she admits, with the business of politicking. And according to her mother, by the age of eight, Adi had made up her mind to open an orphanage for the poor children in her area.
‘That is true!’ she laughs. ‘We were brought round to the Church gates, for collections, to meetings, cake sales, bazaars. We were always around the stickers, the slogans, the conversation of politics.’
Adi came from Clonmel, although her parents were from Cork, a fact which must, she says, be stressed. She was the youngest of five children and believes that the sense of purpose which fires her now was not something she was born with, but rather was cultivated and nurtured by the example of her family and of her community.
‘ I have spent the vast majority of my life as a volunteer. My parents both worked with Vincent de Paul and Meals on Wheels. We would have been reared with the belief that I am my brother’s keeper. That was a huge thing, responsibility and conscience. And I learned that we ultimately find who we are as human beings through what we can do with and for others, in a communal way.’
At times, though, she struggles. Last night she says, she was stuck on the computer answering emails into the early hours.
‘On nights like that I wonder about it. But I think if I didn’t do this, what would I do instead? What would inspire me, or occupy me? And I can honestly say nothing would. The bottom line is that there is nothing that inspires me like the work that I do.’
1977 was the year that the Irish government had made the decision to build not one nuclear power station, but four of them, at Carnsore Point in Wexford. It was also the year that there was a nuclear accident in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the world’s worst nuclear accident, to date. And it was the year Adi got married. By chance, her elder brother Donal was living in Harrisburg and she had been about to fly over and visit him, when the accident happened. As a result, she found herself honeymooning in a tent at the CND protest at Carnsore Point. Something that altered the course of her life and set her on her current path.
Up to that time, Adi had been working for Aer Lingus, in the marketing department.
‘I would have been ambitious for my career, I would definitely have wanted kids, a semi-d, two cars, holidays. That was where I saw us going, me and Sean. But as it turned out, we did all the opposite things!
Adi gave up her job when she felt that Ronald Reagan was becoming a threat to the future of the planet, and became a full time volunteer with CND. It was while working in their Cork office, in 1991, five years after the Chernobyl explosion, that she received a fax from Belarus. The fax read quite simply ‘SOS Appeal. For god’s sake help us to get the children out.’
This appeal inspired an already fired up Adi to establish the Chernobyl Children’s Project to help to get the children over to Ireland for medical treatment and for recovery holidays and it prompted her to visit Belarus to see for herself what was going on. Under her leadership, sixteen aid programs were initiated and supported and millions of euros worth of aid has been sent. She is quick to emphasise, however, that this is not a ‘Pennies For the Black Babies’ intervention. It is a band-aid, of course, she jokes and mentions, as an aside that she is a great admirer of Bob Geldof. But it also aims to empower the communities themselves to get back on their feet and stay there. The toughest task, she says, has been keeping the project alive for the seventeen years that it has not been front page news.
‘Ireland has kept this issue alive, pretty much alone for eighteen years,’ she says. ‘And I suppose our greatest asset is the inheritance of the mindset of volunteerism. We kept the light of spirituality and literature and culture alive during the darkest times in the middle ages. And out of our experiences of suffering has come an ability to identify with other people in crisis and suffering. In this century, we are reaching out to others. Small acts can make a huge difference. You are not powerless, you can make a difference. If I was to think about having to save the whole planet, I would run away!
The Celtic Tiger has seen a decrease in the numbers volunteering to work with charities. It must be inevitable, surely, I ask, what with our values having shifted from the desire to be rewarded in Heaven to a determination to be rewarded here and now with a brand new Merc or Lexus.
‘ I find it very hard to acknowledge that Ireland,’ she admits. With an air of sadness, one senses. ‘Even though I am thrilled that people are doing well, I often wonder about what we are losing. I prefer to focus on balancing it with something positive. I also think that there is less of it in Cork. In Dublin, I see it everywhere. When I went to the Irma awards, I got to see it, everyone with loads of money and all the glamour. But they were there in a good cause and all it needed was one person to decide to help us and it was worth it. I have to raise 1.7 million every year, just to keep everything going.’
The reality of being a full time volunteer is that it is Sean who sponsors all her work.
‘He jokes that one day I will get a proper job and he can be a kept man and retire,’ she laughs. ‘And my mother, who lives next door, gives me money to get my hair done, whenever I have to go to America!”
Sean has sacrificed a great deal. She’s hard to live with, she admits. She’s a workaholic and a perfectionist and they had to make a decision not to have children, even though they both wanted them.
‘But I honestly do see these Chernobyl children as my children,’ she says. ‘Although I worry about who will look after me when I’m old and incontinent! I would hate to die of loneliness, that must be one of the worst things that can happen to you.’
Loneliness, I don’t foresee being a problem for one who is as enthusiastic as Adi is. She shows me photos that she carries around, including one of a little boy with horribly infected hands and feet, who has since been cured of a kind of leprosy that prevented anyone from ever touching him without gloves. Like Princess Diana with the AIDS patients, Adi wanted to show the boy that he wasn’t untouchable and dared to kiss his hands.
Just before I leave, even though she is in a hurry, she takes me into her bedroom, so I can see for myself the lovely dresses that Mariad Whisker gave her. A selection of dresses, ‘because everyone knows you can’t be photographed in the same thing twice!’
All of this reminds me of Sex and the City. I casually mention it.
‘Do you know,’ she asked me earnestly. ‘I don’t know what I will do without it! I used to come home wired to the moon, and my husband would have it videoed for me and I would fall asleep calm.’
Is that because it was so….
‘Frivolous!’ she interrupts. And whisks me out to her car, which is emblazoned with the ‘Chernobyl Children’s Project’ logo. Adi Roche, clearly a woman to admire. A tireless, inspirational worker who changes thousands of lives every year. A Sex and the City fan. And I liked her.