I've fostered 140 children but that doesn't make me a saint
Rehab Mother of the Year Rio Hogarty (74) has written candidly about her decades as a foster mum and her alcoholism in a new book
Rio Hogarty is worried people think she's a saint.
She's afraid people have too high an opinion of her after she was named Rehab Mother of the Year for fostering 140 children in her Clondalkin home.
The 74 year-old, great-grandmother currently has seven children in her care, the youngest of whom is aged six.
She's so mortified by how people responded to the award she received last year, that she hopes to set the record straight by telling her life story in her new book Beneath My Wings.
"I'm not a saint. I had people coming up to me in the supermarket telling me about their aunt or sister or someone else who was in trouble, and it was overwhelming," Rio says."Others acted like they wanted to touch the hem of my coat," she says. She thinks revelations about her battle with alcohol will shock some people. And she doesn't mind that they will no longer see her as a living saint who minds vulnerable children.
"Here's what happened, I was around 50 when my good friend Doris died, we were like Siamese twins, and did absolutely everything together. She got cancer, and it was quick. She never told me, for whatever reason, and I got a cold fist in my chest from anger and loss. "It started with a couple of glasses of brandy to warm myself up. The number of glasses kept going up, and all in all it went on for six or seven months. It was heavy drinking for the last three months, maybe two bottles of brandy a day."
She woke up one morning, prostrate in her front garden, and deeply panicked over her lack of control over alcohol. "I looked over at the car, and there wasn't a scratch on it, though how there wasn't I've no idea. I got myself up, drank pots of coffee, and then took myself off and took the pledge.
"The priest gave me a number for a counsellor and I thought she was for the birds the first two times we met but I took to her all the same and I can honestly say she saved my life," Rio says.
She jokes that she would have to go and drink brandy instead of something cheaper.
Her humour in the face of adversity was evident from early on; you can't but laugh reading about her falling into an icy pond while checking to see the goldfish were breathing, and how after she had half-heartedly completed a CPR course, her mother had pushed her forward in a crowd to save a dying man.
It was the 1950s when she began taking in needy children, and before there was a health board. She estimates she had minded 80 to 90 children before she had her first official foster child. "They came from neighbours or from the priests. If I opened my door and someone was there and wanted to come in well then there was no need for an explanation."
If not a saint, she is instinctively protective of children in need, and doesn't take 'no' for an answer. She's also fearless.
She had an idea about how to feed her burgeoning family -- her own two children and the dozens she was fostering -- and it involved bringing butter over the border and selling it for a profit in Dublin. She had to learn to drive a lorry.
It was the 1970s and the Heavy Goods Vehicle department denied her a licence on the grounds she was a woman. She went North and got one, and became the first Irish woman to hold a haulier's licence.
Her lorry driving ventures took her to Europe, and to a small French village where she regularly saw two skinny boys begging on the street. She felt compelled to take them home.
They spoke no English, and became distressed at finding themselves on a ferry in the middle of the English Channel. But Rio sorted things. "Bringing home two French boys only raised a minor flurry in my household. I asked the local priest, Father Neary to help locate any family they might have, other than their useless mother. A neighbour spoke very passable French, so we got them all sorted."
Helping 140 children has added immensely to her enjoyment of life she insists. She has also managed to find some time to perform as a talented singer and storyteller.
She was doing a gig in The Old Sheiling Hotel in the Bronx, when in walked Frank Sinatra. She and her friends sang for Sinatra, and he sang for them. He asked them what they liked to eat, and the unanimous answer was turkey. A quarter of an hour later, a steaming turkey was placed down in front of them.
"I was fascinated by this little man who arrived surrounded by big burly men. No one spoke out of turn, I can tell you. But he'd a smashing voice, and he wasn't smutty. I'm no prude but I hate smutty people."
She is currently 'mothering' seven children, including a six year-old. Five of her charges are young adults, and they are mostly studying. "Myself and my husband are sticklers for education. If a child is academic we push it to the limits, making sure they get every chance. Otherwise every child got a trade."
Finally there's Rebecca, who is aged 12 and is related to Rio's deceased friend Doris.
"I'll be killed, but Rebecca is extra special as she has been with me from the very beginning. We're always together and she calls me 'nanny'."
Beneath My Wings, by Rio Hogarty and Megan Day, published by Hayes MacDermot Publishing, €14.99