I would love if people would read this piece and consider giving one of Concern's Global Gifts as a stocking filler to loved ones this year - see the range at http://www.trocaire.org/globalgift
'Kindness is not a weakness'
Having seen the impact of Irish generosity in Africa, Lorraine Keane is on a mission to show that a little kindness goes a long way, both in charity and everyday life, writes Susan Daly (cover story from Irish Independent's Weekend magazine)
It's not often that Lorraine Keane is left struggling for words. But she is as she tries to explain how she felt when she met a five-week-old baby infected with the HIV virus.
"It was the saddest moment of the trip," says Keane. The TV presenter met the baby boy and his 29-year-old mother, Clara, when she travelled to Zimbabwe and Mozambique this month to publicise the work of Trócaire's Global Gifts campaign.
Clara had been very sick towards the end of her pregnancy and she didn't know why. "It turned out that Clara was HIV positive and, because she wasn't aware of it, she wasn't given drugs during the pregnancy to stop the virus passing to her baby. When her husband found out, he left. Now she's living back with her mother, the baby and her other three children."
These are the kind of heartbreaking stories that Keane has been haunted by since her return from the Trócaire projects. "But this is why we must keep giving. Clara's baby still weighs only five pounds, but he put on weight for the first time last week because of medicine and nutrition he received from Trócaire -- Irish people's money is literally keeping people alive here."
The last time I met Lorraine Keane was exactly one year ago in entirely contrasting circumstances. Back then, she was still the central presenter of the TV3 fluff-fest Xposé and posing with her colleagues for the cover of Weekend magazine's Christmas edition. The floor of a ballroom in the Shelbourne Hotel was covered with glittery gowns for the shoot, hair and make-up artists primping and powdering the girls for our photographer.
Keane had arrived with her hair and make-up already styled, courtesy of two of her younger sisters, Tori and Becky, "my A-team". While courteous and professional, she was clearly there to get the job done and get out. She managed -- pleasantly, mind -- to insert her own agenda into proceedings by making reference to her clothing line with designer Michelina Stacpoole.
She happily admits she's a PR person at heart. "My actual qualification is PR. I went to college and studied broadcasting and journalism, but my real qualification is PR, which I did at night."
But this isn't the red-carpet Keane the Irish public is accustomed to. Hair in plaits, in T-shirt and flat sandals, she toured mud huts and schools made of bamboo, seeing first-hand the effects that gifts of a goat, lunch for a schoolchild and clean water have had on lives there.
"We visited the Amazon school in Insiza, Zimbabwe, where the children get their only meal of the day from Trócaire's Global Gifts. It costs an Irish person just €10 to feed one African child for a year. Some of those children were walking up to 12km each way in their bare feet -- they wouldn't make it if they weren't being fed. It's difficult to put into words how heart-breaking they are."
A week earlier, sitting in the kitchen of her home in Dublin, she confessed that she wasn't expecting the trip to be a pleasant experience. "I'm just so scared," she said. "I don't know what I'm going to see."
Hands wrapped around a mug of tea, she said: "I'm not worried about me (physically)," she said, "but since I've had the girls, I'm a mess. I just can't handle sick babies or anything."
At this stage, with eldest daughter Emelia (now six) and Romy (three), her maternal instincts are finely tuned. She was dreading the latter half of the Trócaire trip, to Mozambique. "That's where we're going to be visiting orphanages and AIDS babies, moms and babies with HIV, and sick and vulnerable people," she said. "Those are the people that weren't helped by funding last year but are to be helped by funding this year. It's important to show both sides of it."
Even as she put on a defiant face -- "if we raise money, I don't care what it does to me" -- her speech came more haltingly than at any other point in the conversation. She was feeling particularly vulnerable after the death of her daughter Emelia's schoolfriend, Ruby Ayoub, the little Dublin girl whose meningitis was misdiagnosed twice as swine flu. When I first rang to arrange this interview, Keane and her daughters had just been releasing balloons in a ceremony to mark what should have been Ruby's sixth birthday.
"With Ruby dying, it just knocked all the stuffing out of me," she says. "I'm a friend of Ruby's mom. That Friday [before she died] Ruby ran up to me in the schoolyard wanting to pick Romy up because she just loves babies and it's just ... it frightens the life out of me. That made me fear this trip even more; I get really upset when I see children sick or dying."
Keane comes from a family that values industry. Her father was a member of The Indians showband (and still is; they celebrate 40 years performing next year). Her mother raised seven children and Keane, as second eldest, saw how hard her parents worked to make them happy, to educate them and occasionally to spoil them. "My parents separated 16, 17 years ago," says Keane. "I think they worked so hard that they didn't have time for each other. In the end, they lost what they started out with."
Keane has reiterated frequently since April that her departure from TV3 was a decision based on wanting to spend more time with her family and was something she had been talking about to her husband, Peter Devlin, for months. His new job as musical director on RTE's All Ireland Talent Show must have made any decision that might have affected the family finances a lot easier.
There is no doubt that, on a personal level, she is happier. Sometimes, when her daughters would call out at night she would say, "Oh no, Peter will you go in? I'm just so wrecked and I'm up early and I'm on the telly", then feel awful about it, "riddled" with the guilt of the career mum.
This candour makes Keane likeable -- "kindness is not a weakness" -- but she is clearly shrewd. Because her resignation from TV3 seemed sudden and she was reportedly unhappy with changes being imposed on Xposé from on high, it is understandable that people have been fascinated by the minutiae of her departure. When I ask if she realised that she was "missing out on more important things in life" after she left, rather than before, she shuts down with a definitive, "No. It's why I left".
She spent much of the summer away from Ireland with family -- she and Devlin have a holiday home in the south of France -- so Keane didn't see the Total Xposure! reality contest TV3 ran to find a new Xposé presenter. "Thank God," she says, laughing. "I believe I didn't miss much." She adds: "I always try to get the positive out of things, so I took it as flattery. They took an entire programme over a summer to try and find a replacement."
There's that PR instinct again; the positive spin. Asked about her future plans for TV she says that she "can't give too much away", but adds, "I like talking. You might have noticed, I like dealing with people; I like the idea of sitting down on a couch and being allowed to ask any question you want. Like you are now". So I take it that she's either got a chat show on the cards, or she's cultivating the idea that she would make a great talk-show host.
There is plenty to admire about Keane's personal motto that "just because you're nice, doesn't mean you're marshmallow". She's unapologetic about liking the finer things in life: she began collecting art as a young woman, paying for pieces in monthly instalments from her AA Roadwatch cheques.
Now, she has a small Guggi in her kitchen (a wedding present from the artist/musician who is a family friend) and a giant Graham Knuttel tapestry in her elegant living room.
On the other hand, the family sponsors a child in Nigeria called Clemence, and Emelia in particular is very sensitive to the world beyond the elegant front door of their Georgian home.
"Our children are privileged, as we all are, as my own childhood was. You have to let them know that it's not like that everywhere and to appreciate it," she says, using that as a cue to explain how half a million children in Mozambique don't have birth certs because their impoverished parents can't afford the €10 to register them.
"So as a result, the child's not entitled to anything. Medication, education, food; they can't avail of any of that. So €10 can make a child exist and therefore make them survive.
"I'm in the business a long time and I'm kind of hard to say 'No' to anyway," she laughs.
To purchase a Trócaire Global Gift this Christmas log onto www.trocaire.org/globalgift or call 1850 408 408 (ROI); 0800 912 1200 (NI)
- Susan Daly