But what she didn’t like as she went on the book publicity circuit was being questioned about her background – particularly her childhood in the notorious Goldenbridge orphange made famous in Christine Buckley’s TV documentary. She had been so secretive about those days that up until then she hadn’t even told her children.
She believes that her experiences there had a long-lasting effect on her life. To this day, she still needs sleeping tablets to get through the night, and has attempted suicide nine times.
Without her husband and children, she says she would not be alive today.
At the age of 16, she moved to London, where she knew no one, and forged a new life for herself. She worked as a telephonist for three years while attending drama school.
When she got married, she didn’t want to leave her children for work outside the home and turned her creative energies to writing.
Her first two books achieved critical acclaim and in 2000 she wrote the novel of the film Ordinary Decent Criminal, starring Kevin Spacey as the gangster boss, The General, and later the book of the major TV drama Relative Strangers, starring Brenda Fricker.
She was in the middle of researching her third book when disaster struck and her son Sean, then 21, broke his back. She tells her story to Yvonne Hogan.
‘I had spent my life hiding the fact that I was a Goldenbridge girl and then it came out. I had written my first novel, Tread Softly On My Dreams, and on the press tour all people wanted to know about was Goldenbridge.
I just didn’t want to talk about it because I really don’t like people who market their misery. And I also thought, ‘here I am, I have written this book about Robert Emmet and people will have thought I was really clever but now they are going to find out that I am straight from the gutter’. Because that is how you think.
With her documentary Dear Daughter, Christine Buckley freed us all. I can remember, 1996 it was, I got a phone call from someone very distantly related to me in Ireland, and they said to me: “Gretta, it is in the Irish Independent. All about Goldenbridge.”
I was so shocked and mortified I hid under my duvet — which is where I always go when life gets a bit tough.
Suddenly you had people saying: “It wasn’t your fault, it was their fault”. The child inside you is saying: “Oh that’s so good. I always thought it was my fault. I was beaten black and blue every day because I was bad. I was called this and I was called that because I was a child of sin.” All that crap.
Until Dear Daughter, my husband didn’t know. I used to say I was brought up in a convent boarding school, which wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t the truth.
One of the characters in my latest novel Ghosts In The Sunlight is called Marian. Marian is also an orphan but she was brought up in Barnardos and her character is so different to me. I went to Barnardos and I researched it and my conclusion was that if I had been brought up in Barnardos, it would have been like paradise in comparison to Goldenbridge.
I mean, there was nowhere like Goldenbridge. It was the Auschwitz of the institutions just like Artane was the Auschwitz for the boys. They were two horrific places and the people inside them were absolutely horrific. I have never had the opportunity to see Dear Daughter but I think Christine is saying to her own daughter, “If I am not like other women this is why. If I am not like other mums, this is why”.
And I was able to say to my daughter, “this is why”. They didn’t find out, my kids, anything about anything until it became public. And I showed them the articles about the institutions from the Irish Independent and I said, “Read that”. My daughter was absolutely in tears, and my son, he has a heart of gold, he was angry — especially when he read about Artane.
He was so angry and then I had to drop the bombshell and say, “Now you know”.
Later, I made both of them come with me to Dublin. I said to them: “I want to show you where your roots are, because then you will never be arrogant. You will never believe that you are above anyone else or anything like that. You will think, ‘Thank God I am damn lucky’. You will never ever complain about your life.”
I educated myself. When I arrived in London I was 16 and knew nobody, so I lived through books. I wanted to know about all these great people who had lived. I remember reading this book about Napoleon and at the end, on his deathbed he said, “I have not enjoyed as much as six happy days in my entire life”. And I thought, “Ah, if I can enjoy seven happy days in my entire life I will have done better than Napoleon”. Well, I have had a thousand and seven happy days.
I went to drama school for three years, I worked nights as a telephonist — for three years I didn’t sleep. I did try it as a dramatist, but then when I got married and gave birth to Ellena, now 26, I could not leave her after what had happened to me with the nuns. After Sean was born, I thought I needed to earn and help Paul, so I thought if I wrote, I could be at home with the kids, So I was a mum during the day, and then when the kids would go to bed, I would then go into our front room and I would start writing. My first book took me four years but it was worth it.
I was researching my third book when Sean’s accident happened. He is an actor and he was working in Bristol. My husband’s sister lives in Bristol and she had recently been widowed and lived on her own so Sean popped in to see her. She had just been given a massive quote by a builder for some work she wanted done to her leaky roof.
Sean had worked on building sites so he went up to the roof to have a look and saw that it was just a few loose slates. He was about to turn to go back in through the skylight but as he turned his foot slipped and within a second he fell three storeys down to the ground below and broke his back. That was three-and-a-half years ago.
Sean is so full of energy; to see him lying in a bed and to be told he would probably never walk again was absolutely devastating. All he has ever wanted is to be an actor. Even when he was only 10, I would wake up in the middle of the night and he would be sitting in the dark watching Al Pacino in The Godfather and Robert De Niro in Mean Streets. He started acting at 12 and by the time he was 17 he was signed up with an agent. He was getting so much work and then, bang.
The first operation took six hours and each hour felt like a year. They encased his spine in metal to keep the broken parts stable and he was left to lie in a spinal bed and stare at the ceiling. One day he said, “This is not going to stop me — I was born to be an actor. I don’t care what they say, victory begins in the mind and nothing happened to my mind.”
Through his own sheer determination his physical recovery began. His consultant was amazed. Later on, much later on when he took his first shaky step on his own, one of thenurses turned to me and whispered, “That’s what we thought we would never see”.
He had a second, equally nail-biting operation to have all the metal taken out and with medically supervised physio, less than four years later, his back is just as strong — he thinks stronger — than before the accident. It is amazing. He is 24 now and two weeks ago he moved into his own apartment and he starts drama college in September.
In a sense, both Sean and I spent a few years in the wilderness, absolutely isolated from the normal run of life, living solely on determination and dreams. What his accident and his recovery have taught me is that if you give in and you give up, you really are finished.
So that’s why I started writing again. I love the magic of writing, I love the escape and like Sean, I think I should let nothing stand in my way.”
Gretta Curran Browne’s novel Ghosts In Sunlight, is out now – Yvonne Hogan
Gretta Curran Browne was born in Dublin city where she spent some of her childhood years in the notorious Goldenbridge orphanage. Later she was transferred to a second orphanage in Preston in England, which was less harsh, and where, due to one special nun, she became acquainted with the magic of storytelling.
In her teenage years she moved to London to study Drama, working as a telephonist at night to pay her rent and attending Drama school in the day: after which she spent some years working full time in theatre and occasionally in television. Her first attempts at professional writing began after her two children were born, and she became a full-time mother, writing at night when the world and her children were asleep. She began with two short stories, both of which won prizes.
She then began her first novel, `Tread Softly On My Dream’s, based on the true story of the young Irish hero,… Read more This biography was provided by the author or their representative.
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.
— William Butler Yeats