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• Finding love through the internet was only the start of the commitment for one couple, discovers Andrea Smith

‘SO MANY of my friends wanted to come to the airport to meet her, that I could have hired a bus,” laughs Dolores Mannion, artistic director of Cork Arts Theatre, describing the excitement that her partner Elena’s arrival from Miami generated.

In the end, Dolores chose to go alone, deeming the occasion to be nerve-wracking enough without the added pressure of an audience, as it was the first time she had actually met Elena in person.

It was a whirlwind romance, as Dolores and Elena had only met on the internet six weeks previously, but they hit it off so well that Elena decided to move over lock, stock and barrel from Miami. A daring move, considering they had never met in person, but 10 years later, they’re still going strong.

“We had talked on the phone, and exchanged photos, but I was very nervous waiting for her to come through the door at arrivals,” says Dolores.

“She was the very last to come out, and I knew it was her by all the musical instruments she was carrying, as she plays piano, guitar and violin. She just looked over and nodded at me because she was giving an old lady directions, even though she had never even heard of Ireland before she met me. Then she came over to me, and it was like we’d known each other all of our lives.”

When I meet Dolores in Dublin, she is accompanied by her delightful 88-year-old mother, Bridie, and like her mum, Dolores is extremely gregarious, candid and funny. She grew up in the Ardoyne area of Belfast, and both she and her sister, Kathleen, are adopted. The family moved to London when she was six, as her late dad, John Liddy, wanted to further his career there.

It was at school in London that Dolores’ love for theatre began, partly because she was very talented and it was the one area that came easily to her. “I’m dyslexic,” she says, “so while I was just about keeping up in every other class, I was able to excel in drama for three or fours hours a week.”

When Dolores was 14, her grandfather died, so she returned to Belfast to live with her grandmother, and went on to study social work at Queen’s. As a young social worker, she worked on the Shankill Road during The Troubles, and also trained as an actress at the Lyric Theatre, which she says was “her life”.

As she grew up, Dolores came to the realisation that she was gay, but when she was 22, she married a man and had three sons, Paul, Brian and Mike. They’re now aged between 27 and 30: Paul lives in Dubai and married earlier this year, Brian is working in Abu Dhabi and Mike is in retail management in Cork.

So why did Dolores choose to get married, knowing she was gay, and how did this affect her relationship with her husband? “I wanted normality,” she says candidly. “I’m 52 years of age, and come from a very different time and place to now. My ex-husband would have known, because I told him before we got married that I felt that being gay was who I was. It eventually ended, but I don’t regret it because I have three fantastic sons.”

Coming out proved to be a good experience for Dolores, as although this was the first gay relationship she had been public about, her parents were extremely supportive.

“I don’t mind what she does as long as she’s happy, and Elena is a lovely person,” interjects her mother Bridie, urging Dolores to show me a photo of her attractive dark-haired partner, who works as a marketing manager. Dolores and Elena are both committed Christians. Elena is a Mennonite, which Dolores says is a beautiful faith with lovely, gentle people. The church that Elena entered when she lived back home is welcoming to the gay community, although not all branches would be, and she worked there as a youth minister.

The couple are also foster parents to two teenage boys, and Dolores has, in fact, fostered 23 children long-term, starting from when she was a social worker, and a child came to stay with her for the weekend when the unit he was in was closed down. It’s not an easy task, as the children have all been teenagers, and many have been troubled.

Dolores and Elena have won an award for their success at fostering, as they don’t give up on kids, and have achieved great results. Their winning blend of love, discipline and caring support has seen the lives of many disadvantaged young people completely turned around.

Many of the foster children are still part of their lives, others keep in touch now and them, and a few have moved on completely, but the door always remains open, says Dolores.

“Foster parents never close the case file on a child,” she says. “I was already fostering when I met Elena, so I was blessed to find a partner that was so supportive.”

Dolores works as artistic director and manager of Cork Arts Theatre, and is currently preparing for the imminent opening of the play Knowing Cairo, which addresses issues of jealousy, love, historical family resentments and race. It examines the difficult relationship between an elderly German-Jewish New Yorker and her professional daughter. The mother’s trying behaviour drives each of her carers away, until she unexpectedly becomes affectionately attached to a younger African-American carer. Caring for an elderly parent is a subject that is close to Dolores’ own heart as she now looks after Bridie, who has Alzheimer’s disease.

Having lived for more than 40 years in London, Bridie and her husband John came over to live with Dolores and Elena last December. John also had Alzheimer’s, so the decision was taken to bring both parents over to live in the granny flat beside Dolores’ house, where they could be cared for.

“For the last five years, Mum has been relinquishing her memories and herself to Alzheimer’s,” she says.

“When Elena and I decided to have Mum and Dad come live with us, we didn’t do it lightly. We saw it both as a blessing and a burden, but it was important to put ourselves into the right mindset and to focus on the benefits that we are receiving from doing it, in order to repay my parents for all they have done for me.”

Three weeks after they moved in, John unexpectedly passed away, which devastated Bridie, after 68 years of marriage, and Dolores who had always been very close to him.

“Dad always guided and informed, but left the major decisions to us,” says Dolores.

“He gave us all the love he had, only asking that we loved him in return, which wasn’t hard to do. I miss arguing with him. He was the only person I’ve ever known who I could argue with long and hard, yet no hard feelings would be attached. Missing him is now part of my life.”

Dolores is realistic about the challenges that face carers, but strongly feels that wherever possible, children should step up and look after their elderly parents.

“Taking care of ageing parents is not always simple or easy, and it involves a tremendous amount of time,” she says.

“Doctors’ appointments, helping them, and escorting them to social and family events eats away at the normal tight and stressed schedule of today’s society. Depending upon the nature of an older person’s condition, some cannot physically be cared for at home, of course, at least not without a team of professionals that only wealth can provide.”

Dolores believes that we need to do more to encourage home care, and feels that individuals should look to themselves for the resources to make it all run smoothly.

“We can rearrange our lives when an ageing parent needs us, give up some activities and interests, and postpone some desires for a couple of years,” she says. “Our parents did that for us, and it’s our turn when they get old. From my very first memories, it was my parents who made the biggest impact on me. Their affection for each other spilled over to us, and I always felt lucky to have had such a happy childhood. Later on when I found out my sister and I had both been adopted, their love seemed even more extraordinary.”

“Mum has become a friend, a confidante, and a saviour to me,” she adds. “One of her biggest charms is that when she is with people she truly shines.

Her face lights up with that huge sunny smile of hers and her laugh comes readily and often. She has the most affectionate and caring nature, and her hand is always there to hold me when I need it. She has always been there for me, and I will be there for her, right to the end. However long that is!”

Cork Arts Theatre presents the Irish premiere of American playwright Andrea Stolowitz’s award-winning play ‘Knowing Cairo’, from October 8 to 18. Directed by Dolores Mannion and featuring Fionnula Linehan, Tracy Harper and Roisin FitzGerald. Tickets €15/12. Bookings: 021 450 5624



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