Evelyn Doyle: From heroics to heartache

When Evelyn Doyle published her childhood memoir, Evelyn, she intended to celebrate her father - but instead sparked off a bitter family feud. Now Doyle tells Sarah Shannon why she is risking further upset with a sequel

Wednesday 22 October 2003 00:00 BST

Evelyn Doyle's memoirs changed her life. Evelyn: A True Story transformed the middle-aged pâtisserie owner and former policewoman into a best-selling author whose childhood years were immortalised in the feature film Evelyn, starring Pierce Brosnan. But along with the Tinseltown razzle-dazzle and new-found riches, her book created a bitter family rift.

For memoir writers, controversy seems to go with the territory. Frank McCourt faced criticism in his hometown of Limerick, where he had set Angela's Ashes, a bleak account of his poverty-stricken Irish childhood. Now, when he returns to the city, angry residents challenge his depressing memories of their home and question the book's anecdotes. One man, Gerard Hannan, has even written his own memoir, Ashes, as a retort to the perceived inaccuracies in McCourt's book.

In Evelyn Doyle's case, her eponymous memoirs sparked a battle much closer to the home - with her mother's second family. The book told the story of her early years in Dublin. Her mother walked out on the family on Boxing Day when Evelyn was seven. Her father, Desmond Doyle, sought work in England and his children were sent to live in the infamously dreadful Industrial Schools in Ireland.

Later Desmond returned and tried to take his children home only to find that Irish law wouldn't allow them to be released without the express permission of both parents. Since Mrs Doyle had vanished, the children were stuck. He fought in the courts to change the law and eventually overturned the statute book by appealing to the Irish constitution. The judges gave him permission to take his children home.

So far, so Hollywood. But the sting in the tail came after publication. Mrs Doyle had moved to England and raised a second family. They fiercely objected to Evelyn's portrayal of their mother as a callous woman who deserted her children without a second thought. Their own version of events was quite different. Desmond Doyle had beaten their mother, made her life a misery and drove her to flee as a last resort.

"My mother's daughters have come out of the woodwork and accused my father of dreadful things and I'm not having it," says Evelyn, who is a striking 57-year-old, with a strong Irish brogue despite the many years living in Scotland.

"She may have been a wonderful mother to them, but she wasn't a wonderful mother to me. One of the daughters accused my father of raping my mother, said he kicked her and that she ran out of the house screaming that day. The fact is she stepped over me on Boxing Day morning to walk out of the house. She was pregnant with her lover's child within a month. If you'd been beaten, kicked and raped would you get pregnant within a month?"

As well as disagreeing with the memoir's description of their mother, the second family and one of Doyle's own brothers objected to her heroic portrayal of Desmond Doyle. The author insists that her depiction of her father was even-handed. "I never said he was anything but explosive and violent. By today's standards he would be thought of as cruel". But she refuses to accept that her father repeatedly beat her mother. "We heard rows, but everyone in the flats shouted and roared at each other, it was a part of our lives".

She's now published a follow-up to Evelyn called Nothing Green. It continues the story of her journey towards adulthood, her family's hardships when they move to England, her repeated attempts to run away and her first job as an assistant at Woolworth's.

In Nothing Green, Doyle paints a picture of her father as a remote man with a harsh temper. At one point he hits Evelyn until her face is swollen, yet despite this she still eagerly defends him.

"I get very angry and upset when people say I have now admitted my father's violence. Yes, he hit me. But my father thought I'd been shoplifting. He gave me a good hiding which was commonplace at that time. We can't judge him for that. He had a bad temper, but I have a bit of a bad temper too".

Whatever faults her father may havehad, Doyle can never forget one thing. "He never left us. I'll bang that drum forever. My father never left us until the day he died. My mother left us that day in 1953. My baby brother was in hospital getting skin grafts. He'd been badly burned when she was away from the house and had left us on our own."

Years after her mother left home, Doyle decided to seek her out, but the eventual reunion with her real "Mammy" was not the joyful occasion she'd hoped for. "When I came to see her she introduced me to her four children as someone she used to look after when their mammy was in hospital. She didn't acknowledge me as her daughter, or their half-sister. I was 21 then. "It was like meeting an old friend you haven't seen since school days. The bond had gone completely. I realised then that I'd done my grieving for her when I was a child".

What drives someone to relive such painful memories? In Doyle's case it was a desire to set down her father's achievements. Before Desmond died he became very upset, saying he wished he'd done more with his life. She knew the battles he'd fought to have her and her brothers released from children's homes, how he'd changed the law and how he'd brought them up whatever the hardships. "I knew he'd touched thousands of lives so I decided to write his story down, but I had nothing to go on. He'd only kept one newspaper cutting, the one that said 'Evelyn comes home tomorrow'."

"The only thing I'd written before was police reports," Doyle says, but she wrote down a few notes and then returned to Dublin to trace old press cuttings and court papers. She handed an outline to a drama editor at the BBC since she hoped it would be made into a television play. For years nothing happened. But then a writer, Paul Pender, took up the story and wrote it as a film script, sending it then to Irish Dreamtime, Pierce Brosnan's production company.

Finally, Doyle received a life-changing phone call. "I was watching Star Trek. My friends know not to call me when it's on. I said, 'Who's this? Bugger off, I'm watching Star Trek.'" The caller was Pierce Brosnan. He wanted to tell her father's story.

Doyle visited the film set in Dublin and watched with some trepidation as Pierce Brosnan played the part of her Dad. But when she watched the finished product for the first time, she felt moved to tears. "I was crying so much I couldn't watch it. I ended up having a cigarette outside, puffing away, sitting on a yellow fire hydrant. Pierce became Desmond on the screen. It was completely bizarre."

Bizarre is also the word for her experiences of Hollywood, being fussed over by fawning PAs, making friends with Brosnan and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Barbara Broccoli.

Unusually, the book Evelyn: A True Story - which was to become a bestseller - was begun only after the film script had been commissioned. "I thought the book would sell a few copies and I'd be happy. It went to number one in Ireland and number two in the UK bestseller list."

If the first book was a tribute to her father, why continue the story and risk deepening the feud with her mother's family? "[Evelyn] wasn't a cathartic thing to write. I'd come to terms with my life. But people wanted to know what happened next. I'm happy to tell them."

'Evelyn' is out now to rent or buy on DVD and VHS from Pathé. 'Nothing Green' is published by Orion, £12.99

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