’Daddy never mentioned her name again’

Evelyn Doyle was just seven years old and didn’t quite understand what was going on. But she knew that it was bad.

The little Irish girl clung to her father as they stood in the Mother Superior’s office of the industrial school where she had been living since her mother had walked out on the family - Evelyn, her father and her four younger brothers.

Her father had gone to England to get a job, but now he was back, and he had come to take Evelyn home. But the nuns were saying she had to live at the school until she was 16. Because that was the law.

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"In 1953 the law said that both my parents had to sign the form which would release me and my brothers from the industrial schools where Daddy had been advised to let us stay until he could care for us at home," says Doyle, 49 years after her distraught father told the nuns to "feck off, you old bitches!" and that he wanted his daughter home.

"But my Mammy had gone, and she was not around to sign the form. So me and my brothers had to stay in school. The system was completely mad."

It took Desmond Doyle a year of legal wrangling to win a High Court ruling that the Irish Children Act of 1941 was unconstitutional, and to bring Evelyn and her brothers home.

The case became a cause clbre when it began in Ireland in 1953, and eventually opened the door for thousands of children trapped in the now notorious industrial schools. The statute said that a child could only be removed from the schools, which were run by the Roman Catholic church, with the consent of their "parents". The wishes of one "parent" acting alone did not count. The fact that the second parent might not be traceable was neither here nor there.

It is almost 50 years since Desmond Doyle won his landmark victory against the Irish legal system, but it is only now that his story is to be told, in both a film and a book.

The movie, titled simply Evelyn, will star the Irish actor Pierce Brosnan as the Doyle patriarch. But those who cannot wait to discover how the tale unravels can read about it in Evelyn - A True Story, a moving memoir penned by the daughter at the centre of the legal case.

Evelyn Doyle, now almost 60 and living in West Lothian, has long wanted her father’s story brought to the screen, anxious that he should receive the credit which he never awarded himself.

"On his deathbed, my father said to me, ‘It’s all been such a waste.’ I think he meant that he had never achieved his potential - as a wonderful musician and pianist - and that he had wasted his life, in that sense.

"I told him, ‘No, Daddy, you did something that changed the lives of so many children for the better.’ I determined then to write it down and see his story told, to remind everyone just what a wonderful thing he had done."

Initially, she approached the BBC with her story, but nothing came of that. Then, several months ago, she learned that Brosnan’s production company, Irish Dreamtime, had decided to make her father’s story into a film.

"The phone rang one night and this Irish voice said it was Pierce Brosnan," she recalls. "I simply did not believe him - I thought it was a friend winding me up. But then he told me things about my father that only someone who had my information could know. Someone who had been at the BBC had told Irish Dreamtime about what happened - and Pierce was making the film.

"He said that he hoped I didn’t mind him calling. I said: ‘Pierce, there are a million women who would sell you their children just to have you call.’ He is a completely charming man."

Although delighted that her father’s story was to be immortalised, Doyle was unhappy when some of the details were changed by the script editors. Her well-bred, musician grandfather, for instance, drops dead while singing Danny Boy in a pub. "He was a gifted musician," Doyle says. "He would never have sung Danny Boy."

Reports that she considered suing Brosnan over the changes are "utter nonsense", she says, while admitting that it was this that finally drove her to write her book, a 200-page memoir rattled off in just ten weeks, earlier this year. "I want the facts to be written down."

Evelyn - A True Story is no "Miserable Irish Memoir", a term one publisher used to describe the autobiographical works of poverty-stricken childhoods in the Free State, when rejecting her book.

Certainly, there is plenty of poverty, and child neglect. At the age of six, Evelyn is frequently left by her mother to look after her younger brothers in their home at Fatima Mansions in Dublin, the concrete blocks which housed some of the city’s poorest folk. When there is no money to put in the electricity meter, it is Evelyn who begs wooden crates from the grocer and drags them up flights of steps to sell for threepence a time to an unsavoury old man upstairs. But such terrors are balanced by the humour and love which obviously abounded among the Doyle siblings.

One of the most moving scenes is where Mrs Doyle steps over her little girl as she walks out of the flat on Boxing Day, leaving her family and her Dublin life. "I’m just going for the messages," she tells her. "Bye-bye." And then she was gone. "Mammy! Mammy! Come back!" screamed the child Doyle, knowing that because the shopping bag was full, her mother was not going shopping at all. The little girl watches as her mother gets on to a bus with a man, without a backward glance. It was 14 years before they were to meet again.

At the age of 21 Doyle traced her mother to Glasgow, where she was living with the cousin she had run away with, and their four children.

"We must catch up on all the gossip," were almost her mother’s first words. Moments later she told her children that Evelyn was someone she "used to look after when her mammy was in hospital".

Doyle writes: "I was her first-born child, and this was the second time she had abandoned me."

There were a few more meetings, but that was all. Doyle and her mother have not been in contact for more than 30 years. "It just didn’t work out," she says simply. "I could have a reconciliation now, if I wanted, but I don’t. My family now is my partner, Michael, my son, my grandson, my brothers. There is no gap."

However, during the short time the two women spent together as adults, inevitably the question of why her mother had left her first young children had to be addressed. Doyle refuses to talk of why the marriage broke up.

"She told me her reasons, and I accepted what she told me. But I had to do just that, because there was no question of discussing it with my father. He never mentioned my mother’s name again after she left, and I could never have asked him if what she said was the way he saw it. And now my father is dead and not here to defend himself, so it would be completely wrong of me to write down or talk about the things my mother said about him."

Instead the reader is left to look between the lines of Doyle’s book for the reasons her mother ran off with her uncle. Doyle’s writing does not hide the fact that her father had a hair-trigger temper, and that he liked a drink. But quite what caused the marriage to fail is not clear.

What is clear from the book is that Doyle is a woman who has come to terms with the way her mother abandoned her as a child. Married and divorced while young, she lives in a spacious bungalow with her partner, with whom she used to run a patisserie production company, following a brief career in the police.

The book does not paint her mother as a demon, any more than it paints her father as a saint, and the work is all the more powerful because of the credibility this lends to these two key characters.

That is not to say that Doyle has made excuses for her mother’s actions. Indeed, at one point in the book she says that if her mother had to leave, "She should have found a way of taking us with her."

But the work smacks of careful research, honestly recounted, charting Doyle’s return to Fatima Mansions, her conversations with old neighbours and her examination of legal documents. The facts about Doyle’s mother are not very nice, but they are told without a hint of vindictiveness and you are left in no doubt that they are true.

Doyle has gone to great lengths to protect her mother in the book, never using her Christian name, and referring to her only as "Mammy". All names except that of the Doyle father and children have been changed.

"I have been in contact with my brothers from my mother’s second marriage, and I know she is worried about the book, but I do not want to hurt her. The book is simply my father’s story, not mine, not my mother’s."

This is a book that should be saved until you have time to read it in one long stretch, because once little Evelyn Doyle has taken you by the hand and into her childhood world, you will not want to let the lovable little "rip" go.

But as you turn the final page, the question that will haunt you is how her mother could ever have done just that.

Evelyn - A True Story is published by Orion at 12.99.