Orphans’ incredible bond never broke
Published: January 24, 2007 | 5378th good news item since 2003
IT was all in the smile. And a bond that had begun in a bleak orphanage 50 years ago would blossom again in a busy shopping centre.
Alan Brogan had heard someone call his name, spun on his heels – to come face to face with Irene Kinnair, the woman he had loved for ever.
Alan says: “I know it sounds strange, but I just knew it was her, I could never forget that smile. And she was exactly the same… she said she knew it was me the minute she saw me standing in the street.”
Irene says: “I think the whole of Sunderland heard me shout! He just held me in his arms and I thought he was never going to let go. He told the friend I was with, ‘I’ve loved this lady all my life.'”
Not all – but most of it…
Their amazing story, which will end in marriage in May, began in 1959 when they were thrown together in the same children’s home following the death of their mothers.
Kindred spirits, aged just seven and nine, they quickly formed a bond and became the best of friends.
Alan was just four when his mother Eileen died of cervical cancer. Split up from his three brothers, he had already lived in two care homes before arriving at the Rennie Road orphanage in Sunderland, Tyne and Wear at the age of seven.
When Irene’s mum Greta died of TB, relatives took her three older sisters in, but as the youngest she was sent to the children’s home.
“It was a very old fashioned system and they just assumed that the father couldn’t look after the children once the mother had gone,” explains Alan.
“I know my dad tried to get us back, but it didn’t work.
WHEN Irene and me saw each other for the first time we felt like we knew each other, there was an instant connection. From that day we were inseparable.”
Irene, now 56 and a fitness instructor, adds: “I had nobody. So when Alan came along, we clung on to each other. We weren’t alone anymore. He looked out for me and made me feel safe.
“We’d sit by the stream or run through the woods. Whatever we were doing we wanted to be together.”
“She was indescribable, still is,” says Alan, now 54. “We think like each other, we finish each other’s sentences, there’s an unbreakable bond. Something inside me glows whenever I look at her. And it’s always been like that with us.”
But their friendship infuriated staff at the ultra-strict Rennie Road home which forbade the boys from mixing with the girls. Alan was soon packed away to another home and never even got to say goodbye.
Knowing that fraternising with the opposite sex, no matter how innocent, was not allowed, they had tried to keep their friendship under wraps. However, at the home’s annual holiday to Whitby, their cover was blown.
Alan says: “We were playing and having fun, chasing each other round the camp. We ended up rolling around on the ground. One of the staff came out of her hut and blew her top. She screamed at us to get inside.
“We were just a couple of kids playing, but it wasn’t the done thing. Irene got a belt round the lug and told to be more ladylike and I was told I’d be dealt with later, but to expect big trouble.” Alan weekly chores increased. He could never have predicted what actually happened.
On returning to Sunderland, he was stopped from leaving the home to go to school. He was kept in the playroom until a big black car pulled up and he was bundled inside.
Heartbroken and terrified, he was taken to another children’s home on the other side of Sunderland.
“Irene was my only friend in the world and they’d taken me away from her,” he remembers. “The one person I felt close to.
“I had watched her walk off down the road to school. That was the last time I would see her for more than 40 years. I never had a chance to say goodbye. I’ll never forgive them for that. The anger stayed with me for many years.”
His unsuccessful attempts at running away to be reunited with Irene eventually led to Alan being sent to a school for disruptive children in Stanhope, Co Durham where he stayed until he was 15.
“It was ferocious,” remembers Alan. “There was a very strict military discipline and brutal corporal punishment. I felt desperately lonely there. To this day I find it difficult to connect with people.”
Over the years he regularly ran away in a desperate bid to find Rennie Road and Irene again.
One time, he heroically trekked for miles in the snow before finally stumbling across the old air raid shelter next door to the home.
Shivering with the cold, he crawled through a gap in the shelter and snuggled down to sleep, planning on meeting up with Irene as she walked to school the next morning.
But it wasn’t to be. The police caught up with him and dragged him back before he even had a chance to see Irene.
As punishment he was moved a further 40 miles away, with no chance of being reunited.
Forced apart the pair had no choice but to get on with their own lives and married. But they never forgot each other.
His time at the orphanage over, Alan returned to Sunderland where he found work as an apprentice roofer and upholsterer. He would later enrol at college and work his way up to a management position at a printing firm.
He married in 1980, but divorced seven years later. Irene had married and divorced in 1975 and had struggled to find happiness elsewhere, all the while desperate for Alan
Told he had been moved to Whitby as a child, she even holidayed in the North Yorkshire fishing village in the hope of bumping into him.
ONCE, in the 40 years, they recognised each other as adults, but in those brief minutes with their respective partners, the moment was lost.
Little did they realise they were actually living just streets apart in Sunderland, visiting the same shops, drinking in the same pubs, walking the same roads.
Over the years they would search, visiting old haunts in the hope of bumping into each other.
But it was that chance meeting in Sunderland city centre two years ago that finally brought them back together.
“It was crazy, staring back at me was the little boy I used to know,” recalls Irene. “I saw the tank top and the grey shorts down to his knees.You could feel the bond between us.”
The following evening Irene went round to Alan’s flat where he had prepared a candlelit dinner. From that night, they’ve barely been apart. Alan proposed on holiday later that year and the couple plan to wed in May.
Irene says: “It’s frustrating to think of the years we’ve missed out on, but we’re concentrating on what’s to come. Alan treats my daughter like his own and we love spending time with my grandchildren.”
“It’s like a second childhood,” says Alan. “Neither of us had much of one the first time, so we’re making up for it.
“We sing at the tops of our voices, we giggle all the time. Life’s worth living again.”
Irene was my only friend in the world and they had taken me away from her for ever