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Tracings From gloomy Belfast, Hughes’s star burns bright in Hollywood

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Olivia Tracey

With Christmas and the New Year in our midst, it seems like the perfect time to bring you this tale of hope and happiness.

Fourteen years ago, almost to the day, NBC televised "Children in the Crossfire," a movie of the week centered on a group of Belfast children, Catholic and Protestant, who are brought for a six-week visit to California and grouped into pairs, one of each religion, to live with a family under the same roof. One of its star discoveries, Geraldine Hughes, has since found her way back to Hollywood, where she is most definitely shaping up as a success in the making. This is her story.

Born in a troubled Belfast in 1971, the second youngest of six children, she has, not surprisingly, many horrific memories to recount. Hatred, anger and bigotry were all part of the sad picture. The fact was that, as an Irish Catholic, one was treated as a second-class citizen, with discrimination the order of the day. She grew up off the famous Falls Road in Divis Flats, one of the city’s worst ghettoes, where rats, riots, and plastic bullets were as much a part of everyday life as palm trees and sports cars in Hollywood.

On one of the many occasions when she stood alone by the living room window dreaming of sunnier times, she was rapidly brought back to the Northern nightmare as she watched a neighbor commit suicide, throwing himself off the top balcony. Another time she jumped out of the way as a burning vehicle was driven by local thugs at full speed into her home. She escaped, shaken but unhurt. The same thing happened on a second occasion. This time they drove through the front door. Again, she survived.

Indeed, Geraldine Hughes could aptly be described as both a born survivor and a born actress, especially when one considers the dramatic circumstances of her birth. Her mother, in the full throes of labor, was rushed to the hospital by their neighbor, Eddie Donnelly, the only one in the area with a car. Speeding through the Protestant district of Sandy Row, they found themselves in the midst of open warfare between Protestant and Catholic snipers. But alas, they made it safely to The Mater and the little star was born.

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Her father was a cabinet maker who, in his 40s, became ill and consequently lost his job. However, his illness got the family out of Divis Flats into a rat-free house with a garden that, unfortunately, was located right on the peaceline. Still, it was considered an improvement.

Somehow, in the midst of all the horror, Geraldine managed to maintain a sense of optimism, knowing deep down that she was destined for greater things. A loner by nature, she did not mix easily with her classmates and so she involved herself heavily in school and related activities. She excelled at St. Louis School, run by the Sisters of Mercy, where she earned top grades, became head girl of the school and participated in a plethora of projects, from debating, drama and Irish dancing to voluntary work for the St. Vincent de Paul and the Marillas Societies.

"You’re in everything but the crib," her mother would say while young Geraldine bemoaned the fact that she had to sacrifice her dancing for drama in order to act in the school production of "The King and I."

Not surprisingly, with the arrival in Belfast of Kingworld’s Merrill Karpf and George Sch’fer to cast "Children in the Crossfire," she marched straight down to the Forum Hotel for the audition "like Pippy Longstocking — all braids and glasses," she said, laughing. She is undoubtedly all talent too as she earned her way to Dublin for the callback screen tests and only weeks later to L.A. to play Mary, a 13-year-old Catholic girl whose father was murdered by the IRA. Incidentally, the producers never asked about the children’s religion as they didn’t want it to be part of the casting decision, and so it transpired that they chose four Catholic children to play two Catholic and two Protestant roles.

For Geraldine, the best part of making the movie was getting the chance to work with George Sch’fer, who has since passed away, and making lifelong friends with Merrill Karpf, his wife, Suzy, and their two children, Erin and Ryan. The worst part was "coming to Southern California and not being allowed get a tan," she said. It was also difficult to return to Belfast, having seen how the other half lived, not to mention facing exams.

Again Karph and Sch’fer came to the rescue, offering the kids an open invitation to return to the United States at a later date. Having whetted her appetite for foreign shores, including a summer trip to Germany, Geraldine accepted the opportunity as soon as she left school. It was a bitter sweet parting, especially as her father had passed away only eight months earlier. However, it was a chance not to be missed as her American benefactors had organized a scholarship for her at the prestigious UCLA drama school. Of course she had to do the work, convincing the authorities that she would be an asset in their department, writing essays and achieving top grades in her A-Levels. Of course, she was accepted.

Despite the fact that she was ultra popular simply because of her Irishness, it took her most of the first two years to adjust. Then she started to make lots of friends and began the audition process for plays and student films. She also worked as a nanny for a famous but nameless person, a position she holds to this day, seven years on. Her talent has earned her guest roles on top television shows, including "ER" and "Profiler," as well as the lead in a TV movie, which, unfortunately, she could not accept at the time as her visa had just expired.

However, she since got married to an Irish American named Ian Harrington, of Castlegregory, Co. Kerry, roots. He’s her treasured soulmate, whom she considers "one of the many good choices I have made in my life."

Apart from adoring her beau, she is also busy developing her own one-woman show. She has also joined Hollywood’s Theater West, is currently on hold for another play, has her own "That’s Us" production company and a principal role lined up for next year in a film version of Euripides’s "The Bacch’."

Geraldine Hughes is one of those special people who is truly deserving of her success. Cursed with being born an old soul in political unrest, she has never lost sight of her goal, using her wisdom, intuition and courage to guide her to where she is today. We all often wish that we could know then what we know now. Well, the young Geraldine did know then what she knows now. But there was a price — the pain of never knowing real childhood. Now it’s her turn to be a kid, enjoying the sunny side of life, and may she relish every deserving moment of it.

So there you have my happy Hollywood ending, my Christmas gift to you all, sent with best wishes for joy, peace and prosperity.

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