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Unravelling the long-running family dramas of Mamma Mia

From earth motherhood to superstar spouses, Mia Farrow always made headlines. In the wake of her recently cancelled speaking engagement in Dublin, Donal Lynch looks back on her life

The photo, posted to Twitter on St Patrick's Day, shows a young girl in a white dress, her belongings slung under her shoulder, a little boy in a flat cap by her side. The girl in the picture was screen legend Maureen O'Sullivan and, her daughter Mia Farrow wrote, it was taken the day Maureen left Ireland for America. O'Sullivan would of course go on to carve out a legendary career in Hollywood but when Mia grew up she often made the journey the other way across the ocean to Ireland. Her speaking engagement this weekend at the Bord Gais theatre was cancelled due to "unforeseen circumstances" but Mia has a long rich history with Ireland.

It was here she fled after the story of her daughter Soon-Yi's relationship with Woody Allen broke and it was here she waited out the worst of the press scrum which followed the allegations that Allen had sexually molested another daughter, Dylan.

Mia's Wicklow cottage was sold in 2001, but she maintained strong links with the country. She regards Dublin as "something of a safe haven from a sensation-seeking media", The Times reported. As the child of screen legend Maureen O'Sullivan, Mia is also an Irish citizen - when Trump was elected last September she consoled herself on Twitter with the thought that she still had an Irish passport.

And it makes sense that we would want to see Mia, an actress after all, in her most compelling role of all: playing herself. For a while there have been dribs and drabs of forgettable parts over the last decade (four of them contain the word 'granny' in the title), there is patently no script that could compare to the one Farrow has lived. How the hell would you explain the gargantuan significance of this delicate, wispy old dear to a very young person? "Imagine", you might begin, "someone with more talent than Emma Stone, a more colourful love life than Taylor Swift, the connections of an American president, more activism than Angelina Jolie and era-defining hair to rival Jennifer Aniston".

You might add that this individual was involved in the most shocking celebrity court case this side of OJ Simpson and has endured more tragedy than all the Kennedys combined: what mother could face losing three of her children to early death and losing a partner to a daughter? And as you behold the blank stares and belatedly remember that young people don't care about words as much as they do images, you might simply show them a picture from 1968: Mia, hollow-eyed and waifish aboard Frank Sinatra's yacht, exuding pop culture coolness.

There was so much to her then. She was already a childlike 19, a waif, several decades Sinatra's junior.

She and Sinatra had met on the set of a movie he was shooting and she was in the midst of Peyton Place - a long running series which first made her famous - but that same year - 1968 - she had also starred in Secret Ceremony. In it Mia plays a young woman who's having it off with her stepfather; (fictively foreshadowing the Woody Allen drama). Her legs always seem akimbo in the movie and her look - the Peter Pan collars, the baby-doll dresses, the pale skin - mirrored her real life style. She was like an androgynous Lolita. Little wonder, perhaps, that after Farrow and Sinatra were married his ex-partner Ava Gardner reportedly commented: "I always knew Frank would end up with a boy."

We knew she was as Irish as you could get in America - the eldest of O'Sullivan's seven children - but she seemed far too luminous and elfin to have a single potato in the lineage. She was always drawn to magnetic older men. Before she even met Sinatra she'd been friends with Salvador Dali. Philip Roth, another future boyfriend, would speculate that alpha males were drawn to her "utter lack of ostentatiousness".

Her first big role after she met Sinatra was in the artful horror classic Rosemary's Baby, where she was directed by Roman Polanski (yet more foreshadowing of the Woody Allen drama). Sinatra demanded that she pull out of the film, because he wanted her to be in another (rubbish) film that he was starring in. She refused and he had divorce papers served on her, causing her to collapse, Polanski later said.

At the time this was considered a very dramatic reaction but there was more to it than staying in the role of waif: she recently said that Sinatra was the love of her life and added that the pair "never really split up".

From a career perspective not doing Sinatra's film was a wise move, however. Rosemary's Baby won her the kind of stardom that put her on the cover of TIME magazine with Dustin Hoffman a year later. In a pattern to be repeated, Farrow found herself once again the partner of an older icon. This time it was composer Andre Previn. This was also the moment when Mia began her transformation from 1960s star into 1970s earth mother. The couple had three biological children as well as undertaking what would the first of what would be many adoptions for Mia, initially taking in two Vietnamese toddlers, Lark in 1973 and Summer ('Daisy') in 1974. The Vietnam War brought home to Farrow the "senselessness" of having another baby when there were already so many needy children waiting to be adopted, she once explained.

Four years later, in 1978, they adopted a seven-year-old Korean girl, Soon-Yi, who had been abandoned by her mother, who was a prostitute. To some these adoptions represented a new chance for underprivileged children but others were sceptical. Also in 1978, Christina Crawford, adopted daughter of screen legend Joan Crawford, brought out a book alleging long-term physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her adoptive mother.

Nobody remotely put 'Mamma Mia' (as she was thenceforth endlessly called) in the category of Mommie Dearest but it underlined to some people that celebrity adoptions were often as much about the star's ego as they were about the child's welfare. Another of Mia's adopted children, Thaddeus, would later say, "It was scary to be brought to a world of people whose language I did not understand, with different skin colours. The fact that everyone loved me was a new experience, overwhelming at first".

The very next year, 1979, Previn and Mia divorced and she moved to New York City and adopted another little boy, Moses, a Korean with cerebral palsy. Once again Mia was the picture of maternal bliss.

All four of these first adopted children (she would go on to adopt 10 in all) were troublesome in their own ways, however. Lark and Daisy were arrested for shoplifting lingerie and taking the clothes to their home in Connecticut.

Lark would wage a battle with drug addiction and in 1991, with the hysteria about the illness at fever pitch in the US, she contracted HIV, and would later die of HIV-related complications. Lark's then-husband claimed she had contracted it from a dirty needle in a tattoo parlour.

Daisy would go on to marry Lark's husband's brother after becoming pregnant by him. Moses would commit the gravest sin of all, however: he sided with Woody Allen in the court case that would tear Mia apart.

How unthinkable it all seemed during the years when Allen and Farrow were one of the most important couples in Hollywood. Her 11-year relationship with the witty auteur, from 1980 to 1991, conducted from homes on either side of Central Park, saw them adopt a little Texan girl called Dylan, who was adopted by Mia in 1985 and Woody in 1991. Satchel was born to Mia after nearly five years of attempting to conceive a child with Woody. His given name was Satchel, but he later changed it to Seamus before finally settling on Ronan. Mia also starred in several of Allen's best films, including as the heroine of The Purple Rose of Cairo and the matriarch in A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy. It was during the filming of Hannah and her Sisters - maybe her best performance of all in the title role - that things began to go seriously wrong.

Nude polaroid photos of Soon-Yi, taken by Allen, were discovered and the family quickly disintegrated, even as he protested that he had taken them because she had shown an interest in modelling. According to Soon-Yi, she had never regarded the film-maker as her father and was 20 before the relationship began in earnest. But despite this, people were appalled.

"What was the scandal?," Allen said. "I fell in love with this girl, married her. We have been married for almost 15 years now."

Yet some never quite believed him and part of that was down to another strand of the story. During the custody battle for the three children which Farrow and Allen parented together (of which Soon-Yi was not one), he was accused of molesting Dylan, their adopted daughter. Dylan has not seen her father since the court cases that followed and has since spoken about the trauma she says was inflicted by Allen.

The allegations, it should be pointed out, were initially made by the child herself to a family physician, who was legally obliged to report them. Allen, his supporters point out, was never convicted of any crime and the allegations, they add, must be set in the context of a custody dispute. But it's difficult to discount the words of the adult Dylan, who has changed her name to Malone.

Three years ago, in The New York Times, she wrote a piece saying, "That (Woody) got away with what he did to me haunted me as I grew up. I was stricken with guilt that I had allowed him to be near other little girls. I was terrified of being touched by men. I developed an eating disorder. I began cutting myself". When he received award nominations, she wrote, she would fall apart.

Despite the undoubted distress, Mia, for her part, did not fall apart. But life did not get easier. She would go on to adopt five more children, including a boy and a girl, Tam and Isiah, in the same week just one month after learning about the affair between Woody and Soon-Yi. Tam had a heart condition and died in March 2000.

Throughout these years Mia sought some solace in her activism and she was supported in this by her only biological child with Allen. Ronan is a Rhodes scholar and shares his mother's lust for Third World activism.

In 2007 under a dual byline Wall Street Journal article, Mia and Ronan singled out Steven Spielberg's role as an artistic adviser of the Beijing Olympic Games, comparing it to Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl's role in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Spielberg eventually resigned.

Ronan, who is open about dating men and women (although he doesn't use the word bisexual) was always thought to be Allen's son, but in 2013 Mia said Sinatra, rather than Allen, might be Ronan's real father. One of Sinatra's biographers has since dismissed the claims, as has Nancy Sinatra.

Mia adopted another child in 1994 and gave him the same middle name (Wilk) as the family court judge who had granted her sole custody of the kids. Last September that (by then) young man, Thaddeus, a polio victim from India who was confined to a wheelchair, took his own life at the wheel of a stationary car in Connecticut. She said the family was "devastated" at his passing.

Now, just six months later, she appears to have plans to go back on the stage, a newly bereaved mother, again, a survivor, still.

She's been described by the writer Philippa Snow as "not thin like a movie star, but thin like a saint", and there is a curious martyr-like quality to her.

Although she adopted two more children, Frankie and Kaeli-Shea, in 1994, her nest is empty now - all 14 are gone. She seems like proof that not even the most open, intellectual, liberal families necessarily have happy endings. And yet there is more to her than tragedy. Like Zelig, one of Allen's better known characters, she also seems to have always been at the centre of everything, an enigmatic witness to everything from the inspiration for a Beatles song (Dear Prudence - which was about her sister) to the wooing of Naomi Campbell by Liberian warlord Charles Taylor (diamonds, naturally).

Whether she returns to speak in Ireland remains to be seen, but one thing is sure: we won't see her like again.

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