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INTERVIEW Life after a runaway husband



Mary Monaghan
YOU DO SURVIVE’?Mary Monaghan has turned her experience of being abandoned by her husband into a source of strength and a writing career. Pic: Conor McKeown

Life after a runaway husband

Ciara Galvin

“Remember me?” They were the two words Mary Monaghan uttered to her estranged husband after she made contact with him after he disappeared from her life for six years. He had gone on the three-month backpacking trip to Australia, and hadn’t been heard from since.
Mary, a writer and consultant, lives in Cape Town, South Africa, but visits the home place of her parents, Paddy O’Connell and Kathleen O’Toole, in Ballinrobe, any time she can get, and now visits her aunt, Annie O’Dwyer, on Glebe Street.
Mary’s wealth of life experience was gained through events that many of us would not be able to comprehend.
It was back in South Africa in 1993, that Mary waved goodbye to her husband, John, not realising his departure would mark the start of a  series of life-changing events. Her 2006 book entitled ‘Remember Me’ describes Mary’s journey, from struggling to cope with her husband’s disappearance to the eventual realisation six years later that he was living a new life in Sydney.
Throughout that six-year wait, Mary went through a transition from a woman living in limbo who thought her husband could have been murdered to a woman who took control of her life, sought a divorce and turned devastating circumstances into a positive.
“What I’m doing now I would never have done if I stayed married. At the time, you think you’re falling apart. There were times when it was really tough,” she explained in her distinct South African lilt.
When speaking about coming to terms with the apparent loss of her husband, this strong woman shows no sign of bitterness. Incredibly, she says she ‘will always have a soft spot for John’.
Asked whether she was angry during and after events, Mary explains that she was ‘more disappointed’.
“I was upset and I was hurt more than angry. I got angry eventually, just because I kept thinking ‘You could have told me’. I always think, ‘If you just sent me a postcard, an anonymous postcard, doesn’t matter where from, and I wouldn’t try and find, but just to say ‘sorry I can’t do it I’m not coming back’ then I could have moved on quicker.”
It may seem like a one in a million situation, but since writing the book, Mary said she has been contacted by women all around the world who have had similar experiences.
“Out of the blue people have contacted me, saying they’ve had this story. My story really wasn’t as bad as the stories they’ve told me but I’ve just happened to write mine,” she explained.
It is nice to help people realise they can move on and reinvent their lives, she says.
To this day, Mary has never truly received an explanation for her husband’s disappearance, but an avoidance of financial difficulties at the time has been put down as a factor.
“He just said he couldn’t face coming back … I knew he had some financial difficulties, but didn’t realise quite how bad they were and I think what happened really was just escapism.”
In a further twist, during a visit to Dublin for radio and television interviews on the back of her book’s success, Mary bumped into her ex-husband in 2007. He was back to visit his aunt. She hadn’t seen him since that fateful day he left in 1993. The phonecall had been her only contact with him.
“I decided I’d meet her [John’s aunt] in Ballyshannon and get some books into the shops there, not knowing he [John] was going to be there.
“It was actually quite good in a way, all those years – I had private investigators and what have you – I thought, ‘I’ll find his address and go and make the grand entrance and surprise him’, and yet this happened on the street.”
It was 14 years since they had been face to face, and Mary admits she got ‘quite a fright’. But  writing the book proved a source of strength.
“I was in quite a position of strength, whereas for him, unfortunately people were saying, ‘How could you have done this?’. I almost felt sorry for him because he didn’t seem to be in a good place.”
Still acknowledging the surreal circumstances of what happened, Mary admits it’s like something that would happen in a soap opera.
Now 20 years since her husband first vanished, Mary travels to far-flung places such as Madagascar with work, and is currently working on a novel. She looks ahead, not back. Her two books, ‘Remember Me?’ and ‘Who Do You Belong To?’, documented her search for and then chance meeting with John. She has now very much closed that chapter of her life.
“The great thing it’s taught me is that you do survive. I’m not scared anymore of losing a job or anything else. If you’ve always been in a stable environment and nothing’s gone wrong, it’s panicky and stressful because you think you cannot survive, but when it does go wrong, you become resourceful,” she says, with a defiant look in her eye.
Following her mother’s advice ‘Remember what ever you do, be true to yourself’, Mary is moving forward, stronger than ever.