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Publishers Battle Credibility Crisis Over Book's Veracity

Sunday Independent, 16 September 2006

ALBANY Street lies at the heart of Edinburgh's spectacular Georgian New Town, its neat cobbles and pale white street lamps giving off an eerie silver glow at night.

It has a 240-year history and more than a few stories to tell. Today, many of them are told at No 7, the home of Mainstream Publishing, one of the most successful independent publishers in Scotland since its formation in 1978.

Mainstream is a leading publisher of non-fiction, particularly politics, current affairs, true crime and sport. Its success led last year to it selling a 50pc stake to the global publisher Random House.

But it has, on more than one occasion, been dogged by accusations of plagiarism and of publishing exaggerated 'true-life' stories.

In 1999, Mainstream was forced to drop one of its top authors, James Mackay, and pay stg£20,000 (€29,700) to pulp his biography of John Paul Jones, the Scots-born US Navy founder, which was heavily plundered from already published material.

Two years later, it paid Tom Carew a reported stg£100,000 (€148,000) for his book 'Jihad!', a 'personal' account of life as an SAS officer training the mujahideen in Afghanistan.

Carew's real name was Philip Anthony Sessarego. He did go to Afghanistan but it was certainly not as a member of the SAS. He was exposed by BBC News after Mainstream had published the book and organised global publicity tour.

His own daughter, Claire Sessarego, said: "Basically, if I'm going to be blunt about it, I think he is a twat.

Now Mainstream has found itself battling a deepening crisis about the credibility of its biggest ever commercial success: 'Kathy's Story' by Dublin-born Kathy O'Beirne.

The book has, in publishing parlance, gone global. It has already sold 350,000 copies around the world, making it the most successful ever work of non-fiction by an Irish author.

'Kathy's Story' is certainly a harrowing tale. But it has also caused more controversy and anguish than any of the grim tales laid out as fact in its pages.

The 45-year-old (her family says she is at least five years older) claims to have spent nearly 14 years in Magdalene laundries where she says she was sexually abused, beaten and repeatedly raped.

O'Beirne also claims to have given birth to a child - who later died in the care of an unidentified religious order - after being raped by a man who visited the laundry where she was living. All of it is untrue, say opponents of the book, which now include members of her own family.

Her story is the classic example of what Mainstream describe as 'Mis-Lit' - quite literally, it means miserable literature - and it seems the world cannot get enough of it.

'Kathy's Story' sold its entire first trade paperback run of 150,000 copies. An estimated 200,000 of the second run has almost sold out. A third run might follow.

Industry sources in Edinburgh and Dublin believe Mainstream has recouped a conservative estimate of stg€1.5m (€2.22m) on what sources say was an approximate €20,000 advance to O'Beirne, who still lives in a Clondalkin council house.

It is unclear what her cut of the royalties are, but her living standards suggest she has yet to receive any meaningful portion of the enormous wealth generated by her story.

'Kathy's Story', a memoir by an Irish 'Maggie' who still can't read or write, was manna from Heaven for Mainstream's founder and managing director Bill Campbell.

A close personal friend of UK Chancellor Gordon Brown, he said last week he heard of O'Beirne's story at a meeting with her agent in London and instantly sensed he had a hit on his hands.

After the deal was clinched, a ghost-writer, Michael Sheridan, was engaged to help the illiterate O'Beirne write some sample chapters.

A global best-seller was born.

Mainstream has been dogged by claims they have published exaggerated 'true-life' stories.

All four religious orders that ran the now defunct Magdalene laundries deny O'Beirne was ever a resident. Significantly, O'Beirne does not name any of the laundries in the book in which she was allegedly incarcerated, citing 'legal reasons' for the glaring omissions.

But last year, O'Beirne revealed more than she intended. During an emotional interview with Vincent Browne on RTE, O'Beirne repeated claims of physical and sexual abuse, referring to the Magdalene laundries at High Park and Sean McDermott Street, Dublin - both operated by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity.

The order, which was not consulted in advance of the interview, was incensed to be implicated in such horrendous and illegal acts.

The Sisters employed a forensic archivist and historian to review its files. It revealed that O'Beirne had spent a short period of time at St Anne's, a children's home operated by the order.

But crucially, it emerged, O'Beirne had never - according to the Sisters' files and those of the three remaining orders - spent a single day in a Magdalene laundry.

The order wrote to Justice Minister Michael McDowell asking for the allegations in the book to be investigated.

The minister asked Noel Conroy, the Garda commissioner, to investigate. That inquiry is still under way. In addition, the nuns - who filed a complaint with the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland (BCI) about the RTE interview - has asked a Dublin law firm to investigate the possibility of launching civil proceedings. The order hasn't ruled out suing the authors and the publisher.

As sales of 'Kathy's Story' continue to rise, so too does a public backlash against O'Beirne. Chief among those who disputed the claims were women who had spent time in the laundries, O'Beirne's friends and even members of her family.

O'Beirne's eight siblings turned a blind eye to many of the allegations in her book, but broke their silence after their sister claimed that she was violently abused by their dead father Oliver.

In 'Kathy's Story', O'Beirne claimed that she was beaten by her father and sexually molested by local boys who raped her on the eve of her first communion.

The claims about Oliver O'Beirne was the final straw for her brothers who took their campaign to clear their father's name to the media.

Within weeks, they were working alongside Florence Horsman Hogan, the founder of 'Let Our Voices Emerge' (Love), a support group set up to dispute claims of physical and sexual abuse committed by Ireland's religious orders.

Last week, the claims and counter-claims threatened to boil over when callers to RTE's 'Liveline' accused O'Beirne of claiming their experiences and passing them off as her own.

"I think she put part of my life into her book," claimed 'Ann', one of a legion of callers who called Joe Duffy.

The claims have appalled O'Beirne's family. "It is never-ending," said John O'Beirne, Kathy's brother. "I honestly don't know why she has been saying these things.

"I have no problem with Kathy earning a lot of money, but she hammered our father for no good reason. She cannot be allowed to discredit our family without just cause."

For now, Mainstream is backing the author of its golden goose. A second book by O'Beirne is being planned and the firm has revealed that early discussions have already taken place.

Mr Campbell said he himself flew to Dublin to meet O'Beirne before publication and was "totally sure" of what he described as "her incredible story".

In his first public comments since the controversy broke, he hinted at "sinister" Church agendas that were at play - a malicious campaign designed to hide or cloud the truth.

He told the Irish Independent: "We did everything we could to investigate the claims and even communicated certain passages to the religious orders concerned.

"We have strictures and checks that came into play. Our reaction is one of extreme surprise that one and a half years after its publication, this is the first we have heard of a problem and the allegations being made.

"We would question the agendas of those involved given that we even delayed publication to give the Archdiocese of Dublin an opportunity to respond, which they did, with no major changes."

As for O'Beirne herself, she broke a week-long silence and phoned the Irish Independent on Friday to say: "I am above board, I have all my documentation.

"I don't care what people say about me. My comeback (to all the bad publicity) is that I have my proof, it's all above board. I dared to come out and tell the truth.

"My book has helped hundreds of people, I get letters from all over the world. I have helped people on the brink of suicide.

"Are we all liars?" she asked, referring to those who claim to have been abused, before bursting into tears.