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Date to see you again Surprise meeting for lovelorn local man

Galway man who discovered skeletons at mother and baby site as a boy gets to reunite with his 'first love' in new series

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Franny Hopkins

Franny Hopkins

Yasmin meets Franny in Dubai, where she now lives

Yasmin meets Franny in Dubai, where she now lives

The burial site at the former mother and baby home in Tuam

The burial site at the former mother and baby home in Tuam

Ray Ryan

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Franny Hopkins

FORTY five years ago when he was a boy Franny Hopkins and a pal unearthed the horror of the Tuam mother and baby home when they pulled up a manhole to discover dozens of skeletons.

When they told their parents, the local authorities literally covered up their find by bulldozing the site, where it lay undisturbed for decades until dogged local historian Catherine Corless unearthed it and brought it to the attention of the public.

However, Franny will be seen on a Virgin Media programme tomorrow night for a completely different reason - tracking down the young lady who stole his heart over 30 years ago.

The 56-year-old Co Galway man has had his share of knocks in life and is lucky to be alive today.

When he was a teenager in 1980 Franny joined the Army and spent seven years as a soldier, based in Galway and going to the Lebanon three times.

He left Tuam in 1987 and headed to England, where he worked on building sites in Manchester. While there, he used to frequent Our Lady's Irish centre and it was there that half Pakistani, half Irish lass Yasmin Hussein caught his eye.

"My aunt Kathleen was a neighbour of Yasmin's and a friend of Yasmin's mum," recalls Franny. "Yasmin was a head turner in every aspect, in her looks, her personality, in the way she had her hair, her mannerisms. I would have liked to have been friends with benefits, but I didn't want to cross the line."

They enjoyed games of snooker and back then Yasmin was eight years younger than Franny. She had started a course in photojournalism and went off to college, while their paths drifted further when Franny moved to Newbury.

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Yasmin meets Franny in Dubai, where she now lives

Yasmin meets Franny in Dubai, where she now lives

Yasmin meets Franny in Dubai, where she now lives

He later spent time in America before moving back to Tuam where he drank heavily. His alcohol abuse caused heart problems.

"I developed a thing about 21 years ago called cardiomyopathy in my heart and I was actually on the heart transplant list," Franny tells the Sunday World.

"I was going up and down to the hospital every couple of weeks. One day someone said to me 'jeez, you've gone very grey' and I said 'I'm grey for a good while'. They said 'no, you've gone grey in your skin'. I said 'I don't feel great, like'."

After being checked out he was given the devastating news he had stomach cancer and had perhaps just six months to live. He was told he would have only a five per cent chance of surviving an operation, but insisted on going ahead with it.

"I told them if I died on the operating table, at least give me a fighting chance," he recollects. "I got through it and although I'm not out of the woods I survived it. My heart also got stronger and I didn't need a transplant after all."

Although Franny has been in several relationships, he never married nor had children. He always hankered after Yasmin and when he saw details online of the Virgin Media show First Love he decided to get in touch.

He was ironically in Manchester visiting his brother there when he got a call from Virgin Media.

"They asked 'do you know Yasmin Hussein, we've tracked her down.' I thought they were joking," chuckles Franny.

It turned out Yasmin was based in Dubai, where she is a successful photojournalist and also the managing director of a make-up company.

Franny then decided to fly to Dubai to see if Yasmin bore the same torch for him as he does for her.

"I told the researchers she probably won't recognise me because of my illness and the passage of time," he admits. "I've changed an awful lot, from being a fit healthy young man to basically a frail old man.

"There are very few people who don't change over a 30 year period in a natural process without going through the illnesses that I've gone through. Not alone did my mental concept of things change, but my physical appearance dramatically changed."

Initially, Yasmin was confused by the man who stood before her.

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The burial site at the former mother and baby home in Tuam

The burial site at the former mother and baby home in Tuam

Ray Ryan

The burial site at the former mother and baby home in Tuam

"Who are you? Franny, I don't remember you Franny at all, no, but very nice to meet you," she tells him.

But later when Franny shows her pictures of himself in Manchester all those years ago she puts two and two together and recalls hanging out with him.

After dinner they re-enact old times by going for a game of snooker. When Franny was heading home to Ireland they promised to keep in touch.

"I wouldn't put her down as like my first love," reflects Franny. "But she was one that I often thought of 'why didn't I?' The fact is I never made a move on her, or actually went out with her or whatever. It was a case of 'would I or should I?' It was curiosity more than anything else that kind of put me in for that."

Franny keeps himself busy in Tuam by taking part in a local course. While he may come to national attention on TV this week by flying to Dubai to track down his 'first love', he's already famous in his home town for his Tuam babies discovery.

Back in 1975 himself and his pal Barry Sweeney were playing in a derelict site owned by local nuns when they pulled open a manhole and saw dozens of little skeletons.

"I remember going home and I told my parents," he explains. "The next thing my dad, Lord have mercy on him, came home and said 'if I catch you down there again, I will give you a 'shoeload', the priest is down there saying a prayer'.

"Of course we went down the next day and the whole lot had been bulldozed and cleared and levelled, because it was all overgrown and briars when we discovered what we did. It was left at that.

"The Guards were brought in and there was houses being built, they cleared it and levelled it."

Years later through a chance conversation in a Tuam pub, Catherine Corless got to hear of their discovery and Franny and Barry travelled to Dublin to give evidence into a commission on the scandal.

"For years since we discovered it it played on our minds but Barry moved to Australia and I lived in England and America, so we never got to talk about it," adds Franny. "The next thing then the story broke five or six years ago and it all came back.

"Why is it still taking so long for something to be done about it? It took 40 years for it to get the attention it should have got when we discovered it back in the 1970s."

  • First Love is on Virgin Media One tomorrow at 10pm.