Tuesday, October 9, 2018

No ordinary friend

Brave meningitis survivor Liam Cullinane

A few weeks ago, on a glorious Saturday afternoon, I met an old friend for a cup of coffee outside a café in the centre of town. He might not realise it, but meeting Liam is almost always an uplifting experience.

On this particular day, his positivity was unreal. He was more animated than I had seen him in months.

He had just emerged from an oxygen chamber, where he had been getting daily treatment for a few weeks. As I sat down across from him, he raised his right hand.

“Watch this!” he exclaimed, loudly.

He picked up a cup with his right hand.

The tourists at the next table looked up momentarily, curious as to why this middle-aged man was so animated about picking up a cup outside a Galway city centre café.

He paused.

“I haven’t been able to do that for the past 25 years!”

He was so thrilled, his enthusiasm was infectious. Suddenly, a hundrum afternoon in my home town had been transformed. The significance of the gesture was lost on the people sitting at the nearby table.

I wanted to shout out, to tell them if only they knew what this man had been through. Instead, we just sat there, beaming.

It was the first time he had been able to pick up a cup or a glass with that hand in 25 years. This was not some small little victory. This was a triumph and we were both thrilled.

Six weeks earlier, he had discovered a new oxygen treatment facility in Galway. Both of us are trained professional scuba divers, but it was news to me that privately run hyperbaric chambers are now being used to treat multiple illnesses, infections, and diseases across the world.

I had only really associated them with divers and ‘the bends’, even though I knew the chamber at University Hospital Galway was used for non-diving injuries.

If only the people at the next table could understand. My old buddy had been diagnosed with a deadly form of meningitis way back in 1993. This man had lain in a coma in Scotland for months, he had had to teach himself to walk again, to brush his teeth, and to move around.

At one stage, the only parts of his body that he could move were his eyes. The prognosis was grim. And now, a quarter of a century later, he had picked up a cup with that hand – without shaking – for the first time.

He has been blown away by what the anti-inflammatory oxygen therapy has done for him for the past few months.

“It seems to be working away at reducing the inflammation in my brain and body, and the results so far have been excellent. After the very first treatment I noticed increased flexibility and slept really well that night,” he told me this week.

“I awoke feeling energised the following morning. After six weeks of treatment, the tremor in my right arm reduced to such an extent that I was able to drink a glass of water using my right hand without any spillage for the first time in 25 years!”

A meeting with an old friend for coffee on a Saturday afternoon had become a thrilling moment of jubilation. I was delighted, but not surprised.

Because, like so many people I know, I have been inspired by the battling qualities of Liam Cullinane ever since we met as teenagers in school over three decades ago.

Liam was a tough young adventurer, who left school in Colaiste Iognaid with just one mission on his mind. A star of the victorious school rugby team, he wanted to join the French Foreign Legion.

A lot of Galway teenagers spoke with bravado about their plans to leave our small city behind them in the recession-hit 1980s. Only Liam was as good as his word. As soon as he finished school, he hit for Corsica and enlisted. He ended up staying in the French Foreign Legion for seven years, including three years skydiving with the Parachute Regiment.

If he showed a spirit of adventure in his youth, it was nothing compared to the bravery he has demonstrated to all of his friends and family members over the past 25 years.

When he left the legion, he never wanted to live in Galway. He wanted adventure in sun-kissed lands far from the wet and windy west and was looking forward to new adventures when he trained to become a commercial diver in Fort William, Scotland.

Only Liam, more than anyone I know, discovered at an early age that life does not always follow the best-laid plans and that nothing should ever be taken for granted.

If, like Liam, you jump out of bed with that attitude every morning, it’s amazing how much your life can be transformed. No matter what the ailment or problem.

In Scotland, he had just finished the diving course when disaster struck. His landlady found him lying in a coma after he should have left his flat. He had made light of what he thought was a headache or a very bad flu.

Aged just 26, he had contracted a rare and deadly form of listerial meningitis which normally only affects the elderly or babies under three months old. He was given very little hope of a long or healthy life and it took months before Liam was well enough to be transferred home to be near his family in Galway.

Sometimes the true value of a person is not in his job, or career, money in the bank, or sporting prowess, but in the example he sets to others.

Ask anyone who knows Liam and they will tell you the same thing. The man simply inspires, because the thing he values above everything else is the kind of thing we all tend to take for granted. A walk in the wind, a cycle along the promenade, a visit to a friend’s house, an independent life . . . all things which seemed impossible for Liam during his long spell in hospital in the 1990s.

I don’t know anyone else who knows and understands the value and importance of the simple things in life. The fun of ‘slagging’ a group of old friends, the social side of enjoying a cup of tea, and especially the importance of good health – which is something many members of our generation rarely put a value on in our younger years.

A quiz for Liam takes place on Thursday night

The determination this man has shown to build an independent life has been nothing short of inspirational.

He managed to get a Council house from Galway City Council because he did not want to be a burden on his family.

He persuaded a friend to build a custom-built tricycle, which gives him the freedom to move around. He’s as well known as the Mayor as he bombs around the streets of Galway.

And, indeed, when he had a problem with a spout of dampness in his house, he had no qualms about calling the current Mayor of Galway, Niall McNelis, to make sure he helped him out!

And, above all else, he has sought out a healthy lifestyle. Whatever treatment possible which could help him strengthen his limbs and boost his independence, Liam has tried it. He has travelled far and wide and often doctors, overwhelmed by his spirit of determination, have befriended Liam and decided to waive their fees.

He has travelled to Australia, to visit his brother. He joined ultra-marathon organiser, and Galway native, Richie Donovan on a trip to the North Pole.

He has travelled to the US, Holland, Dublin, and London for different types of treatments.

He has travelled to Thailand on his own, even though walking can be a challenge.

And he has kept in touch with a huge circle of friends, each and every one of us inspired by his determination to be healthy and to make the most of life.

He has befriended and become something of a model for ACT for Meningitis in Galway, the charity set up by a young mum who lost her little daughter to the deadly infection.

It can be truly uplifting to see how Liam inspires the families of people who have lost youngsters to meningitis, or how he helps the ACT women in raising awareness for families as to how they should look out for the symptoms.

Four years ago, when I had taken voluntary redundancy and picked up the MRSA bug in University College Hospital, I was seriously ill for seven months.

The illness only added to my worries about an uncertain future after leaving a full-time job in the newspaper industry behind. I was filled with fear. 

Any tendency I had towards self-pity would evaporate whenever I arranged to have a coffee with Liam (only he would drink tea, because his super strict diet includes a ban on caffeine!).

He would show me that it’s not what happens to you in life (relationships, jobs, careers, set-backs, whatever) that matters, it’s how you deal with it that counts.

Because nobody else I know has staged such a long and brave battle just to have a full and independent life.

Now he wants our help.

The hyperbaric oxygen therapy which has transformed his life in recent months is costly.

Liam is a daily user of the OxyGeneration clinic in Galway, and he wants to continue the treatment until the end of this year.

The treatment involves breathing almost 100% oxygen in a pressurised room. It is considered a medicine, but is not covered by the public health care system.

A group of his friends have come together to raise funds for Liam’s treatment at Crowe’s pub, Bohermore, Galway, this Thursday, October 11, at 8pm. Entry costs €40 per table of four.
If you cannot make the quiz, you could also support Liam at: https://www.gofundme.com/oxygeneration-liam-cullinane

Because the value Liam Cullinane brings to the people who know him cannot be measured in monetary terms.

He’s still battling, after 25 years, and the money raised from this quiz will help to transform his future.

Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, seeking new opportunities in the digital age. Find him on Facebook at http://facebook.com/ciarantierneymedia

This blog is a finalist in the 2018 Irish Blog of the Year Awards

Monday, October 1, 2018

They travelled to remember the lost children of Tuam

A cermony of healing in Tuam on Saturday

They came from Cork, Donegal, Tipperary, and even Newry, to underline that the story of the ‘Tuam Babies’ is not just a story of Tuam. It’s a story of survivors and families in similar institutions all across the land, and how the Irish State, their communities, and even members of their own families let Irish women and children down.

Two bus-loads arrived from Dublin. As if to remind some of them of how hurt many people still feel by this issue, one man declined to give the women on one bus directions when they lost their way on the edge of town.

For many, it was a first ever visit to a site which is now known all across the globe.

It still seems incongruous to have to go through a narrow gap between local authority houses and walk around a playground to access a site which has become Ireland’s most infamous unmarked burial ground.

Only this was a day for healing, for forging friendships, and showing solidarity with a remarkable group of people, elderly now, who never sought the global spotlight. As they stood around the site, it was amazing to hear them share their stories in ways which must have been unthinkable just a few short years ago.

If the research of Catherine Corless has shone a spotlight on some of the darkest history of 20th century Ireland, it has also given a voice to people who never spoke out before.

Such as the lovely man from Cork, now in his 70s, who told me he had never met a woman because he never felt worthy of love; or the man who worked for years in South Galway and created a loving family, despite the beatings and never being taught to read or write in that infamous institution they dared to call a ‘home’.

But there were good stories too, of good priests who went to a lot of trouble to help some of them track down their birth mothers and family reunions which had seemed impossible to them in the earlier years of their lives.

The beautiful white blanket featuring 796 squares for each of the babies

Three hundred women all across the globe, including many in North America, were inspired by a Dublin artist to make a blanket of 796 hand-knitted pieces which they presented to the families and survivors of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home on Saturday.

In an emotional ceremony at the site where up to 796 babies and children are believed to have been buried in an unmarked grave, Dublin artist Barbara O’Meara unveiled the beautiful white blanket – sewn together in four parts to depict the four provinces of Ireland – to the family members after meeting them for the first time.

The unveiling of the beautiful blanket, knitted by hand following a Facebook campaign, coincided with an inaugural Remembrance Day for the Lost Children of Ireland event at the site of the former home.

Former residents of institutions across Ireland travelled to Tuam for the event, which included poetry from survivors, a concert, and the screening of a documentary about the ‘Tuam Babies’ which is due to be shown in New York and Boston at the end of this month.

The survivors are still trying to reach out to people in North America who may have been adopted illegally from Catholic institutions in Ireland, as they have no idea how many of the children really are buried next to a playground in the Co Galway town.

Survivors and family members at the Tuam site

Tuam Home Survivors Network Chairman Peter Mulryan, whose younger sister is one of the 796 dead babies, said the survivors continue to be overwhelmed by the support they receive from across the globe.

Now 74, Peter only found out he had a younger sister among the ‘Tuam Babies’ four years ago. He has been on a mission to find out what happened to her ever since, and believes she may have been adopted by a family in the United States.

Until an exhumation is carried out at the site, he said he had no way of knowing what happened to her.

“We are the kind of people who would not have been known or heard of, but now we are being extremely well represented all over the world. It’s just mind-boggling, the way the wheel has turned around. We were classed as nobodies, people who were not to be heard,” said Mr Mulryan.

Mr Mulyran expressed anger that An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, had visited the site in a personal capacity after attending a Fine Gael party event in Galway recently, without making any attempt to contact the survivors.

He accused the Irish Government of trying to turn local residents against the survivors in determining the future of the site.

Reading out the names of the 796 'Tuam Babies'

“Our search for justice is awful slow. We don’t understand why a public figure like An Taoiseach would come sneaking down, with nobody to meet him. It hurt us very much. We were so disgusted with An Taoiseach, to hear that he spoke to the residents, to ask them what they would like done here, rather than to ask us, the families and survivors,” he said.

Peter and his wife Kathleen are set to travel to the US in two weeks as a bid to reach out to people who were adopted from institutions in Ireland.

“We are hoping to meet up with people who believe they may have been adopted from Ireland. If anybody wants to contact we are here to help them,” he told me.

Although she has no connection with the Tuam families or the site, artist Barbara O’Meara said she was compelled to set up the ‘Stitched With Love’ project after watching coverage of the ‘Tuam Babies’ case on Irish television.

“I do a lot of work with marginalised groups, people with addiction or people who have been bereaved. I felt a need to do this project. I kind of realised that women wanted to do something to support the Tuam Babies and the survivors,” she said.

“I just set up a Facebook page and then women across the globe began to hear about it. Women from America, Scotland, and Australia began to get in touch. Everybody bought their own wool and I did have some help stitching them together. We got the 796 together and the survivors’ groups were informed. The project has taken two years, just me and a Facebook page!”

She said that women across the globe found a great sense of healing by knitting the 796 white squares and it was a really emotional experience to see the full blanket being unveiled at the site at the weekend.

She organised a Shamanic healing ceremony with Karen Ward, who had worked on her for a project to heal the children of the 1916 Easter Rising. Two bus-loads of women travelled from Dublin for the Tuam event and they were deeply moved by the experience.

“I hadn’t been to the site before and I decided not to come until the blankets came with me. I kept wondering how I would feel if my brother, my sister, or my mother was here. Having the sensibility of an artist, I am not very political or verbal. But I’m a creative person. When I walked onto the site I felt the energy was very heavy. It’s just an honour, really, to meet these survivors and honour these little children,” she said.

With Alison O'Reilly and Anna Corrigan at the site on Saturday

At the ceremony, I was also delighted to meet Anna Corrigan of the Tuam Babies Family Group and author Alison O'Reilly.

Alison and Anna worked together to write 'My Name is Bridget', the story of Anna's mother who had been incarcerated in the Tuam Mother and Baby Home. Anna, who grew up in Dublin, only discovered that she had two older brothers after her mother passed away. Her two brothers are among the 796 missing children and babies.

The book is a harrowing read, but it also really 'humanises' the story of the lost children and also looks at some other case histories from homes across Ireland.

Breeda Murphy of the Tuam Home Survivors Network pointed out that the infant mortality rate at the home was five times that of the population outside; and that 126 of the babies died within the first six months of life.

“Death certificates were not signed by a medical practitioner, but rather a domestic at the home, burials were outside the norm, custom or law. Without coffins.  Without a word, a prayer or a gesture of sympathy in a land that is renowned for its funeral services where communities seek comfort in the untimely death of a young person,” she said.

She pointed out that 35,000 women and girls went through Ireland’s Mother and Baby Home system between 1904 to 1996. This was a national issue, she said, as she pointed out that survivors from institutions all across Ireland had travelled to Tuam for the event.

Peter Mulryan will lead a Walk With Peter event in which 796 cardboard coffins will be carried through the streets of Dublin this Saturday, October 6. The little coffins will be carried from O’Connell Street to the Garden of Remembrance to remind people that the families are still seeking justice for their loved-ones. 

* Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. He is looking for new opportunities in a digital world. Find him on Facebook here

Find Ciaran on Twitter, https://twitter.com/ciarantierney