Eight years ago a Belfast radio station announced that Irish language writer Gearoid O Caireallain had passed away. Tonight, however, having fought back from a massive stroke he will perform in his compelling new drama, The Wheelchair Monologues.
The radio presenter in west Belfast announced the death with all the solemnity and sorrow befitting the passing of a man who had helped get the station on air. In the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, the man’s son who had flown halfway round the world to be at his father’s bedside broke down after hearing that he had arrived too late and, nearby, other family members started to plan the funeral.
But to echo the words attributed to Mark Twain, reports of Gearoid O Caireallain’s passing were greatly exaggerated. Yes, relatives had been told that a massive hemorrhagic stroke should have meant that the actor, writer and Irish language activist was a goner but Gearoid wasn’t going anywhere.
As he lay supposedly nearing the end of his life in the intensive care unit of the Royal, he unexpectedly squeezed the hand of a male nurse.
“His name was Darren. I’ll never forget him,” says Gearoid’s wife Brid O Gallchoir.
Gearoid hadn’t exactly come back from the dead but it was as good as.
The funeral plans were scrapped, Raidio Failte broadcast their happiest ever correction, an obituary for The Stage magazine was ripped up and doctors got back on the case, realising they’d given up on their patient too soon.
Sitting in a Belfast cafe this week looking into the eyes of this “dead” man, listening to him talk and watching him devour a salad with unabashed gusto would have convinced anyone they were in the presence of someone who is the living breathing embodiment of a miracle.
Gearoid may be paralysed down his left side and he’s in a wheelchair but he’s clearly enjoying his second chance at life.
In July 2006, Gearoid suffered a stroke in the theatre space of Culturlann McAdam O Fiaich, an Irish language centre which he’d pioneered on the Falls Road — a building which was once a Presbyterian church. He’d been about to get into his car to drive his mother and aunt home when, on a whim, he decided to buy coffees for his colleagues upstairs.
“I took a phone call and I realised I was speaking funny. I put the phone down and I hit the deck but I was lucky because I was in a room with people who were able to call an ambulance quickly.
“And as we are very close to the Royal, I was there very fast. I dread to think what would have happened if I had taken the stroke when I was driving up the road.”
Gearoid spent the first six weeks of his six-month stint in hospital in the intensive care unit. “I was anointed four times,” he says.
Brid says the bleed on Gearoid’s brain was huge. “Normally a stroke with a blockage in an artery will clear but the intracranial pressure on Gearoid was growing and the time came when doctors said they weren’t going to do any more medical intervention.
“They called us all together in the hospital at two o’clock in the morning and said the intracranial pressure was 60 and there was no possibility of any brain activity. They said they were going to let him slip away.”
Later that day a queue built up of more than 40 people waiting to say goodbye to Gearoid. An Antrim GAA shirt was laid across his chest and relatives even talked about who would speak at the Requiem Mass.
One of his three sons, Ainle, who had just flown home from Australia was totally distraught after being told that his father was already dead.
Several hours later Brid went into the unit to see her husband. “I wanted to grab a moment but Darren the nurse said that he had been doing routine tests and that he’d asked Gearoid to squeeze his hand which he did and to raise his hand which he did.”
No-one could believe it. And Brid is still amazed.
“Even the doctors said they’d never seen anything like it. I did a bit of research into intracranial pressure and realised that Gearoid simply shouldn’t have survived.” says Brid. “But the brain is still a bit of a mystery and the power of a person’s will can be immense.”
Several weeks after doctors had told the family that Gearoid was dying and after more surgery had been carried out on him, he developed MRSA and his loved ones again feared the worst. Brid says doctors told her they were now supporting his heart, lung and kidneys.
“It was terribly, terribly serious but he was fortunate in that he had his own personal dialysis machine in the room for three or four days. Without that daily dialysis he would have died.
“The care he received was second to none. These hospital infections are unfortunately here now but I wouldn’t have anything but good to say about the NHS and the after-care and physiotherapy.”
Gearoid’s recovery was slow but steady. He was devastated to learn that he would be wheelchair-bound and his short-term memory was initially affected.
Brid says: “They gave him physio to help him with standing and stepping for seven years which is pretty phenomenal. It has come to an end now but he’s still brought in regularly just to check him out and to see that he is maintaining everything that he needs to maintain.”
His story is, by any standards, a remarkable one. And this week, eight years on from the stroke, the former president of the Gaelic League will return to the very same stage in the Culturlann to take part in a one-man show he’s written called The Wheelchair Monologues, which is as much a testimony to the human spirit as it is a sometimes funny and sometimes painful travelogue of his remarkable journey from the cusp of death back to the vibrancy of life. The uniquely uplifting one-hour Irish language play is being directed by Brid who became Gearoid’s wife in July 2007, a year to the day after he fell ill.
For her, the theatrical experience has been a delicate balance of professional concern for the production and personal concern about the well-being of her husband. “I’ve never been so nervous. I wondered if I was throwing Gearoid to the wolves but he is a brilliant actor as well as a great writer.”
Gearoid, who presents a weekly radio programme on the music of his hero Elvis Presley, says he probably wouldn’t have undertaken the project without Brid’s encouragement. “I knew it would be a cheap show with just one man in the cast but I wondered who want to come to see a play about me. However, Brid persuaded me to share my experiences.”
Brid says: “Not many performers like Gearoid get to go on a stage and say to an audience that doctors told his family he was dead. And eventually I convinced him to go ahead with the play.”
Gearoid says the fact that Brid was his wife was invaluable. “She not only knew my story but she could also tell me if something I had written wasn’t any good and that it had to go.”
Brid says aspects of her husband’s illness are so complex that they had to be edited out of the narrative. “You would lose an audience and confuse them so they’re not in there.”
The end product she believes is as inspirational and it is dramatic. “Some people had warned us that Gearoid’s life would be severely limited, but the message of the play is that you can be in a wheelchair and still have a great life,” she says. “It’s not a picnic but whose life is a picnic?”
At which Gearoid interjects with a flash of humour. “It’s not a walk in the park either,” he says, adding that his 18-year-old Aisling Ghear company will set aside their normal policy of producing plays only in the Irish language to spread the word about his story.
“I want to do an English language version for some of the support groups,” he says.
Brid, who’d been involved with an Irish language theatre company in Dublin, met Gearoid in 1998 after she came to Belfast to direct a play he was appearing in and she
became Aisling Ghear’s artistic director several years later.
Gearoid’s brush with death has, he believes, made him a different man. “Yes, it has changed me. When you have been close to death you see the world in a different way — more positive. And I certainly appreciate it more.”
Brid has also seen herself as well as her husband take a new perspective on life. “You get a much better sense of what is important and what isn’t. And you learn to prioritise. I know that Gearoid does that very well.
“A close friend of his spoke to me recently about the differences in Gearoid. He said he was sort of Gearoid-lite now which I thought was brilliant. I knew exactly what he meant. And I also think you become kinder and gentler with other people as well as with yourself.”
Brid says she saw how difficult it was for Gearoid to come to terms with having to rebuild his life. She says: “There was the knowledge that a lot of it was gone.”
Gearoid says: “It was almost like bereavement — that someone very close to you like a friend or a family member had died. The me that existed previously and the image that I had of myself to come was dead and gone.
“I always liked to think about scoring a last point to win a Gaelic match and though I knew it was never going to happen, it was always a nice dream to have.
“But now if I can sit up straight or take three steps, that for me is the equivalent of running the marathon — and I have already run a marathon before the stroke so I know what I am talking about.
“That’s my aim — to take a few steps and I also went into a shop a while back and bought myself a walking stick.”
Gearoid is clearly grateful that he didn’t lose his power of speech. “They can’t shut me up,” he laughs. “And I can still write.”
To help him with that, he’s stated going to computer classes to learn to type with one hand. He says: “It’s going well. I’ve got a new smaller compact keyboard which I can span with one hand.”
Gearoid is looking forward to getting back on stage for the first time in 10 years. He says that learning his lines has been more difficult than writing them.
He and Brid won’t give anything away about how the play ends.
“That will be a surprise,” says Brid, who’s hoping that the Wheelchair Monologues will tour other venues as well as the support groups.
Says Gearoid: “People often wonder if their play will have legs. I think this one will have wheels.”
The Wheelchair Monologues, An Culturlann, Belfast, tonight and tomorrow, 8pm
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