Belfast Telegraph

Robert Murray (77) overcame losing both legs and multitude of health problems to launch his new business venture

The west Belfast father-of-four survived a stroke, a heart attack, internal bleeding, and his drive remains undiminished

By Laurence White

There are not many people who would consider starting a new business at the age of 77, but then Robert Murray has overcome far more difficulties than merely taking on a new venture.

Given the health problems that he has faced in the last two decades he is thankful to be still alive and able to put his energies into his work.

For the west Belfast man has survived a stroke, internal bleeding, the loss of his two legs and a heart attack, and come through with undiminished ambition and drive.

The father-of-four's first brush with ill-health came when he suffered a stroke but prompt action by a vascular surgeon in the city's Royal Victoria Hospital meant that he suffered no long-term ill-effects. He was disorientated for a few weeks but quickly recovered and went back to work.

But at the age of 63, a freak accident was the beginning of long-term problems for him.

"My brother had put a new engine into a car and called me into the workshop to see what he had done. I was standing in front of the vehicle when he started it, not realising that it was in gear. It lurched forward and pinned me against a forklift truck parked behind me. My leg was crushed and the bone was hanging out of it," Robert recalls.

"I was taken to the Royal Victoria Hospital and during the operation to repair the limb I suffered a heart attack. Obviously the surgeons had to stop work on the leg as doctors dealt with the heart attack. The end result was that I spent several days in the intensive care unit.

"But that was not the end of my problems. A week after leaving ICU, I developed internal bleeding and this quickly developed into a very serious situation as I was on blood-thinning drugs after the leg operation. So it was back to the operating theatre again and another return to ICU. But eventually I was released from hospital and was able to return to work."

Unfortunately his leg never properly healed, necessitating two further operations and then he developed recurring ulcers on the limb.

"The situation worsened last year when blood circulation in the leg worsened and doctors decided that they would have to amputate it above the knee. The operation was carried out on Easter Sunday. I had been working in the family business - we supply industrial gases for businesses - and it is all I know, so I decided that I would go back to work as soon as possible". But he had an even more important duty to perform a few months after his operation - walking his granddaughter Jacinta up the aisle, or more precisely going up the aisle in his wheelchair holding her hand.

"That was a very proud day for me", Robert says. "It was as big a day for me as it was for her. She is now a hospital doctor - a registrar - in Blackpool."

His son Kevin recalls the day well: "I was walking behind my dad mainly to ensure that he didn't run over Jacinta in his wheelchair."

But further heartache was to follow for Robert as circulation began to fail in his other leg and it was amputated below the knee coming up to Christmas last year.

While he admits this was a blow to him - he had always been very independent and was used to driving vans and lorries in his business - his determination again saw him through.

His family bought him an electric wheelchair and he bought a car capable of carrying him in the wheelchair.

He was also determined to regain his independence and three weeks ago was cleared to drive the vehicle which has been specially adapted for use by someone without lower limbs. "It is great to get my independence back and I can now go up to the business every day and keep my eye on things"

This month Robert and two of his three sons - Eamon and Kevin (the third Niall is a computer manager in the Belfast Trust) - started a new business, Gas Tech and Gear Ltd based at Colinglen Road on the outskirts of west Belfast.

The company supplies industrial gases and bottling equipment to companies which make bottle beers or soft drinks.

Kevin admits that his father's experience in the business, which stretches back several decades, has been invaluable.

"There was a time when our business suffered through his absence due to his health problems but he has always been there to stabilise things," he says.

Robert, who was born at Middlepath Street in the shadow of the Belfast shipyard in 1939, was evacuated to Crossgar in Co Down for eight or nine years during the Second World War before the family returned to Belfast.

After leaving school he served his time as a motor mechanic and then worked for Young's mineral water company, then based on the city's Springfield Road. After it closed he joined Kidd & Co, a Shankill Road firm which filled fire extinguishers with gases.

"Although I was a Catholic and the company was Protestant-owned and based on the Shankill, I never had any problems. Of course this was before the outbreak of the Troubles.

"I worked there for several years and then Mr Kidd decided to retire and was about to close it. However, I and my older brother Paul decided to take over the business and Mr Kidd and my younger brother Denis became directors.

"We moved to Hastings Street at the bottom of the Falls Road and called the company Ulster Bottling Services Ltd. We were installing bottling equipment for pubs which wanted to bottle Guinness as well as supplying industrial gases for use in the production of beers and Coca Cola."

However, their business was next door to a large Army base and in 1972 the company was told to close down and find alternative premises when the property was vested by the local authority. It was then decided to move to Colinglen Road.

It also meant a diversification of the business. Robert says: "At that time carbon dioxide was not available in Northern Ireland. We used to have to send our fire extinguishers to Dublin to be filled, so we decided to buy some road tankers and bring the CO2 in from England. We built up a good business supplying all the mills in Northern Ireland and other premises such as power stations with their fire extinguishers. We were also doing business throughout Ireland.

"We also supplied carbon dioxide to companies which used it in the slaughter of chickens and pigs - they were gassed - but about 10 years ago a Norwegian firm came into the market here and we sold them our customer base. So now we have started up another business, doing much as we ever did... long may it continue is all I can say".

But it is not all work and no play for Robert. He is still the social secretary of Fruithill bowling club near his home in west Belfast - "I used to play bowls when I had my legs" he says wryly - and is often to be found in the clubrooms.

He has also been among the objectors to the proposed redevelopment of Casement Park. "One of the walls of the proposed new stadium was to come right up to my home and I remember looking at the plans and saying that if there was an evacuation in an emergency people would be running out right onto the footpath outside my house. If I was trying to get into my car in my wheelchair I could be trampled underfoot. The GAA and the planners have had to have second thoughts so I will wait and see what they come up with".

While the stadium plans have stalled, for Robert it is business as usual and he could not be happier.

Belfast Telegraph