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How alcoholism led this NI couple to close their village pub and launch a charity which gives hope to people suffering from mental health and addiction issues

Loughinsland's Manus and Ailish Teague run 'Life Change Changes Lives' and she is in the running for a major women's accolade

Ailish Teague with her husband Manus, who run art therapy and counselling classes in Downpatrick
Ailish Teague with her husband Manus, who run art therapy and counselling classes in Downpatrick

By Stephanie Bell

A well-known business couple who were forced to close the pub they ran together because of alcoholism are now transforming the lives of other addicts and people with mental health issues.

Ailish and Manus Teague, from Loughinisland, endured much ridicule when they decided to shut their business 14 years ago. Many local people were angry as it was the only pub in the village of Seaforde at the time.

But Manus (55), who had struggled for years as a functioning alcoholic, had reached rock bottom and decided to go into rehab.

The toll of running a bar business while coping with a drink problem had finally caught up with the trained chef and talented businessman.

His wife Ailish (55), who ran front of house while her husband took care of the kitchen, had no choice but to sell up. The couple, who lived above the pub, lost their home and their livelihood.

Forced to start all over again, they could never have foreseen how their lives were about to change.

A lifelong art lover, Ailish had discovered by accident the healing benefits of art therapy and Manus, who retrained as a counsellor, combined their talents to launch the charity Life Change Changes Lives in 2013.

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Now, six years later, magical things are happening every day in the hub the couple run in Market Street in Downpatrick where people with a whole range of mental health issues and addiction problems are benefiting from art therapy and counselling.

And the great work the couple are achieving is now set to be recognised as Ailish is nominated in the charity section of this year's Mighty Women Awards.

Taking place in Titanic Belfast on November 22, this prestigious annual community event is aimed at recognising and shining a spotlight on empowered women who have made a difference, both personally and within their chosen careers.

Ailish Teague with some of the group at Life Change Changes Lives
Ailish Teague with some of the group at Life Change Changes Lives

This unassuming mum-of-four boys insists however that she is unworthy of the nomination: "You don't do this sort of thing for reward or recognition. If you did then you would be doing it for the wrong reasons.

"I don't think I am anything special. There are a lot of other people doing incredible work. I'm just an ordinary person and every day I wing it."

Ailish, who is a grandmother of two and has four sons Finbharr (30), Connlaodh (27), Oisin (24) and Porag (22), met Manus at school when they were both just 17.

The couple have been married 31 years and have come through a lot, although Ailish insists theirs has been an easy road compared to the many heartbreaking stories she now hears daily from people taking part in her art project.

She recalls how alcoholism overshadowed their family's life for many years: "The pressures in the hospitality industry are horrific. It is frightening just how much alcoholism and mental health problems there are in the industry. You need to have so much stamina and adrenaline just to keep going. With addiction there is a lot of hiding what is happening. I never wanted people to see Manus that way, as it was only a small part of him.

"He was and still is an amazing person.

"You do put on a mask every day. I never left the house without full make-up on and my hair done, no matter what had happened.

"If Manus has fallen down the stairs drunk the night before or wet the bed or fell asleep drunk in the bath, I still got up and got the boys out.

"A lot of people who I encountered at the school gates would have interpreted my appearance as 'who does she think she is all dolled up like that' but I kept going because I had to. My make-up routine to cover my blotched face in the mornings took just three minutes. I had it off to a tee. Manus functioned as an alcoholic for years but when we took over the Seaforde Inn and he had access to alcohol day and night, the wheels fell off."

Ailish Teague
Ailish Teague

It was 14 years ago after four years of running the pub that Manus agreed to go into Downpatrick Hospital for six weeks rehabilitation. He was so grateful for the help he received that when he came out he decided to train as a counsellor.

Continuing to work in the pub was not an option and the couple decided to sell up.

It was a decision which caused anger in the community as it was the only public bar in the village at the time.

Ailish recalls: "We sold it to a developer and there are houses on the site now. There is no way in the early stages of recovery that Manus could have been around alcohol.

"We did take a lot of abuse. One local guy would call us 'pub killers' in the street and there were petitions to try and stop the sale of the bar. Some people never forgave us and still hold resentment about it. It was very tough.

"We changed everything about our lives that led to his addiction, sold our home and our business, and took jobs to make ends meet.

"My husband took a job as a hospital porter so that he could retrain as a counsellor as he wanted to help others in the way he had been helped."

Ailish applied for a job in administration with the PSNI in Newcastle and was soon promoted to the role of Crime Prevention Officer - her first experience of working with vulnerable people.

A natural fit for the role, she carried it out with such professionalism that she was nominated within the force for multiple awards.

Then, one day she slipped on ice and broke her ankle in three places which kept her off her feet.

Her oldest son Finbharr had moved to New York and Ailish decided to bring her paint brushes and visit him while she convalesced.

It was here, purely by chance, that she discovered the healing effects of art and the idea for the couple's charity was born.

John McCullough helping to make a telephone bench
John McCullough helping to make a telephone bench

It's a remarkable story, as Ailish explains: "When I got to New York my son asked me to paint a new coffee table he had bought and I had brought my paints with me. I drew a skull in a dinner jacket on it and started painting it.

"Finbharr came home the first night with four friends who joined me and helped to paint it. The next day more of his friends showed up and these guys just kept turning up every day to paint and talk. We had to go out and buy more paint brushes.

"They then started to bring their own furniture to paint. I just thought 'this is amazing' as I hadn't realised just how powerful a therapy it was. These young people were able to talk about their problems because they were focusing on the art and the focus was not on them.

"A few months later I went back to New York with Manus and they knew Manus was a trained counsellor and they all came back wanting to paint and talk to him.

"One young girl who was a heroin addict talked to Manus and afterwards went into rehab and she has been clean ever since. We don't attribute that to us by any means but I believe we were the catalyst for it.

"I remember thinking 'my God, this works' and as art is something I have always loved doing, our Pop up Art project was conceived.

"Setting up the charity meant I got to do something creative with the art side and Manus was able to counsel."

Ailish continues: "I believe in the ethos, 'build it and they will come' and that is the foundation upon which we built our charity, starting out with a small bit of floor space in a social enterprise hub and with two painted sticks in the window to advertise what we hoped to do.

"Sure enough they attracted our first and still current participant Janet who just liked the painted sticks for their bright colours and how they made her feel.

"Life Change Changes Lives is based on the belief that even the smallest of changes to your lifestyle can make a difference to your life."

The couple established their day project to benefit people exiting inpatient care for mental ill health and/or addiction using art as therapy.

The public donate broken pieces of furniture and the participants work to upcycle them. They are then sold to help fund the charity.

Incredibly, the project which operates five days a week has an annual footfall of nearly 5,000 people every year. Having a prominent position in Market Street in the centre of the town is part of the charity's push to remove the stigma from mental health.

Ailish says: "We paint, counsel, talk and laugh with the 25-30 participants who attend daily from all over Northern Ireland.

"If you had a sore tooth you wouldn't think twice about going into the dentist to get it fixed and we feel it should be the same for mental health and addiction and that's what we do, people can just walk in here.

"We are a bit like a last chance saloon as many people coming through the door will have used up all their chances with friends and family when they come to us. We also want to help reduce landfill and help the environment as well as peoples' wellbeing and health.

"We upcycle furniture and when you take a battered chair and someone who is feeling equally battered by life transforms it into something beautiful, they are also transforming themselves.

"It helps their self-esteem, builds skills and helps with social interaction. We also take people who have offended, we don't care what they have done, if they want to change we will work with them."

The charity is open to everyone and for Ailish and Manus it is a chapter in their lives which just a few years ago they couldn't have imagined.

Ailish adds: "It isn't work when you love what you are doing. I've had it easy compared to the stories we hear.

"It's terribly cathartic. It's like the Greeks going to see tragedies, you realise your life is not as bad as you thought it was although what we came through is something I would not want to do again.

"Like everyone who is fighting an addiction, we just take one day at a time."

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