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How his battles with alcoholism and Parkinson's helped inspire NI artist Ricky Darling

Ricky Darling, from Belfast, tells Ivan Little how painting helped him cope with challenging times and is also benefiting those living with leprosy in Africa

Recovering alcoholic Ricky Darling's response to his Parkinson's Disease diagnosis surprised the doctor who broke the news to him eight years ago.

He said thank you.

"I was over the moon. I'd feared it would be even worse. I thought it might be brain cancer," says Ricky, who made a decision that changed his life just a few weeks later. "I made up my mind to paint again."

Which was a momentous turnaround for a man who had walked out of art college in Belfast over 35 years earlier.

And now the born-again artist, who just happens to be a born-again Christian as well, is on the crest of a creative wave.

Ricky (62) has brought out a book of his paintings, entitled People in Places, on the back of an exhibition of his work in the Engine Room gallery in Belfast.

And part of the proceeds from the sale of his publication and from his paintings is going to help people with leprosy in a tiny village in Africa which Ricky has visited to build houses.

But what makes his artistic renaissance even more remarkable is the fact that Ricky has had to battle alcoholism along the way.

So, where do you start to tell the story of Ricky Darling?

Well, Guelph in Ontario is as good a place as any. For that's where Ricky was born before his family returned to Belfast where tragedy was lurking.

His mother died when he just three years old and he was brought up by his father and grandmother in the east of the city.

The youthful Ricky went to Ashfield Secondary School where football was the name of his game.

"It had to be," says Ricky. "When you're called Darling the one thing you can be sure about is that you're going to get a hard time. So I played football and that way people left me alone."

Sammy McIlroy, who would go on to find fame playing for Manchester United and Northern Ireland, was in the year above him.

But Ricky was showing potential too. He was on the books of Ards and Distillery at different times, but he never made the first teams.

His attitude was all wrong he admits, adding: " I wanted to be my own man. I turned up to join one Distillery squad wearing a royal blue crushed-velvet jacket; a green kaftan, patched jeans, Moses sandals and a red ribbon tying my hair back. It didn't go down well.

"One player shouted, 'Dear God will you look at the state of that!'"

Ricky says there was talk of interest in his footballing skills from Old Trafford but he ended up in the junior game which he enjoyed.

Ricky's unconventional attitude to life also surfaced at art college. He says: "I was fiercely independent. I wanted my way and nobody else's way. So I dropped out. That was me and art finished until the Parkinson's arrived."

In the intervening years Ricky had a successful career in the leisure industry, going from the role of a lifeguard who couldn't initially swim to manager of several city council centres in Belfast.

At times during the height of the Troubles the centres had to close during rioting, but Ricky tried to ensure they were 'safe houses' for youngsters who wanted nothing to do with violence.

In 2007, Ricky noticed he was having tremors in his arms but he had no idea what was causing them and he put the shakes down to stress.

But in 2010, Ricky received the Parkinson's diagnosis which eventually forced him into early retirement.

But it also re-awakened his love of art. He says: "I was looking from Jordanstown across Belfast Lough towards Holywood one day. And I thought I could paint that. But my first effort was awful."

However, Ricky persevered and his work improved. He tries to paint every day and he likes working with acrylics.

His favourite subjects are landscapes and his favourite locations are Portaferry and Donaghadee, which evoke strong memories of his childhood.

The book People in Places includes little narratives about his works, many of which have serious messages about poverty, fear, love and sexuality.

One painting shows two people furtively kissing by a harbour wall. Ricky says: "That painting is all about love. And it's sad that the two subjects have had to sneak off into a quiet place - where there's no-one about - to express themselves."

Ricky steers clear of the Troubles, however, and he also tries to bring humour to his art too showing, for example, neighbours gossiping in the street.

The artist, whose 'studio' is his kitchen, has tried to find a style that's all his own.

"The composition of my paintings is distorted and often out of perspective, perhaps how many see the past and the present," he says.

His own life was once losing its focus thanks to his drinking.

"Alcohol had become an all-too-easy habit. I was suffering from depression. And I resolved that I needed to do something," he says.

"I have two fantastic sons and I knew that my drinking was impacting on their lives too. I went to Alcoholics Anonymous.

"I was told that recognising that I had a problem was the most crucial thing. And I went into rehab."

Somewhat bizarrely Ricky celebrated his decision to go there with a drink.

"And that was the last one I ever had - at 7.30pm on November 11, 2007. I poured the rest down the sink," says Ricky, who found more than an escape from his alcoholism in rehab in Antrim - he also found the Lord.

"I was reading a Gideon's Bible and suddenly it all made sense to me. And I've never looked back. I'm an active member of a church near my home in Jordanstown."

Ricky says his faith has helped him cope with his Parkinson's, adding: "I've never had any doubt that I was in safe hands.

"I know that I walk with Jesus. Sometimes if I wake up feeling a bit agitated in the middle of the night I console myself with the knowledge that I have someone to talk to."

But the Parkinson's has had a profound affect on Ricky's day-to-day life.

"The fatigue can be scary," he says. "Sometimes all I want to do is lie down on the ground and go to sleep. I fall asleep if I watch TV or read a book, but painting keeps me more mentally alert though I have been known to nod off into the canvas.

"However, the disease itself doesn't present too many physical challenges to my painting. I'm very controlled with a brush in my hand.

"Co-ordination generally though can be difficult. There are times when it can take me 25 minutes to get my socks on. It's actually hilarious and I sometimes fall off the bed.

"Clothes fight with me but I just get on with it. I know there are things I can do and other things I can't do like cooking with hot pans. But my sons are a great help."

Ricky has come to the aid of other people in recent years. He's been to Africa five times with the Ulster charity Tanzania Christian Farm Development to build tin-roofed houses in a village in the Hombola region for people suffering from leprosy.

Ricky isn't blase about his battle with the bottle. "If I ever think I want a drink I stand still and contemplate the devastation that it would have on my life."

And he doesn't know how the Parkinson's will progress in the short, medium or long-term.

"It could get worse than Muhammad Ali, but it might not. Whatever comes I'm not frightened," says Ricky, who adds that he doesn't get frustrated by the disease too often.

"It's part of my life now and I accept it, though there are some mornings that it's hard to get out of my bed and I wonder sometimes what it's all about.

"But overall I have to say - and this might sound silly - in some ways it feels like the Parkinson's Disease has given me a gift and a creativity as well as taking me in a different direction in my life."

Ray has told artistic friends to tell him if the standard of his painting drops as the Parkinson's worsens.

"I'll knock it on the head if that happens," says Ricky, who insists that he isn't sorry about anything in his life. "Not even the Parkinson's."

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