Ireland’s only award-winning Pulitzer photo journalist, Cathal McNaughton has a whole new focus with a special – and personal — project that is shining a light on Northern Ireland’s 43,000 strong social care workforce. He shares his own story with Maureen Coleman and tells how one special social care worker is making a difference to his family
When Cathal McNaughton’s mother Eileen forgot the date of his birthday, he was bemused at the slip up and affectionately teased her about it.
The Cushendall man, Pulitzer Prize winner and former Belfast Telegraph photographer was living and working in Delhi at the time and recalls his mum sending him a Christmas present; a book which charted events that had occurred on his birthday each year.
It was a thoughtful, personal gift, except that his mum had got his birth date wrong. Cathal put it down to absent mindedness and age. It was only when she received an official diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease some time later, that Cathal realised her earlier forgetfulness had been a sign.
“When the book was posted out to me for Christmas and I saw that mum had got the date of my birthday wrong, I did think it was funny at the time,” Cathal says.
“On reflection though, it was an indicator of Alzheimer’s. We know now why she got the date wrong. To be honest, I think it was going on for a long time before she got the diagnosis.
“There’s always that hope that it’s going to turn out to be something else but I think we all knew. We had our suspicions and those moments of absent mindedness started occurring more frequently.
“With any diagnosis there is that element of shock, of course, but I wasn’t really surprised when it was confirmed.”
Around the same time Cathal learned of his mum’s news, he and his colleagues at Reuters picked up a Pulitzer for their work in capturing the mass exodus of the Rohingya people to Bangladesh. The migration from Myanmar was gruelling and desperate and the Reuters team were recognised “for shocking photographs that exposed the world to the violence Rohingya refugees faced in fleeing Myanmar.”
Keen to share the good news with his parents, Cathal called home and spoke to his father, Cathal senior. He knew he could rely on his dad to impart the information to his mum in such a way she would understand. His mum was delighted for him.
The stress of Eileen’s illness had taken its toll on Cathal senior though and he suffered a number of mini strokes. Eileen’s condition was deteriorating and Cathal’s two sisters, Elaine and Shauna, who live near their parent’s home in Cushendall, were both helping to look after them.
A family friend, Patricia Quinn, a registered social care worker for the Northern Trust, also got involved in Eileen’s care, working as a ‘personal assistant’ under the Department of Health’s Direct Payment plan.
What happened next helped change the course of Cathal’s career and ultimately saw him return to the Glens of Antrim, where he had grown up and developed a passion for photography as a young boy.
Having collected his prestigious Pulitzer award in New York, the 43-year-old set off for India, via Toronto. But he was denied re-entry to the country and in rather dramatic fashion, sent straight back to Canada, never getting beyond passport control.
The Indian government later said he was not welcome back because he was in breach of the terms of his visa by visiting Kashmir.
Cathal says this is nonsense and that he was banned from re-entry because he had been highlighting the situation in the disputed Kashmir region.
Cathal was forced to leave his old life in Delhi behind. When Reuters offered to redeploy him to Manila, Cathal declined. He knew what he had to do. The time had come to return to the Glens.
“With dad having had the mini strokes due to stress, that made a hard decision easier,” he says.
“Regardless of my career or personal life, I knew where I needed to be.
“It was time to start looking after my parents like they had been there for me.”
Cathal moved into a cottage in Glenariff, a few miles from his parents’ home. He can see their house from his own, through binoculars.
He shares his home with a rescue dog, Murphy, and along with his sisters and Patricia, devotes much of his time to caring for Eileen and Cathal senior.
Being back in the Glens means he can also see more of his son Dara, who lives in Belfast with his mum, Cathal’s ex-wife.
Each morning he pops round to make his parents their breakfast. He does their grocery shopping; calls in to see them for a coffee and chat.
His mum has good days and sometimes, not so good but though she still recognises and remembers the people around her, Cathal is all too aware of the progressive nature of the disease.
It’s toughest on his dad, he points out, who finds it difficult to see the woman he loves living with Alzheimers.
In a reversal of roles, he looks after her now; having been cared for by his wife when he had cancer some years ago.
Cathal doesn’t just see his caring role as a duty but almost something of an honour and a treasured opportunity to spend quality time with the woman who brought him into the world.
“Sometimes when I go over, I’m able to give dad a bit of respite and time to decompress a little,” he says. “But you know, I don’t feel so much that I have to do this. It’s given me the chance to spend time with my mum and we have a lot of good times.
“I’ve gained the last few Christmases with her since coming home. We’ve made special memories I wouldn’t be able to get again. Basically, I enjoy as much time with her as possible while she’s still aware of who I am.
“I don’t see myself as a carer. She’s my mother and I’m her son. There’s no special title for that. I’m doing for her what any son should do.”
Cathal is full of praise for Patricia, who, by a stroke of good fortune, is not just a social care worker but one of Eileen’s closest friends.
For as long as Cathal can remember, their two families have been connected. Eileen and Patricia used to go on holidays together, enjoy nights out, have barbecues in the good weather.
It’s important to the McNaughtons that this woman who spends an afternoon once or twice a week with their mum, is someone they can trust and who makes her feel comfortable.
Through the Direct Payment Plan, Patricia works on a private basis, beyond her Northern Trust job.
It’s like a companion role and works well; the two ladies go out for walks together, have lunch and a catch up, talk about the old times.
Patricia also has the necessary skills and training in working with people with complex conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease/dementia.
“Patricia makes such a difference to mum’s life,” Cathal says.
“We really noticed a difference during lockdown, when Patricia couldn’t come round,” Cathal says.
“Now both have had their vaccines and we can see that stimulation again with mum.
“It’s not just that though. They have fun together. Patricia adds some joy to mum’s life. She really is the nicest person and we are so lucky to have her.
“Seeing her with mum has made me realise what an important vocation it is; to care for someone.”
Being a photo journalist is a vocation as well and Cathal was eager to work with community groups and charities to ‘give something back’.
He was happy to get involved with the Department of Health’s new campaign to shine a spotlight on the 43,000 strong social care workforce throughout Northern Ireland.
As a result, he’s not only sharing his own story and highlighting the contribution Patricia makes to his mum’s life, but he has also been capturing, on camera, the experiences of other social carer workers across Northern Ireland. And he admits it’s been cathartic.
“Doing this project has really opened my eyes to the work of these incredibly selfless people and if I can help persuade one person to consider social care as a profession, I’ll be pleased,” Cathal says.
“But also, it’s helped me connect with the person I was before everything happened. It’s been the catalyst for me to get my cameras out again.
"In a way, it’s been like therapy. It’s eased me back slowly into my own vocation.
“I never stopped being a photographer. I just stopped taking photographs for a while.”
Cathal has no regrets about taking the decision to leave Reuters, who he says were very good to him, so he could move back home.
It’s a much quieter, gentler way of life but it’s also given him breathing space to reflect on what really matters most to him.
“Regardless of winning the Pulitzer or getting kicked out of India, or anything else, I would’ve come home,” he maintains.
“I have no doubt about that at all. I was brought up with a strong moral compass and I got that from mum and dad.
“I’m still only 43; I’m in the middle of my career and now that I’ve got started, there are other projects I want to work on and stories that I want to tell.
“But I have Dara too. For a long time I was selfish and focused on myself, but not anymore.
“Nothing matters more to me than family. It’s not about me; it’s about my mum now.
“It’s that simple really. She’s my mum and she needs me.”
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