Sharon Shannon: ‘Seeing Jimmy fade away in front of my eyes was heart wrenching’
For eight years, Sharon Shannon watched her partner Jimmy Healy suffer and then last year, nearly die from a hereditary liver disease, before a donor transplant saved his life. The woman who has delighted NI audiences tells Barry Egan a story of inspirational love and true courage.
Sharon Shannon plays beautiful music that is loved universally. She has played with the likes of Bono, Willie Nelson, Jackson Browne, and for presidents galore — Clinton at the White House and Obama in Dublin. She is also no stranger to audiences in Northern Ireland, having performed regularly here. But for the past eight years, no music, however beautiful, could hope to block out the profound inner pain Sharon was feeling.
The feted accordionist has endured a private hell: watching her beloved boyfriend Jimmy Healy slowly waste away from a chronic liver disease, Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (PSC). He was sick for eight years but was only diagnosed five years ago, and in the photographs Sharon showed me of Jimmy in his hospital bed in St Vincent’s in Dublin, he was emaciated and looked like he was waiting to die.
“You can see how sick Jimmy was in the photos. It really was frighteningly close to the end. You wouldn’t see as bad as inside a coffin. All the family were called to Dublin to say goodbye. His brother came home from Phoenix, Arizona. His sister came home from Vancouver. The doctors thought he was going to die,” Sharon says.
On June 6, 2017, Jimmy was lucky enough to get a liver transplant operation, after being in hospital for what he describes as “the worst two months of my life”.
He was told for years that he wasn’t sick enough to go on the waiting list because it was so long; he was finally put on the waiting list in March of 2017 but didn’t get put on the priority list, says Sharon, until after he nearly died in April of 2017, which is when the shocking photographs were taken.
Luckier still, in January of this year, Jimmy’s body finally started to accept the donor liver. First he went through seven months of chronic rejection, and was put back on the transplant list for another liver, “but thankfully in mid-January this year, everything started going the right way and five months later (I’m) still going strong”, he says.
He has improved in leaps and bounds ever since. “He really and truly came back from the absolute brink,” says Sharon. In the picture Sharon showed me of her and Jimmy at a ball last month, he looks remarkably healthy. It is a wonderful story of courage and love.
“I am privileged to love him,” she says. “Jimmy is really something else. I am proud of him. He is feeling good for the first time in about seven years.”
Watching Jimmy fade away “from a big strong healthy man” to “what you can see in the photos” was, Sharon says, “absolutely heart wrenching”.
She stresses that the one-and-only reason she is sharing this for the interview is to help to create organ donation awareness. “It’s not in any way about me. My part in this is to try to promote it to help other people that are suffering the same way as Jimmy did. They are suffering because the waiting list is too long. Three of Jimmy’s acquaintances died beside him while he was waiting in hospital. Jimmy also wants to point out that it could happen to any family.” Indeed, Jimmy’s liver disease (PSC) is hereditary; his son, Mark, also had a transplant due to the same illness.
When Jimmy was at his lowest, Sharon “desperately feared the worst”. Through it all, Jimmy somehow managed to maintain “astonishingly huge psychological strength and courage and positivity”. Even when he was physically as weak as he could be, Jimmy had an incredible will to live, she says.
“He had an ability to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel at such a difficult time that was honestly amazing and inspirational,” says Sharon. “Jimmy hates those photos of him at death’s door, but if there is any chance that they can help raise awareness and, save even just one life, that’s the reason he made the decision to make them public.”
Jimmy says the reason he wants to make public this picture is “to let people see the before and after of people waiting on transplant lists, and how important organ donation is. The person who donated and saved my life also saved four others.” (This is because, due to the regenerative powers of the liver, it is possible to transplant only a part of it.) “I’m so happy to be here a year later and want to thank my beautiful partner Sharon for being so patient, helpful and understanding during the last few years. You are an angel and I love you, and all my family. Without their help over the last 18 months, I don’t know how I would have managed,” he says.
“I know how thankful he is,” says Jimmy’s angel Sharon, “and how much he thinks and reflects every day about the poor person who lost their life and donated their organs to save his life. I know how incredibly grateful he is to that person, and to their grieving family. Whoever Jimmy’s kind donor was,” Sharon says, “they will never ever be forgotten.”
Sharon says that she hopes the day will come soon that she and Jimmy will get to meet and sincerely thank the family of his donor. Jimmy, she says, has mulled over and over in his mind how to word a letter, and he has started several times and stopped. “I guess there are no words that can express how he truly feels. Hopefully, I will never know what it feels like to be in his position, but one thing I do know for certain is that not a single day goes by that Jimmy doesn’t think about his donor and the grieving family.
“He feels a mixture of emotions, mostly enormous gratitude, but also an immense sadness and sympathy.”
What kind of man is Jimmy? “Jimmy is a very strong, rock-solid type of a person with a very positive outlook,” Sharon replies with a smile. “He always looks on the bright side of situations. He has a great sense of humour and he is always joking and slagging. Unlike me, he is super organised and very practical. He is a very black-and-white sort of a character, and is rarely indecisive. I greatly admire his easy-going attitude to life. He has zero interest in gossip. People tend to gravitate around him in a room. If he was a dog, he’d probably be the top dog of a pack,” says Sharon, who lives in a house in Salthill in Galway with 10 dogs and 10 cats. Jimmy lives in Galway city.
Sharon Shannon is probably one of the funniest — and the most real and unaffected — women you’ll ever encounter.
She says when she was a child, her mother expressly forbade her and her sisters to use swear words. One day Sharon and her sister Mary locked themselves in the bathroom and named off all the swear words that they could think of while laughing their faces off. When they emerged, their mother, having been listening, was laughing her face off too.
Sharon remembers that the only swear word her late mother used was “arse”. This came in handy years later on the Woman’s Heart tour. Sharon nicknamed it innocently the ‘Women’s Arse’ tour. Nearly everyone on that iconic tour had ‘arse’ tagged onto their names. Mary and Frances Black became Mary and Frances Blackarse, saxophonist Richie Buckley was Richarse. “You can probably figure out what Mary Coughlan’s nickname was! It involved her surname!”
Growing up on a farm, surrounded by all sorts of animals in Co Clare, the world-famous country girl has a naturalness and an innocence that you don’t find in many people. I don’t think there is a cynical bone in her body. One of the other reasons the staunchly vegan Sharon is supposed to be here is to promote her groovy grub area ‘Sharon Shannon’s Garden of Vegan’ at Groove Festival in Killruddery House & Gardens in Wicklow next weekend, but her mind is drawn inextricably back and back.“My mother was a very keen knitter,” Sharon recalls of her late mother Mary, who died four years ago aged 81 of Motor Neurone Disease. “She used to try her hand at knitting, not just woolly jumpers for us, but also woolly trousers and the funniest of all, woolly knickers! Of course, the woolly knickers weren’t one of her most popular ideas.”
Her mother did have the popular idea, however, of reading books to Sharon and her sisters. “I remember us glued to her, listening to the adventures of the Famous Five. We spent most of our time outdoors when we were kids. We often tried to re-enact some of the adventures of kids in the books that my mother read out to us,” Sharon says.
Meeting me in Dublin on her 50th birthday — “my birthdays mean nothing to me” — Sharon’s lyrical memories about her childhood are worthy of a novel. She and her two sisters (younger one Mary and older sister Majella; she also has a brother, Garry) played several dangerous games, among them a forbidden game called ‘mattressing’, which would involve the sisters taking a skinny mattress off one of the beds, dragging it to the top of the stairs, and then, “three of us would sit on it and slide down the dangerously steep stairs where the corridor at the bottom was like a T-Junction. It was a miracle none of us cracked our skulls open. I would have been three or four”.
Sharon remembers that “we had lots of eccentric characters among our neighbours” including a “genius man” named Bernie Daffy, who made his own plane and used to fly it around the neighbourhood around 50 or 60-ft up in the air. It was like a deckchair with wheels and wings. And he would pull a string on it, like a chainsaw, to get the engine going and he would push it down the hill of a field and hop on to it and then miraculously it would lift off. It was hilarious.”
Sharon describes her childhood, lived outside in the wilds of Co Clare, as something bordering on the magical, certainly mischievous. She remembers the day her mother drove up the driveway, and Sharon and Mary had tied all their dolls together to make them appear like two bodies. Sitting unseen on the roof of the shed, the girls flung the ‘bodies’ in front of the car just as their poor mother was driving past. She thought she had killed her own children, until Sharon and Mary appeared in front of the car and ran laughing into the fields.
She roars with laughter.
“My mother’s sister Teresa is a nun in Perth, Australia and she didn’t get to come home to Ireland very often. So we used to send her cassette tapes of us telling her all the news and singing and playing tunes. She sent us back copies of the tapes years later and they’re absolutely hilarious.”
Sharon recalls that the Shannon family made many trips to the beautiful beach town of Lahinch in the summer, on what seemed like the only stretch of good road in the whole of Co Clare.
“It was here that Daddy used to put down the boot and try to get the old Volkswagen Beetle up to 90 miles per hour with the four kids in the back seat roaring and squealing with the excitement of the speed, shouting ‘up to 90, up to 90, Daddy’.
“We used to look forward with great enthusiasm to some sort of a carnival day in Corofin, with bumpers and swinging boats, candy floss and various stalls selling knick-knacks and gadgets.” Looking back on it now, Sharon says, it was probably something similar to “the Father Ted carnival day”.
And a carnival is what Sharon’s house in Galway must feel like, now that her beloved Jimmy is once more fit as the proverbial fiddle.
Sharon’s Garden of Vegan will be at Groove Festival, brought to you by Energia, which returns on July 7-8 at Killruddery House & Gardens, Bray. Headline acts include Fun Lovin’ Criminals, Heather Small and much more. More details and tickets at groovefestival.ie