Belfast Telegraph

Paralysed ex-joyrider Barry McGuigan devotes life to warning teens of car crime dangers

I was young and foolish. I can't change my life but it's not too late for other young men to change theirs

By Stephanie Bell

As a young joyrider addicted to the thrill of fast driving, Lurgan man Barry McGuigan paid a heavy price when he got behind the wheel of his car while out of his head on a cocktail of Buckfast and beer.

Flying along the Armagh Road to Portadown with his girlfriend and a mate in the car, Barry lost control and crashed into a bus stop at high speed.

He was just 22 years old, and life as he knew it ended that night when he sustained a catastrophic brain injury.

Fortunately, the other two passengers in the car were not seriously injured.

Barry, however, was left paralysed, unable to walk, talk, feed himself or even use the toilet without help.

Needing round-the-clock nursing care, he spent his twenties living in an old people's home as there was no other specialist care facility available to meet his needs.

Today, 10 years on and only now learning to talk again, Barry has found a new purpose in his life by sharing his powerful testimony with young people in the hope of helping to curb the carnage on our roads.

He is a regular at PSNI Road Safety Shows and also tours local schools and colleges, sharing his story to young people who are learning to drive or have just got their licences.

He has been honoured for his work with a number of awards from the Justice Minister, and Craigavon and Banbridge councils.

His devoted dad Paddy (59) - who worried constantly about Barry and often reported him to the police in the hope that he would be forced to stop his reckless lifestyle - is his biggest supporter and one of his primary carers.

The father-of-six had to face the tragedy of his son's accident alone as he had sadly lost his wife Aileen suddenly at the age of 48 to a heart attack.

Barry was serving one of many sentences in Hydebank Young Offenders Centre when his mother died.

His accident left his whole family devastated, but today Paddy says he could not be prouder of his son as he uses the tragedy to try and make a difference to the lives of others.

Barry now lives in Cheshire Mews in Lurgan, which is supported living accommodation designed for people with physical and sensory disabilities.

He has his own flat with kitchen facilities, a living room and an en suite bedroom and has carers on hand 24 hours a day.

Complex service manager Anita Scullion has also been a big supporter of Barry's crusade to warn about the dangers of joyriding and speed.

Barry is known to staff and residents in the centre as "the joker", and his sense of humour is inspirational given what he has come through and what he has lost. He had hoped to be a mechanic and like most young people, believed that he would marry and have a family.

The so-called friends who took part in joyriding with him around the streets of Lurgan and Craigavon all deserted him when his accident happened.

Looking back on how he lived his life, Barry holds nothing back and makes no excuses.

Both he and his dad leave nothing out in the hope that it will send a message to others who, like Barry, believe the worst will not happen to them.

"I was young and foolish - I loved the buzz," says Barry. "I didn't think about breaking the law, I just loved speed. My friends would have told me I was mad, but I just thought it was good craic. My friends would usually steal the cars and I would drive them. I don't know how many we stole. We went for rear-wheel drives so that we could do doughnuts.

"I was stealing cars since I was 16, before I had learned to drive. We would get chased by the police, but that made it more exciting."

Barry's parents were aware of the lifestyle their son was leading and, feeling helpless to stop him, they reported him to the authorities in the hope that facing the consequences would help their son see sense.

His father Paddy says: "He didn't know or think about the dangers. We took him to court and rang the police and even refused him bail. He was in and out of Hydebank as a teenager, but nothing would stop him."

Paddy will never forget when he got a phone call from police around 2am to say his son had been in an accident and that he should go to Craigavon Hospital.

As paramedics worked with Barry at the scene, Paddy arrived at the hospital before the ambulance and saw his unconscious son being taken into A&E.

The weeks that followed were shattering for all the family as they maintained an anxious vigil at an unresponsive Barry's bedside in intensive care.

Six weeks after his accident, with Barry still in a coma, doctors spoke to Paddy about switching off life support.

He recalls: "It was very traumatic. When I got the phone call from the police, I thought it was a wind-up and someone was messing about.

"It was my worst fear, and it had happened. When I got to the hospital and saw him being taken in, I could see there was no blood and hoped he wasn't too bad, but then he was rushed from Craigavon Area Hospital to ICU in the Royal.

"When we arrived at the Royal we were told it wasn't looking good and he wasn't expected to survive the next 24 hours."

Barry remained in a coma on life support. The days stretched into weeks without a response.

Eventually, doctors broke the distressing news that tests had shown little if any improvement and that the family should consider switching off life support.

"All of my family and friends just kept hoping and praying, but after a few weeks they did a brain test and told me there was no hope," says Paddy. "They said that there was no way back and that if he did come out of the coma he would be like a cabbage.

"They advised me to turn the life support off, and on that same day somebody in the family thought they saw Barry's eyes flicker slightly. After that they started to work on him and slowly he came round."

Barry sustained severe brain trauma, and while he regained consciousness it was clear that he would never be able to live independently again.

He spent six weeks in the Royal Victoria Hospital and then nine months in Forster Green Hospital before being transferred to an old people's home, which was devastating for his family.

"He was only in his twenties and he was put in a home for people who are at the end of their lives," says Paddy. "It was heartbreaking. We were told there was nowhere else for him.

"He was the youngest boy in a care home in the whole of the southern region. Three years ago he got this place in Cheshire Mews, which has just been amazing for him."

Today, thanks to Paddy and the carers, Barry (32) enjoys a good quality of life.

His dad takes him out most days and has patiently worked with him over the years to try and develop his speech.

Barry has some movement in his left hand and when at home spends his time playing computer games or watching his favourite quiz shows on TV.

Remarkably, Barry considers himself lucky. "There's always somebody worse," he says.

He now feels compelled to "give something back" for the years he spent breaking the law, and sincerely hopes that if he can save even one life then his efforts will have been worthwhile.

"I wish I had listened to my dad," Barry says. "Hopefully the talks will help stop other people from doing the things I did - drinking and taking drugs and driving and stealing cars.

"My family were devastated. I can't change my life, but hopefully I can change somebody else's."

Paddy says it took him and Barry's two brothers and three sisters a long time to come to terms with what had happened.

It has been completely shattering for all of them to see his young life taken away from him.

"He is not the Barry we had, and it was very hard to come to terms with," Paddy says.

"He was a happy-go-lucky lad and obviously mischievous, but a lovable rogue.

"He thought he had great friends, but after the accident not one of them came near him.

"It is hard to accept something like that happening to your child, but Barry is amazing in the way that he has coped." Anita, the manager in Cheshire Mews, accompanies Barry and Paddy on many of their road safety talks. She too has nothing but admiration for Barry.

"When Barry tells his story I've seen young people in tears," she says.

"He has a powerful message that is really having an impact on his young audiences.

"Barry is not afraid to tell them of his life now and how he needs personal care and how he can't go to the toilet or even make himself a cup of tea.

"He can't do anything for himself, but the feedback to his talks has been really encouraging.

"I know of one young teenager who came home and told her parents that she wasn't even sure if she wanted to learn to drive after hearing what Barry had been through."

Barry's message to young people is simple: "Never ever drink and drive or take drugs and drive. Look at me now. I wish I had listened to my dad."

Paddy adds: "I am very proud of him. He inspires me with his attitude and his gratitude. He has a great will to live and do things and never gives up. He is doing the roadshows because he wants to help others, and he always has a smile on his face."

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