Former RTE journalist, diagnosed with MND, inspired by messages ahead of charity climb
Former RTE journalist Charlie Bird, who has been diagnosed with the incurable Motor Neurone Disease, has asked me to thank the huge number of people north of the border who have pledged to climb a mountain for him.
Their backing is part of a massive outpouring of support for the broadcaster after he went public with his recent MND diagnosis and his plans to climb Croagh Patrick in Mayo for charity.
Speaking last week to Charlie was an emotional — yet inspirational — experience as he sent out a message of hope and encouragement to other people with a terminal illness.
Charlie, who’s also dedicated his climb to victims of the Covid-19 pandemic, has been inundated with letters and cards from members of the public ever since his two appearances on The Late Late Show on RTE to talk about his condition.
Charlie, whose well-known voice has been impaired by his MND, told me that the support had lifted his spirits, adding: “I’m holding my head up. We all have to fight. But it’s very difficult.”
He said he didn’t know exactly how many people would join him on Croagh Patrick on April 2 but he added that he was urging everyone who couldn’t be there to climb any other mountain in Ireland instead.
He went on: “In recent times a lot of people from the north have told me that they will be climbing mountains there too. I am blown away by all the support I am receiving at home and at the website climbwithcharlie.ie.”
A number of prominent figures including ex-president Mary McAleese and country star Daniel O’Donnell have already expressed their solidarity with Charlie and many of them plan to do the exhausting climb with him.
Charlie, whose path crossed mine regularly on the Troubles beat, said he’d been told that most people who were diagnosed with MND were informed that the average life expectancy was 1,000 days, between two and three years.
After our chat I emailed Charlie copies of newspaper reports about another courageous man, the former Antrim GAA captain Anto Finnegan, who was diagnosed with MND in 2012. In an interview with me in 2014 Anto said: “I face it with a steely resolve. There’s no cure and the only medically-accepted drug that is available is called an ‘end of life’ drug. It’s a progressive condition and I am hoping it’s going to be a very slow progression. But you just don’t know.”
Anto also spoke about setting up an organisation called the deterMND Trust to increase awareness of the disease and to raise funds for research. A year later I was proud to host the Aisling Awards in Belfast when Anto received the Person of the Year award.
At the time I wrote I’d never seen anything at previous ceremonies to compare with the standing ovation accorded to Anto who dedicated his award to his family and to the people who had raised £130,000 for his Trust. Anto died in 2021 nine years after his first diagnosis.
Anto knew nothing about MND until his diagnosis but not so Charlie Bird who said that one of his best friends in RTE, the sports broadcaster Colm Murray, died in 2013 after a three-year battle with MND.
“And then last October I was told I had the very same thing,” said Charlie who added that he wasn’t as afraid now as he was when he was first diagnosed.
Charlie and I were both in New York in the aftermath of 9/11 and six years later I was more fortunate than him when we covered the Love Ulster parade by loyalists in Dublin. Charlie received a fractured cheekbone, bruising and soft tissue damage after republicans attacked him just a short distance away from where I was.