“BASICALLY we were locked in for a number of years,” Richie McGuire says when explaining what it can be like coming to terms with life possessing an acquired brain injury. “It was self-locking in really – you didn’t know what to do. It was like all normality was gone.”
Thankfully, some sense of normality was restored for Richie and 58-year-old Alan Flynn having linked up with Acquired Brain Injury Ireland’s Men’s Group. In truth, however, this underplays the difference it has made in their life, it has allowed them to broaden their horizons and try things they never would have imagined doing. One night a suggestion was made to form a drama group and five years later with the help of artist Philip Cullen, Garter Lane Arts Centre and Waterford and Wexford Education and Training Board (WWETB), Red Lead Productions have created a number of short films, documentaries and even a one-man play, with their first film The Empty Chair landing them an AONTAS Award.
“We’re never going to make money or get jobs out of this, we all realise that,” Alan says honestly, “but if we can perform things and touch people, wow.”
While Alan spent his first eight years in St John’s Park, the pair both spent their formative years in Lisduggan, with the McGuire home on Maple Terrace backing onto the Flynn’s house at Cherry Terrace, although the latter later made the short journey to Larchville.
Both men state their upbringing was “rough and tough” and Richie can still remember the centrepieces of the community being built, namely the shopping centre and the Church at St Paul’s, with nothing but the countryside beyond them.
Alan, who his friend says is the man to talk to for childhood stories, says: “At Christmas we would probably get a ball and a hurley and the hurley was everything – it was a rifle, you would go out with it all the time. It would be in bits by March and then we all became soccer players.”
Like many reared in the city, many of their days were spent venturing out the countryside, occasionally returning home at night with turnips or carrots nicked from fruitful fields.
“We used to go over the Red Iron Bridge which was still being used by trains. There was a thing called Shakey Island at the start of it which was boggy and if you stood in certain spots you’d sink. Then you’d try to jump to another position and sink again.
We’d go out to Knockhouse and that’s where Slippery Rock was. It was just rock covered in furze bush but it was very slippery for about 20 feet. We’d carry a bit of cardboard out and spend hours sliding down it.”
“We used to get little jobs from farmers like baling hay. Where FÁS is now on the industrial estate there was a guy who kept show jumping horses and he lived up in Marion Park – he had the stables at the side of the house. He used to rent out the field and bale hay off of it. Myself, my brother and another guy gave him a hand stacking them – I was only about 10 – but you’d get a spin on the horse after that and it’d feel like you’re up in an aeroplane.”
Richie was the eldest of six kids and tragically he had to take on the mantle of the man in the house at just 18 following the sad passing of his Dad. Alongside his eldest sister, the pair’s priority was to help support their mother which meant much of his attention went towards his job at Waterford Carpets, although as the years progressed he made time for socialising.
“I would hang around with a group of fellas from Lisduggan and we got up to some fine devilment. What discos were going at the time? Breen’s at the Bridge Hotel was the main one. You had the Ard Ri. The lads I hung around with all played with the one soccer club so if there was a game Saturday there would be no drinking the Friday but we’d hit the town as soon as the match was over and be out for the night. During the week we might go down to the Showboat because of the snooker tables down there.”
In the 1980’s he was also a part of local band After Thoughts who played around the city for a couple of years, although if he was to look back on videos of himself at the time it would be impossible to convince the 56-year-old that it was him strutting around on the stage.
“We weren’t the best when we were starting off and then started playing our own stuff. I don’t know how to describe it – it would’ve been like The Cure maybe. I used to get carried away on the stage. Once I’d get going I’d forget the rest of them are even on the stage! I had a long lead on the guitar and I’d be walking out dancing into the crowd. If I saw myself I’d say ‘that’s not me, I wouldn’t do that’!”
Alan, who worked as a Glazer with Kearney’s on the Quay and was later involved behind the scenes at Spraoi, had to deal with his life changing drastically following events on one night back in 2003.
“Across the street from here (the Vintage Tea Rooms) there was a girl being attacked one night by a group while I was passing. I intervened and she got away thank God but I didn’t fare too well. They broke my arm and kicked the daylights out of me. I didn’t realise I had a brain injury after it. I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and I was in a bad place for a few years.”
Fortunately, he eventually linked up with the group and he admits they have acted as a crutch whenever he endures difficult times, with support always available.
Richie explains: “Every time we meet up we have a talk about anything that’s troubling us and how our life is outside of the drama. If somebody is having a problem all drama will be put aside for that day and we’ll talk through the problem even if the pressure is on (to complete a project). ‘Is there any way we can help?’ If there isn’t any problems we will get straight to the drama.”
They try to hit all sorts of topics, from alcoholism to homophobia, in their productions and importantly, all of the six members are involved in creating a script and story which is later filmed and edited. As well as allowing them to go through the different stages of their brain injuries together, it also allows them to enjoy life together as well, despite its difficulties.
“The drama has been 10 times more beneficial than the medication,” Richie adds. “The medication has downsides – you feel drugged up or go around half stupid. The drama is like another drug because it gives us that high and we’re happier for it.”
In conversation with Ronan Morrissey
First published in the Waterford News & Star’s Well! magazine on March 12, 2019