The Marathon

I still remember the effortless sensation I felt when I was running at speed. My legs seemed to bounce off the tarmac and propel me forward towards the finish line. When I was in form I felt an elation, a freedom of effort and a belief that I could be an Olympic champion.

I used to smile to myself when I saw the agony on the faces of other athletes, conscious that I could strike at will and leave them all for dust. I pitied those who plodded and struggled towards the finish of a race. For me, it wasn’t just good enough to run fast, I also had to maintain form and look the part of an athlete. Oh; the arrogance of youth!

It’s all a distant memory now. I sit at my hospital window and gaze enviously at the thousands of runners participating in the Dublin City marathon, I think of the talent I squandered as an athlete and I wish I had the energy to walk to the corner and cheer on my Daughter in Law who is attempting her first marathon.

Its day zero+3 of my Stem Cell transplant. I’ve been blasted once more with Chemotherapy and the Stem Cells harvested some weeks ago have been transfused back into me. Now it’s a waiting game. Every day my blood count will get lower and around day 7 I’ll reach the bottom of the curve.  That downward trajectory will bring sickness, infections, debilitating fatigue and mental challenges. It’s anticipated that I’ll be in hospital for a month, some of which will be restricted for visitors. After that it will be the long slow process of recovery.

The legs that floated over roads and pulled me to the top of mountains feel like jelly. My mind, which has always had clarity of thought, is in a fog. My eyes are blurry and I find it hard to read. The very thought of food makes me sick. The effort to have a shower is the equivalent of running a marathon. The thought of shaving makes me wince.  My instincts are to crawl into bed and curl up under covers but I know that would have a negative effect on me. Everything has to matter. My resolve must remain intact and I’m determined to maintain my standards.

An hour later I struggle from the bathroom. The effort to get ready has left me drained. I sit and watch the continuous stream of runners make their way towards their goal. I need rest but I resist the thought of bed. I open my laptop and start typing. The words come slowly but they help clear my head. Every sentence is a victory and my spirits start to rise. My body might be weak but I feel strong mentally and I won’t allow negative thoughts enter my mind.

I can hear the crowd cheering from my room. The main group of runners are going past and I wonder how Saragh is getting on. I watch this wave of runners and I feel envious. The door to my room opens. Its dinner time and my food has arrived. The smell hits me with a bang and I feel instantly nauseated. I rush for the bathroom and get sick. In the background the cheering seems to get louder. The sweat runs down my forehead and I feel cold and clammy. I lay prone on the bathroom floor and I take deep breaths to control my sickness. Eventually I struggle to my feet and make it to my bed. The cheering continues and the runners struggle on. I look out the window one more time. Many are running, some are plodding and a few are walking. Most will finish because determination and tenacity will drive them on. All marathons are completed one step at a time. Mine will be no different.


A picture is worth more than a thousand words

Photography is a powerful tool. One image can stand in isolation and graphically illustrate the raw emotion and frailty of human life. Many of my photographs portray people enduring hardship at a vulnerable period of their lives. I have always possessed an innate obligation to depict sensitivity in a compassionate and respectful way. Now that I have reached a defining moment in my life, I don’t intend to apply double standards when it comes to depicting my own vulnerability.

My journey in battling cancer has been a roller coaster, with all the uncertainty that goes with such a diagnosis. During this period I have never witnessed fear, self pity or anger; just acceptance.

However I have experienced doubt and I’ve questioned my very contribution to society and reflected on what legacy I will leave behind for my grandchildren. I made this photograph when I was in severe pain and in a reflective mood. My memories came cascading back and many questions quickly followed. This photograph and poem illustrates the emotion and doubt I experienced while going through that self evaluating process. Both expose the vulnerable state I was in at that moment in time but they chronicle a fundamental part of my story.  As I re-evaluate my life and focus on my battle for survival, I must remain true to my core principles and overcome my inclination to suppress such thoughts and feelings. I must drop my protective shroud and reveal my own vulnerability.  Only then can I face my inner demons with honesty and courage and record the true extent of my journey in a meaningful way.




My Life – A Reflection

What mark have I achieved in my transitory life?

By diminishing strength my frailty has been unmasked
My infirmity is etched upon a brow new to pain
Through solitary thoughts, I reflect on my mortality
With the wisdom of a sage.

Have I enriched another’s life or influenced a soul?
What benefits have I rendered to those who sought my help?
What overarching creed has been my navigator through tempest?
My intellect seeks peace, my faith seeks reassurance

What words should I entrust to the children of my son?
What deeds should I discharge before my final chapter’s done?
What memories will unfold when future tales are told?
What attributes will mark my presence on this earth?

What measure should apply when reflecting on the past?
A tranquil heart, an inner calm, serenity of mind
If such is the degree and the magnitude of my virtue
If God is love and love is all there is
Then my life has been fulfilled.


Just Another Journey

“It matters not how straight the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll;
I am the master of my faith; I am the captain of my soul”.   William Ernest Henley

In my youth I was an oarsman, pursued adventure sports and had the potential to become an Olympic athlete. In later life I hiked in the Himalayas, trekked through the Amazon rain forrest and camped with the vanishing tribes in the Omo Valley in Ethiopia. I had never suffered a day’s illness is my sixty-one years on this earth and I never smoked or drank. I was the epitome of good health. Then suddenly; a short time after I returned from a photographic trip to Burma, everything went wrong! 

Twelve months ago, I was diagnosed with a very rare blood cancer called Multiple Myeloma. It manifested itself as a Plasmacytoma, which in layman terms is a tumour on the spine. If it remained undetected I would have been paralysed within a matter of months. Shortly after being diagnosed with cancer, my kidneys failed and a few months later I was only able to walk with the aid of crutches. In the intervening period I had spent months in hospital, been through countless medical tests and had numerous biopsies. I received Chemotheraphy, Radiotheraphy, Kidney Dialysis and in excess of thirty blood transfusions; and this all happened in a very short space of time. This photograph was taken after I finished a second round of very aggressive Chemotheraphy and just as I started an arduous program for a Stem Cell transplant. Further Chemotheraphy was scheduled before that transplant. The next phase of treatment would require a month’s isolation in hospital and many difficult months of illness were envisaged before I recovered from that ordeal. 

To photograph a patient undergoing such treatment is a delicate and challenging task. The photographer is constrained by the environment and restrictions imposed by medical priorities. There is a very fine line between the subtlety of a narrator and the jackboot of an intruder. A photographer is obliged to tread carefully to achieve an equilibrium and significant sensitivity is a prerequisite in such fragile circumstances. It’s difficult to achieve balance and remain emotionally detached when the subject is enduring pain and hardship. The photographer must remain objective and dispassionate in order to render an image that has impact and meaning. The main ingredients of a successful photograph are light, composition and form. It’s difficult for a photographer to be creative when working in a challenging environment and limited by key elements such as light and location. It’s even harder to achieve these fundamental requirements when the patient and the photographer are one of the same person.

Encouraged by my consultant, I decided to produce a photo essay of my journey through the various phases of my treatment for this rare blood cancer. While the project appealed to me initially, I was very reluctant to take photographs during the early stages of my diagnosis.  As a photographer, I wanted to capture images that told a story of resilience and fortitude. I wanted to make pictures that were dramatic and symbolic and which reflected the defiance required to overcome adversity. I wanted to make photographs that depicted a man who faced a solitary journey and revealed both his strength and vulnerability. Initially I thought that I could only achieve this objective if I photographed an independent subject. It took me a while to realise that I had to be my own subject if I was to be unconstrained by the ethos and etiquette of such a situation. It’s difficult to photograph emotion and pain. But it’s very challenging to capture images that have impact and meaning when you are in pain and fighting for your life. This venture has been the most testing project I have ever embarked upon and represents a work in progress. In truth, I don’t know how this is going to end but it’s that uncertainty that challenges my mental strength and creative ability. The only thing I’m certain about is that this self assignment will help define me  as a photographer and as a man and it was that challenge which attracted me to the project in the first case.

Time will tell if I succeed as both.  

Akha Grandmother_

Akha Village

My guide and I pitched our tents high above the village of Hwe Lon as darkness fell.

The light from camp fires identified the location of the numerous small farm holdings nestled in the valley below. Peace and tranquility descended on the mountain community as it drifted into sleep.

Weary after a long day’s climb, I snuggled into my sleeping bag. I gazed at the stars through the flap of my tent as the warm breeze filtered through the opening. The aroma from the mountain blossoms filled the air and the tall trees rustled in the light wind. I thought about the remoteness of my location and wondered what inevitable surprises lay ahead. I suppressed all anxieties and entered a deep sleep.

Early next morning I awoke to the sounds from the Village as it started a new day. The cries from hungry children, the noise from water buffalo sloshing around in rice fields, the rasp of an angry voice, the crackling from camp fires, the familiar sounds and sweet smells as breakfast was prepared. Dogs barked, children played and farmers went to work in their fields. Two Vultures circled high above in search of carrion and the sound of birdsong filled the air. Tall multicoloured grasses blew gently in the wind and the flooded rice fields glistened  in the early morning sun. All was peaceful in this picturesque valley high on the border of Burma and Laos as we broke camp. However, numerous lives had been lost to ethnic violence in this very region the previous month. An ongoing feud between Muslim and Buddhist communities discouraged visitors to the region and we entered the village to gasps of surprise as villagers gathered to catch a rare glimpse of strangers in their valley.

The Village Chief greeted us with trepidation initially. A firm handshake, direct eye contact and a warm smile, from the first Irishman he ever met, changed his demeanour and we were soon invited to his house. My guide spoke his language and we produced gifts of farm seeds and household essentials. A broad beam lit up the Chief’s face at the sight of gifts and I couldn’t help but laugh at his big toothless grin as I presented him with tubes of toothpaste. The irony of the gift wasn’t lost on him either as he bent double with laughter. Soon I was surrounded by curious children and their giggling mothers.

A short time later the door burst open. A woman with a serious leg injury and bleeding profusely, was carried into the house on a makeshift stretcher. She had hacked her leg with a machete while working in the fields and she needed immediate medical attention.The wound was long and deep and she was in a state of shock. The unflappable  chief, who was also the village Medicine Man, examined the injury. He worked methodically using primitive methods. He stopped the haemorrhage, sutured the wound and gave the woman a foul smelling mixture to drink for her pain. He covered the wound with a poultice and dressed the injury with a variety of leaves, strapped in place by a latticework of thin vines. When he was finished he went to a corner and produced a makeshift crutch carved from the branch of a tree and he handed it to the grateful husband along with a concoction of medicines to bring home.  The whole ‘operation’ took little over half an hour and the woman was carried back to her house, in a semi conscious state, to recover. This was emergency medical intervention Akha style and the only option available to mountain tribespeople. 

The villagers are very superstitious by tradition and this was evident wherever I travelled.

Women wear ornate silver headgear to frighten off evil spirits and primitive symbols adorned the entrance to every household to protect their inhabitants. I found one custom particularly barbaric and hard to grasp. Amongst the tribal communities  twin babies are considered to be a bad omen and the action to stop the spread of evil is both cruel and  swift. When they are born, the babies are taken from their family and  placed in a hole in the ground. They are then put to death by covering them with hot ash. The family is immediately shunned from the Village and ordered from the district. The community believe that such action restores balance and that evil spirits are expelled as a consequence. The Government has outlawed such traditions but locals maintain that these practices still exist. In spite of such customs the mountain tribes are a very gentle and hospitable people. I spent the next few days travelling between various tribes and never felt threatened during my stay.

On the day of our departure we set out early for the long trek back to Kengtung.

We anticipated reaching the town before darkness and we traversed steep mountains and narrow dirt trails to speed up our decent. By mid day the heat from the sun was intense and my rucksack of camera equipment weighed heavily on my back. We came to a junction on the path that overlooked a steep ravine. The trail was arduous and unstable and rock fell continuously from the mountain above. It was more of a Goat track than a mountain trail. As we edged our way around the sharp bend I heard a sobbing voice crying out from above. We looked up and saw a woman, wearing sandals, trying to descend the sheer cliff face. Her shoes gave her little purchase on the gravel and she was in danger of falling. My guide called out to her and told her to stop and sit on the ground. After a quick assessment of the situation we decided to climb up to her and help her down to the track. We unhitched our rucksacks and, carrying a rope, climbed to her position.The woman was distraught and there was fear etched in her eyes. We tied the rope around her and gently made our way to the relative safety of the mountain pathway. Once down I figured that the woman would be calm but the reverse occurred. She started screaming and sobbing and was clearly in great distress. Fortunately my guide spoke numerous tribal dialects and he started to settle her.

As she calmed, her story emerged. She explained that her teenage daughter had been abducted by child traffickers some hours earlier and she was trying to make her way to the nearest town to alert the authorities. There were no communications in her village and the only way down was on foot. Her precarious journey would have taken another four hours and she was in danger of sustaining an injury, or worse, on the mountains. I had been in Burma for nearly three weeks at this point and I had never established a mobile phone signal outside of Yangon. But on that day and on the edge of that ravine, I got a strong phone signal and my guide, who was fluent in numerous languages, started making calls. It took some time and a number of phone calls to International operators to establish contact with the regional police divisions in both Burma and Laos. The woman was able to give  a description of both the van and her daughter’s abductors and the police in both countries said that they would co ordinate an immediate response in all major towns and at border crossings. An hour later, when the phone calls finished we were confident that there would be a happy outcome for both the woman and her daughter. The woman was euphoric and couldn’t believe her luck. What were the chances of her meeting somebody who could help her? What were the odds she would meet two strangers, one with language skills and the other with an International Mobile Phone?  What  was the possibility of getting coverage on the side of a mountain, when I had been unsuccessful during my entire stay in Myanmar? We helped the woman back to the nearest village and she was overcome with emotion as we said goodbye to her.

A few days later I got a call from my guide advising me that the girl had been found and was reunited with her family.

My trip through Burma had been an amazing experience and a photographers paradise, but the heart lifting news I had just received capped everything  and I boarded my plane for home with both a sense of elation and relief. Against a backdrop of a parents worst nightmare, a mother and her daughter had been reunited through a combination of good timing and good luck and I was glad  to have played a small part in that happy outcome. I settled into the long journey home with a smile on my face and satisfaction in my heart and I looked forward to returning home to the warmth of family and the excitement of Christmas.  I regularly think of that family in Burma and I shudder to imagine what might have happened to that teenage girl had we not opted to take that precarious path on that faithful day.

Joe Doran Christmas Eve 1980

The Campfire

The cold drizzle fell incessantly and the cars whisked by at speed. Joe Doran and his wife Mary, a quiet and gentle couple, were huddled by a campfire. Their home, a small canvas-covered wagon, was parked by the busy roadside on the outskirts of the city.  Their donkey grazed in a nearby field and a cat purred on Joe’s lap as he spoke softly about his life.

Joe was a Tipperary man and a tin smith by trade. He spent his life on the road and he particularly feared the onset of the winter. They had no worldly possessions, save the donkey, their cat, a few pots and pans and their well-travelled cart. They had two children: a seven-year-old girl Dorothy and a nine-year-old boy named Eamon. Both were in an orphanage run by nuns at The Mount in O Connell St. They hoped to visit their children the following day but it was a long walk, the weather was bad and the road was dangerous. Joe recalled the ‘old days’ when people had time to talk and he had felt welcome wherever he went. Mary was shy and discussed the hardship of life on the road. Her eyes welled up with tears as Joe spoke about their children. She apologetically excused herself and said she would boil some water for a mug of tea.

The symbolism of this poignant scene was lost on passers-by as they scrambled to purchase presents in the last minute holiday rush. There were no stars in the sky that night as darkness fell. The cold wind blew the flames of the campfire and the flickering light cast dark shadows on Joseph and Mary as they squatted by their donkey and cart on a lonely Limerick road that Christmas Eve.


Barrington’s Pier

Along the Shannon runs a path paved with my life’s memories.
If trees could talk they would speak to me as friends,
Of childhood recollections and sunny Sunday walks
Where I ran and played Hide and Seek with my sister,
Where I strolled with my parents burdened by the grief of her loss,
Where I rowed as a schoolboy and watched sunsets on the river.
Where I sprinted, as an athlete, with Olympic dreams-
Where I sat with my father and talked about his grave illness.
Where I walked hand in hand with the girl who would become my wife.
Where I held my baby son as he took his first steps.
Where we spoke of dreams and plans; our future looked so bright.

The years passed and a new life beckoned in a distant town:
Happiness, success, our plans fulfilled with little reason to frown,
I returned and trudged that path again with news that rocked my world.
Time stood still, disease had struck, my wife gone to the Lord.
For a moment the mighty Shannon beckoned that November day-
The impact on my son helped keep those thoughts at bay.
Time moved on, that darkness gone, my mind is yet again clear.
Two little girls brightened up my life with laughter and good cheer.
I want to hold them by the hand and walk that path once more
And speak of fairytales and dreams and stories of before.


The Blind Musician

He squatted on the cold ground that freezing winters day.  He was indifferent to the weather and oblivious to the traffic that passed close by. He was lost in his music, and captivated by the rhythm and melody of the tunes that were his living and his life. The sweet sounds came from his very soul and his two brothers played along in perfect harmony.  He was an uninhibited banjo player and he played as if it was an extension of his body. But those who were knowledgeable claimed that his best instrument was the Fiddle and described him as one of Irelands finest musicians. Occasionally he would introduce some diversity into his performance with a few tunes on the Tin Whistle. He could play classical music if he thought he had a knowledgeable audience but mostly his raw talents were lost on the unresponsive passers by.

His name was Joseph ‘Hanta’ Dunne and his large family depended on the daily contents of his shoebox and the kindness of strangers. He and his brothers were settled travellers and they had inherited both the gift of music and the curse of blindness from their forefathers. They were known as the Blind Dunne brothers and no festival was complete without their presence. They had a deep routed love of the traveller style of Irish music and the melodies just flowed from them. Such talent deserved a national platform and the rewards of countrywide success.

No such luck for these inoffensive performers! Through accidents of birth their stage was limited to the streets of Limerick. No records, no concerts, no recognition, no fans. They were unwelcome in some quarters, persecuted by Gardai for busking and scorned by a spiteful few. But their music and culture prevailed. They were torchbearers and the flame that passed from generation to generation remained unquenched. They have long departed this world but their legacy remains. A new generation of musicians have inherited their talents and a more enlightened and educated society has given silent recognition to Hanta and his brothers for helping to influence the spread of Irish music and keeping their traditions alive.