How facing his mortality set Christy Dignam free
Raped as a child, the Aslan singer later turned to heroin. He tells Barry Egan about his life, his cancer and the return of his band
WHEN Christy Dignam tried heroin, it was the first time since he was six that he felt normal.
This is because when he was six, Christy was brutally raped.
"You know, something like that, so traumatic, leaves a gaping hole in you," the Aslan singer told the Sunday Independent.
"And when I took heroin first, that hole closed. I just felt human. I just felt like everyone else feels when they wake up in the morning. Maybe it wasn't a true feeling, but it was true to me."
When Christy stopped taking heroin, the hole soon re-appeared.
"It was a struggle. [But] it kind of got easier every day," he says, haltingly, his voice full of emotion.
"Then I forgave the bloke who did it to me. That was a huge part of the process. It was like I was walking around with him on my shoulders all my life. And then he just lifted off my shoulders, in that little moment, when I said I forgave him. And I did forgive him, because I meant it."
Christy's memories of himself before he was six – before that horrible thing happened – are that he was a happy-go-lucky kid.
"I remember we used to go down to this river in Finglas. I can remember running through the high grass. I can remember when I was three, four, five, when life was simple. And then at six I started getting these dark feelings and I didn't know what it was. It was like you were flying down a hill on a bike and everything was great – and then the next thing the brakes started coming on. I was only six. I didn't know what was going on."
He says his parents didn't notice that their son disconnected emotionally and psychologically at the age of six.
"My father is 85 now. My mother is dead. Their generation doesn't really talk about this kind of thing. It is not something he has ever discussed with me. I don't really know how he feels about it."
There was other sexual abuse by another man when he was 11, which Christy says he doesn't think about, "because the real damage was done when I was six. The rest was just a follow-on. It was almost to be expected".
What wasn't expected was being diagnosed with cancer last year. Having cancer, he says, taught him that "his family is the most important thing on Earth".
He describes his wife Kathryn as his saviour through all of the trouble in his life.
"She has gone through the addiction and everything with me. And then this," he says.
"I felt really guilty with the cancer. I felt more guilty with the cancer than being a drug addict, because it was just another thing she had to deal with because of me. But there was nothing I could really do about it.
"When I got cancer, that's when I decided to look at all the things in my past in an honest way. When you get to a situation like cancer, there is no bullshit any more. Cancer is the real McCoy. Nothing is more real than it. So I could be honest with myself for the first time in my life," he says. "I used to be honest on a head level but not down in my heart.
"This might sound strange but it [cancer] is the best thing that has ever happened to me, because I have always wanted to be honest with myself, but I could never really do that because of the way I was as an emotional being. I was left with the real me."
He admits that he lives constantly with the fear that his cancer could return – this time to kill him.
"It is at the back of my mind all the time. I have to live with it," he says. He adds that he never asked the doctors how long he has to live. "I wouldn't want to know anyway. It is a 'how long is a piece of string' question. The disease is different with everybody. I am now where everything is great, but it could come back next week. And you don't how long it would take to kill you. So I don't know. And then I could walk out the door today and be hit by a bus."
Confronted with his mortality, Christy says he started to seriously "look back through my life. There was a lot of sexual abuse when I was a kid and stuff like that. I started to come to terms with that, and the drug addiction. You start to look at everything to see what was important in your life and what wasn't".
When asked what was going through his mind when he was undergoing chemotherapy, Christy says without flinching: "I thought I was going to die. Like, it is a fatal illness. It can kill you. I was shitting myself, to be honest with you."
He is also honest enough to admit that during the chemo sessions he felt so depressed that he considered, mercifully briefly, suicide. He adds that the determination to walk his daughter Kiera up the aisle at her wedding helped block out those destructive thoughts.
"That is the only thing that stopped me," he says of her wedding at the Church of Our Lady Help of Christians on Dublin's Navan Road last June.
"I have two grandkids as well. It was the thought of them. I wouldn't do it on them, you know? But it was so tough that I just felt: 'What is the point in this, the fighting?' I was tired fighting. It is a really dark place.
"It was a year ago this week I was diagnosed. So over the last year all those little things – like my daughter's wedding – you had to grab on to give you some sort of focus. So you'd think: 'I want to walk for the wedding,'" he says, meaning as opposed to being pushed in a wheelchair.
"And now there's this gig in the Olympia."
The taxi driver en route to the Gresham on Friday for the Aslan press conference – to announce their big summer show at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin on May 31 – probably summed up how most music fans felt: "Jaysus, I thought Christy Dignam was dying and he'd never sing again . . ." In truth, Christy in his darkest hours often felt the same. Sitting in a private suite of the famous Dublin hotel, he is all smiles about his band's first concert since his illness.
"I can't wait for it," he says. "You know, this band have been a great support to me. I can't imagine what my life would be like without them. It is part of the fabric of what I am.
"But the plan is to get a single out, do the Olympia Theatre on May 31 and then hopefully a studio album. There is no big plan."
Only God's big plan, perhaps. And he seems to have smiled on the Finglas superstar this time around.