Mountain High: How Robbie Dowdall became the first blind Irish person to climb Kilimanjaro
When Robbie Dowdall lost his sight, he didn't let it get him down. He tells our reporter how losing his sight has been the catalyst for a most adventurous and rewarding life, one that would leave most of us gasping in awe
Robbie Dowdall's best friend Webster, is tall, dark and very handsome. He is also loyal, intelligent and extremely loving. But there are times when Robbie (44) has to demonstrate just who the alpha male is in this relationship because Webster is, in fact, a dog.
But he's no ordinary mutt. This Labrador/retriever cross, who will be three years old in July, is a well-socialised guide dog. He has been with Robbie for six months, and the two are now inseparable. "He's a great character," says his master, "and he attracts attention wherever we go." Robbie, who grew up in rural Kilbeggan, Co Westmeath, before moving to an urban setting in Tallaght, Dublin, had perfect vision until the age of 18, when one fateful night in September 1989, the car in which he was a passenger skidded into a ditch. The event caused a branch to shatter the windscreen, which in turn, resulted in damage to Robbie's eyes.
He ended up in the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital in Dublin. From the outset, Robbie drew on inner strength. "At 18, you're resilient," he says modestly.
"All the people around me were shocked, but I was cavalier from the start. My main challenge was to cope with it as best I could."
Over the next few months, Robbie had three surgical procedures in the hope of salvaging his eyesight. On December 8, 1989, he had the final operation. "My mother prayed to Our Lady," he recalls. But it would seem those prayers were not answered in any way that seemed obvious at the time. So Robbie had to face the fact that he would never regain his sight. Eventually, he went to the Manor House, a rehabilitation centre in Torquay, England. "I learned basic survival skills there," says Robbie, "including cane training, cooking, computers, woodturning and Braille - the thing I hated most."
Woodturning continues to be a favourite pastime with Robbie, while technology plays an increasingly important role in allowing him to lead a productive and independent life. For example, he uses a software programme called Jaws (job access with speech), which voices whatever he types on his computer's keyboard.
Robbie got increasing independence when he got Libby, his first guide dog. "Sure, I had been using a cane, but I never felt able to venture far. Then I got Libby, and the independence she afforded me was unbelievable," he says.
Shortly after his accident, Robbie went to a physical therapist for a massage. "She immediately picked up that I had ulcers; they'd manifested soon after the accident," he says. "When I asked her how she knew, she said she could read it from my energy field. I was stunned, and from that point on, I became interested in conventional and complementary therapies." Two years later, Robbie enrolled at the Royal National College for the Blind, in Hereford, England, where he did courses in remedial therapy, reflexology, aromatherapy and Indian head massage.
When he was in his mid-20s, Robbie set up his own practice. He then did some training with John Sharkey, of the Dublin Therapeutic Massage Clinic, and learned about sports massage. "I was the only blind person there," says Robbie. "So during class I became the guinea pig on the table, and that's how I learned." He then trained as a yoga teacher, and he feels the bodywork and breathwork really helped him. "It allowed me to let go of some of the emotional stuff I'd been holding on to, and it opened me up physically," he says. Finally, Robbie became an acupuncturist, something he had wanted to do for a long time. "Everyone said no, because of the blindness," he says. "But Dr Vincent Carroll of the Lansdowne College of Acupuncture and Complementary Medicine, who is qualified in Western as well as Chinese medicine, saw no reason why I shouldn't become an acupuncturist."
Today, Robbie is able to offer his clients a range of therapies and treatments, depending on their very specific needs. He lives alone in Tallaght and uses his free time to go on long walks with Webster in the Dublin and Wicklow mountains. His outdoor adventures began soon after his accident, when he started going to field events for blind people. In the early 1990s, he went skiing in Austria and even managed to negotiate a black run (the most difficult). "An instructor goes behind and gives you commands," explains Robbie. "I just loved it. I felt a great sense of achievement having done that, although I lost some of my nerve when I discovered just how steep the black run had actually been."
Then, Robbie got on a tandem bike and rode with Blazing Saddles, a cycling group established by Eamon Duffy of the National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI). "My first trip was to Florida," he says.
When he was 26, Robbie became the first blind Irish person to climb Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. That's when he got his passion for walking, which abides to this day. Next came the Amazon, which he says was "absolutely unreal", followed by a trek to Nepal. "We didn't go up Everest," explains Robbie. "Base Camp is just a junkyard these days. So we went up the 19,400ft mountain next to it."
Height then became the thing, and soon Robbie was parachuting out of planes. "I only realised how high we were when I discovered we were going through the clouds!" he says, grinning.
Robbie is quite philosophical about his life. "When I lived in Kilbeggan as a boy, I was passionate about farming," he volunteers. "But as they say, when one door closes, another opens. I don't think I would have challenged myself nearly so much if I hadn't lost my sight." Robbie also knows he wouldn't be able to do half the things he does if he didn't have a dog like Webster. "Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind is a sensational organisation. It's a tremendous institution," he says. "I'm on my fourth dog now, and I just couldn't live the way I do without Webster. He makes my life so worthwhile."
A while ago, Robbie also discovered that he had a way with words, so he plunged headlong into the literary world, penning his autobiography, Beyond the Darkness. It's a fascinating read, and another worthy accomplishment in this extraordinary man's life. Perhaps his mother's prayers were answered, after all.
'Beyond the Darkness', priced €17.99, is available from emuink.com or email Robbie Dowdall at firstname.lastname@example.org For information on Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind, tel: (1850) 506-300 or see guidedogs.ie
Sunday Indo Life Magazine