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‘In my heart of hearts, I knew there was something serious there’ – Charlie Bird on motor neurone disease diagnosis

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Retired RTE Journalist Charlie Bird. Photo by: Tom Burke

Retired RTE Journalist Charlie Bird. Photo by: Tom Burke

Retired RTE Journalist Charlie Bird. Photo by: Tom Burke

Former RTÉ journalist Charlie Bird has said he knew in his “heart of hearts” that something was seriously wrong before he was officially diagnosed with motor neurone disease this week.

Mr Bird, who spent decades as a reporter with RTÉ, took to Twitter today to confirm his diagnosis after he previously spoke about having issues with his speech slowing down and slurring.

Speaking to Joe Duffy on RTÉ’s Liveline, Mr Bird said, “people get knocks every day” and he is dealing with the news as best he can.

“It’s hard to cope with but I’m dealing with it. Like everything else, you have to face reality,” he said.

Mr Bird said that although it had not been officially confirmed until recently, he knew deep down that he had motor neurone disease at the start of October.

He described how he had had issues with his voice as far back as St Patrick’s Day.

“I’ll never forget the first issue I had with my voice,” Mr Bird said.

"I was walking in the mountains with my wife Claire and my beautiful dog Tiger. We were eating a sandwich in a very remote place in Wicklow and I got a coughing fit like I never got in my life. It really floored me.

“Basically, since St Patrick’s Day, things have been coming and going with my voice and I knew there was something.”

Mr Bird said he has had countless brain scans and examinations since then because, according to his doctors, the disease is notoriously difficult to diagnose.

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“In my heart of hearts, I knew there was something serious there and in a way, I’ve been preparing myself for the news that I got a couple of days ago for months… Sometimes it’s not easy to deal with but you have to get on with life,” he said.

Mr Bird said he has a lot of discomfort, he has trouble eating, and he does not sleep.

He told the radio programme that when he was asked by RTÉ to speak on-air earlier this year about the 1983 kidnapping of Don Tidey he declined because his speech was fading.

Mr Bird told the programme that despite his diagnosis, he is keeping active: he can drive, and he walks up to 10 miles a day near his home in Ashford, Co. Wicklow.

He said the support he has received from his “remarkable” family, his friends and his former colleagues keeps him going.

Mr Bird said he still enjoys doing the crossword with a pint in his local pub and that the memories of the most important stories he covered during his career are also a source of great comfort and inspiration to him.

He said the Stardust story and the enduring relationships he formed with the families of the victims was the seminal moment of his career and the one which he looks back on and holds most dearly.

“The things that have kept me going over the last couple of years: I keep reminding myself the biggest story I ever did at home was the Stardust fire.

"I still want to be with the Stardust relatives and they’re going through their journey. I want to be with them, and I’ve been fortunate enough that they invited a couple of years ago to unveil the plaque at the site of the Stardust fire.

“These are the things that get me through my day.” 

The journalist, who is also a documentary maker and playwright, retired from RTÉ in 2012. 

He worked in the national broadcaster for 38 years as a researcher and reporter, with his final broadcast being on RTÉ Radio One’s Marian Finucane Show. 

Since announcing his diagnosis this morning, there has been an outpouring of support for Mr Bird. 

His former RTÉ colleague Miriam O’Callaghan wrote: “I am so very sorry to hear this Charlie. It is great that you are surrounded by such love and support. Your incredible character, strength and courage will be of immense benefit to you now. I wish you the very very best.”

Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil Senator Erin McGreehan said: “So sorry to hear this Charlie, take care.”

And Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney commented: “Wishing you courage Charlie. You’re in many people’s thoughts.

Neurologist Dr Orla Hardiman, a professor at Trinity College Dublin, said that while a diagnosis of motor neurone disease is a “catastrophic” one, there is huge variation in the progression of the disease among patients.

Sometimes degeneration of the motor neurons in the brain and/or spinal cord that causes the condition can be confined to just one area of the body.

Speaking on RTÉ, she said: “There’s a huge range from slow to really rapid progression.”

She cited one patient in Co Leitrim who was diagnosed with the disease 40 years ago but who is still managing the disease, to a young man in his 20s who died from it.

The cause of the disease remains unknown, but there is a genetic element in about 10pc of cases.

However, she cautioned that not everyone with the gene will get the disease.

While there is still no cure, she said there are a number of promising clinical trials ongoing.

“There’s a lot of reasons to be optimistic,” Dr Hardiman said, although reversing the progression of the disease “is a big ask”.

She explained that the networks in the brain are hard to reprogramme, so “making it go away would be very difficult”.

Consequently, the focus of the clinical trials under way is to find ways to slow down progression of the disease.

Celebrated physicist Prof Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with a type of motor neurone disease in 1963, and died in 2018.

According to the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association, there are around 400 people in Ireland living with the disease.


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