'There were times when I couldn't take the pain... but I never let it break me' - Dylan McGrath
Agony of severe spinal problems put one of Ireland's top chefs on the flat of his back for months, writes Niamh Horan
Dylan McGrath is not the kind of man who has ever shirked hard work or discomfort. One of Ireland's most celebrated chefs, he worked 19-hour days for 10 years to earn the coveted Michelin Star.
But the type of pain he can't stand is the useless kind. The kind that left him in agony from morning till night in anguish and desperation after spinal discs in his back began to disintegrate.
When we meet in a small coffee shop in Smithfield, you can see he has endured a lot. At just 38, he currently uses a walking cane. It is a temporary measure, but necessary after months on the flat of his back. After spending nine months in the Mater Private Hospital, he tells me: "It's the toughest thing I have ever gone through, without a doubt."
Last year, his appearance on Brendan O' Connor's Saturday Night Show led to a flood of messages of concern after viewers noticed his discomfort and his speech seemed slightly impaired.
Afterwards he explained how he had taken a mixture of the anti-inflammatory drug Difene and the painkiller Tramadol to deal with the backache. It was a turning point for the chef, who had lived with spasms of back pain on and off for six years. "From the TV appearance it became apparent I couldn't do it anymore. I needed to do something."
Surgery seemed the best option. He was told he would be in recuperation for six to eight weeks. Nine months later and he is still in the grips of it. He sits at the edge of the chair holding on to the armrest for support as he speaks. His discomfort is obvious.
"Right now I am struggling talking to you. I can feel pain in my back. But if I was to continue and this was to get worse, it's not an option speaking to you.
"When you go through pain - no matter how much you care about a person, no matter how much you feel like you are letting people down, no matter how hard you are on yourself as an individual, you cannot think about anything other than the pain. It's right here all the time," he says, tapping the middle of his forehead.
Dylan can trace the beginnings of his problem to his days making Mint restaurant one of the most talked about eateries in Ireland. He recalls: "I had back pain that I lived with on and off, inherited from the days in Mint. In those days, I had the energy to do it, I had the mental strength and ambition but I never really considered that, physically, it wasn't possible.
"I think anybody that is driven like me, well you put a huge amount of pressure on yourself. Without a doubt. I still am my harshest critic. Every day.
"And now it is a very, very difficult thing to think - when you are like that by nature and push yourself to the absolute limit - how you can then become a different person and not be able to work like that anymore."
He gets up to show me how he has had to learn to walk again, taking baby steps across the floor.
"My lowest moment was when the doctors still didn't know what was wrong... When you are walking around on a stick and are not being creative, it is very draining. I am a creative person but when pain is at the forefront of my mind... it's always there and there is no room for anything else and you are just not happy."
He lets out a low moan, repeated over and over, to explain how, at its worst, the pain would leave him immobile from dawn to dusk and unable to do anything except scream in pain and frustration.
He has explored every avenue to make himself better.
"You try everything. You try swimming, you take a hot bath, you do physiotherapy, you go and have a massage, you try medication... You're literally quite prepared to try anything."
For a time, he was put on heavy medication. "Everything that I was on was serious s**t. These were serious painkillers and, in turn, you've got to give yourself enough time to get off that serious medication and to get on the standard paracetamol and the Nurofen, and then you get off those to being medication free. And that is where we are now."
He says people who live in pain need to be fully aware of the medication they are taking, but he says: "When you are that sore and someone hands you something and says that's going to make it better, no matter how strong and disciplined you are, you are going to take it. And if they don't give it to you, there is nothing out there stronger so what do they do, give you Aspirin? [People in pain] have no choice. So in that respect, they've got to play ball and fair play to them for doing it because constant pain is hell on earth."
He credits his family, especially his brother Billy, for looking after him, and his business partner Vincent Melinn for keeping their restaurants, including Fade Street and Rustic Stone, running smoothly.
"Without his support, consideration, genuine love, alliance, cooperation and proper partnership, I couldn't have gotten through the last nine months. The man is rock solid for me."
Overseeing the creative side, Dylan is slowly getting back into work. The only thing that overrides his pain is his positive outlook - his ambition and focus still burn fiercely.
"Listen, you are talking to a human man. There were f**king down days - there is no doubt about it - there were moments of pain when I couldn't take it anymore. You would not be human. But I would never let it break me… it's a back.
"But there are people out there with a much harder existence than me and I would be a selfish pr**k, a repulsive human being, if I was to think 'oh poor me' in comparison to the realities that exist for others. It's going to be another couple of months and I will be fully better, and I will be better in my 40s and 50s than if I had not had the operation, so you know, I am just whingeing right now," he laughs.
"It's just something you have to go through. You can't expect to go up all the time. I used to tell myself that if I am a blessed enough man, that good things happen but you've got to take the f**king lows too. You can't be expected to go up and up. There are people who have gone through so much more than my pain."