Friday 24 May 2019

'My stammer made me feel like the greatest fool... Now I make my living giving public lectures' - Best-selling author Dermot Bolger

Ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Irish Association of Speech & Language Therapists this month, Dermot Bolger remembers how classes at its Temple Street base transformed his life from one of purgatory to poetry

Writer Dermot Bolger remembers feeling
Writer Dermot Bolger remembers feeling "caged by a stammer" as a child.
Prince Albert
Sr. Marie De Montfort Supple with some students
Proinsias De Rossa
Dermot Bolger

Dernot Bolger

When I celebrated my 10th birthday in 1969 Dublin was a city before supermarkets. Every grocery shop was a fiefdom ruled by a white-coated monarch who leaned across the counter to demand a password upon entry.

The password was the name of whatever item I was sent to purchase - goods I could see tantalizingly within reach on shelves behind the shopkeeper. But the name might have been in some extinct language for all the chance I had of being able to say it.

I was caged by a terrible stammer. To be a child so afflicted back then was to suffer daily public crucifixions. My panic at being sent to the shops began before I left the house. By the time I reached the shop it crystallized into palpable terror.

Because no matter how often I rehearsed a phrase as simple as "a pint of milk, please" on the empty street, once I queued in the shop I became tongue-tied, unable to speak. What I wanted became guess work for shopkeepers. Most were kind, but some were gruff and impatient, making you feel they didn't suffer fools gladly and, back then, having a stammer made me feel like the greatest fool on earth.

Stammerers in films were figures of fun and mockery, but a stammer was no laughing matter. Respecting neither creed nor class, it could affect anyone from a child in Finglas to Britain's reluctant wartime monarch, George VI, who strove to project a strong public image while privately fighting to control his stammer.

I always admired Proinsias De Rossa who refused to be defined or defeated by his stammer. But whether suffering, like him, from an involuntary repetition of words or, like me, from an inability to pronounce words, any stammer can strip away your self-confidence, making you socially isolated.

My true purgatory was being sent to buy "a sachet of shampoo" because I also suffered severe difficulties in pronouncing the "S" sound. Fifty years ago in 1969, when my mother began taking me for speech therapy to Temple Street Children's Hospital, it seemed impossible that I could ever say a phrase that my therapist patiently tried to teach me: "sixty-six sneaky, silvery snakes".

Unbeknownst to me, my mother was seriously ill and died later in 1969. Some of my last memories of her involve us walking past a blacksmith shoeing horses at Kelly's Row - a back lane on route to that hospital.

Her concern for her youngest son - considered a dunce due to my inability to speak - was greatly alleviated by my kindly therapist who assured her, "he is under a cloud now, but is actually a bright penny".

1969 was also an important year for The Irish Association of Speech & Language Therapists (IASLT) - Ireland's professional association of Speech & Language Therapists. In September of that year the first course started to train speech therapists in Ireland, with just fifteen students. Before this, the few therapists working in Ireland were foreign or - if Irish - had needed to be trained abroad.

Today in TCD, NUI Galway, the University of Limerick and Cork University over 100 students train to become speech therapists each year. But this year's IASLT conference in Croke Park on May 16th and 17th will host a special exhibition to mark the 50th anniversary of speech therapist training starting in Ireland and will pay homage to pioneers like Sr. Marie De Montfort Supple - a major force in setting up the Dublin College of Speech Therapy and its first Director - and Sr. Mary Threadgold from Temple Street, both of whom will attend fifty years on.

The success of such pioneers is shown in how in 1971 there were just 20 speech therapists in Ireland and today there is over 1,800.

None of the pioneers who worked in the Temple Street speech therapy unit will likely remember this small boy from Finglas being brought there fifty years ago by my mother.

I'm just one of thousands helped during the past half century. But few tongue-tied children like myself have forgotten the patient assistance we received there and in the other institutions where therapists, who first began being trained here in 1969, now work.

I left Temple Street finally able to pronounce the S sound but my stammer didn't disappear overnight. It took years and occasionally I still get stuck on a word.

But when my mother died in 1969, so worried about her son, she could never have envisaged that, fifty years later, I'd make my living giving public readings and lectures as a poet. In the coming weeks I have speaking engagements in Ireland, France, Portugal and Britain.

In most venues an engineer will do a sound check in advance, asking me to say random words into the microphone.

But my words are never random. Staring at the seats waiting to be filled I remember my mother who brought me to Temple Street, the kindly speech therapists there patiently helping me gain the power of speech, the fifteen pioneer students who began training in Ireland in 1969 and the thousands who have followed.

Then slowly and distinctively, to honour them, I annunciate into the microphone: "sixty-six sneaky, silvery snakes."

What you need to know ABOUT speech therapy

What is the Irish Association of Speech & Language Therapists (IASLT)?

The IASLT is the recognised professional association for Speech and Language Therapists in the Republic of Ireland.

The aims of the organisation include:

⬤ Developing and maintaining professional standards of practice

⬤ Evaluating and accrediting speech and language therapy training courses

⬤ Supporting continuing professional development of its members

⬤ Representing the profession nationally and internationally.

How can I contact the IASLT?

For most queries, it is best to email:

Otherwise, call 01 8728082; or contact: Suite 108 The Capel Building, Mary's Abbey, Dublin 7, Ireland.

How do I get an appointment with an SLT in the public health service?

Parents wishing to make appointments for their children can contact their Local Health Office (LHO) to seek appointments with a speech and language therapist.

For clients with additional needs, many charitable organisations offer a speech and language therapy service.

Unfortunately, there are very few speech and language therapy posts in ireland dedicated to the care of adult clients in the community, though your LHO will be able to advise you whether one exists in your area. If not, local support groups relevant to your need (eg. stroke, Parkinson's, etc) may be able to provide you with information.

If your child attends a special needs school or a special needs class within a mainstream school, they may be able to access speech and language therapy through the school.

If you need to access speech and language therapy as a result of a medical condition and you attend a hospital for your medical condition, you may be able to access speech and language therapy through the hospital. Your hospital doctor will advise you on this.

Where can I find information about private practioners?

Please note the IASLT website does not provide a list of practising speech and language therapists. You can contact the HSE for details of your local speech and language therapy department.

Please consult Independent Speech-Language Therapists of Ireland (ISTI) for details of fully qualified SLTs in private practice.

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