Irish musician Sharon Shannon shares harrowing picture of her partner Jimmy's brush with death to raise awareness of his illness
For eight years, Sharon Shannon watched her partner Jimmy Healy suffer and then last year, nearly die from a hereditary liver disease, before a donor transplant saved his life. She tells Barry Egan a story of inspirational love and true courage
Sharon Shannon plays beautiful music that is loved universally. She has played with the likes of Bono, Willie Nelson, Jackson Browne; and for presidents galore - Clinton at the White House and Obama in Dublin, the two Marys (Robinson and McAleese) in Poland and Australia, and Michael D Higgins in China. But for the past eight years, no music, however beautiful, could hope to block out the profound inner pain Sharon was feeling.
The nation's most-feted accordionist has endured a private hell: watching her beloved boyfriend Jimmy Healy slowly waste away from a chronic liver disease, Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (PSC). He was sick for eight years but was only diagnosed five years ago, and in the photographs Sharon showed me of Jimmy in his hospital bed in St Vincent's in Dublin, he was emaciated and deathly ill.
He looked like he was waiting to die.
"You can see how sick Jimmy was in the photos. It really was frighteningly close to the end. All the family were called to Dublin to say goodbye. His brother came home from Phoenix, Arizona. His sister came home from Vancouver. The doctors thought he was going to die," Sharon says.
On June 6, 2017, Jimmy was lucky enough to get a liver transplant operation, after being in hospital for what he describes as "the worst two months of my life".
He was told for years that he wasn't sick enough to go on the waiting list because it was so long; he was finally put on the waiting list in March of 2017 but didn't get put on the priority list, says Sharon, until after he nearly died in April of 2017, which is when the shocking photographs were taken.
Luckier still, in January of this year, Jimmy's body finally started to accept the donor liver. First he went through seven months of chronic rejection, and was put back on the transplant list for another liver, "but thankfully in mid-January of this year, everything started going the right way and five months later [I'm] still going strong," he says.
He has improved in leaps and bounds ever since. "He really and truly came back from the absolute brink," says Sharon. In the picture Sharon showed me of her and Jimmy at a ball in Galway last month, he looks remarkably healthy. It is a wonderful story of courage and love. "I am privileged to love him," she says. "Jimmy is really something else. I am proud of him. He is feeling good for the first time in about seven years."
Watching Jimmy fade away "from a big strong healthy man" to "what you can see in the photos" was, Sharon says, "absolutely heart wrenching". She stresses that the one-and-only reason she is sharing this for the interview is to help to create organ donation awareness. "It's not in any way about me. My part in this is to try to promote it to help other people that are suffering the same way as Jimmy did. They are suffering because the waiting list is too long. People have to wait until they are literally on the brink of death before they are put on a list,” says Sharon. “Hence there is an urgent need for more organ donors. People can get donor cards at any pharmacy. Or while we're still alive, we can make our wishes known to our nearest and dearest that we would like to be organ donors. Jimmy also wants to point out that it could happen to any family." Indeed, Jimmy's liver disease (PSC) is hereditary; his son, Mark, also had a transplant due to the same illness.
When Jimmy was at his lowest, Sharon "desperately feared the worst". Through it all, Jimmy somehow managed to maintain "astonishingly huge psychological strength and courage and positivity". Even when he was physically as weak as he could be, Jimmy had an incredible will to live, she says.
"He had an ability to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel at such a difficult time that was honestly amazing and inspirational," says Sharon. "Jimmy hates those photos of him at death's door, but if there is any chance that they can help raise awareness and, save even just one life, that's the reason he made the decision to make them public."
Jimmy says the reason he wants to make public this picture is "to let people see the before and after of people waiting on transplant lists, and how important organ donation is. The person who donated and saved my life also saved others. Each organ donor can save at least five lives, because their heart, liver, and lungs and the kidneys can save two lives. Another extraordinary gift a donor can give is the gift of eyesight.”
"I'm so happy to be here a year later and want to thank my beautiful partner Sharon for being so patient, helpful and understanding during the last few years,” adds Jimmy. “You are an angel and I love you, and all my family. Without their help over the last 18 months, I don't know how I would have managed," says Jimmy.
"I know how thankful he is," says Jimmy's angel Sharon, "and how much he thinks and reflects every day about the poor person who lost their life and donated their organs to save his life. I know how incredibly grateful he is to that person, and to their grieving family. Whoever Jimmy's kind donor was," Sharon says, "they will never ever be forgotten."
Sharon says that she hopes the day will come soon that she and Jimmy will get to meet and sincerely thank the family of his donor. Jimmy, she says, has mulled over and over in his mind how to word a letter, and he has started several times and stopped. "I guess there are no words that can express how he truly feels. Hopefully, I will never know what it feels like to be in his position, but one thing I do know for certain is that not a single day goes by that Jimmy doesn't think about his donor and the grieving family. He feels a mixture of emotions, mostly enormous gratitude, but also an immense sadness and sympathy."
What kind of man is Jimmy?
"Jimmy is a very strong, rock-solid type of a person with a very positive outlook," Sharon replies with a smile. "He always looks on the bright side of situations. He has a great sense of humour and he is always joking and slagging. Unlike me, he is super organised and very practical. He is a very black-and-white sort of a character, and is rarely indecisive. I greatly admire his easy-going attitude to life. He has zero interest in gossip. People tend to gravitate around him in a room. If he was a dog, he'd probably be the top dog of a pack," says Sharon, who lives in a house in Salthill with several rescued dogs and cats. Jimmy lives in Rahoon in Galway city.
So, what kind of woman is Sharon Shannon?
How long have you got?
She is probably one of the funniest - and the most real and unaffected - women you'll ever encounter. You couldn’t make her up.
Sharon describes her childhood, lived outside in the wilds of Co Clare, as something bordering on the magical, certainly mischievous.
Make that very mischievous. . .
“Mary and I were very mischievous little tomboys as kids. We always played with cuddly animal toys as opposed to dolls. We had two huge giant teddy bears at one stage. We were always hanging out on the roof of the hay shed, and this was a huge source of worry to my mother because it is very high up and she was obviously afraid that we would fall down and get killed.
“One day we decided to play a cruel trick on my mother. We dressed up one of the giant teddies in my clothes. We put wellies and all on him to give him longer legs. We took him up to the roof of the hay shed around the time we were expecting my mother to come home from work in the evening. Just as my mother was coming in the driveway in her car, we flung the teddy from a height onto the ground. My poor mother got the fright of her life and jammed on the brakes and ran out of the car towards the teddy bear screaming. She quickly realised that it was a joke and started laughing. We actually felt really bad about giving her such a terrible fright, and of course we apologised but we all (including my parents) got great laughs about it for years afterwards.”
She also recalls that "we had a 'moving statue' in Corofin, too, around the time of the famous moving statue in Ballinspittle. It would apparently only move at night time when it was lit up! And, sure enough, if we stared at it for long enough, it used to start diddling tunes and dancing hornpipes! Only joking!"
"Seriously though," Sharon continues, "there was loads of talk about it among the neighbours, and we went in once or twice to check it out. It was so funny, there was about 20 people there staring at it, and some people were saying 'it's moving alright ya!' “She roars with laughter. “Wouldn't it be hilarious to have video evidence - not of the alleged moving statue - but of all the people including ourselves, who stood around like eejits waiting for the statue to move?”
"My mother's sister Teresa is a nun in Perth, Australia and she didn't get to come home to Ireland very often. So we used to send her cassette tapes of us telling her all the news and singing and playing tunes. She sent us back copies of the tapes years later and they're absolutely hilarious." Who could doubt it?
Sharon is, as you can see, full of stories.
“'Sciortán' is the Irish word for a Tick,” she begins with a tale about the blood sucking parasite. Sciortán is pronounced 'shkirtawn'. We used to get them [the ticks] when we used to be doing the hay in the summertime. Anyway, one day my sister Majella had one, she picked him off and decided to put him into a matchbox and keep him as a pet. She named him 'Tommy' after our neighbour Tommy Murphy. Well, Tommy the man and Tommy the sciortán and Elvis Presely all died on the same day. We did endless laughing discussing the possible conversations in heaven between Elvis and the two Tommys. We imagined Elvis singing 'hound dog' while doing his pelvis movements, and Tommy who was hard of hearing asking him the whole time to repeat himself. We also had great laughs at the thought that Tommy the sciortán might chance his luck at attaching himself to Elvis.”
I ask Sharon (who has been a life long advocate for the rights of animals) feel about how society has changed, or otherwise for, say, farm animals.
“An example of how society was and still is as regards empathy or compassion for farm animals,” begins Sharon who grew up on a farm. “We had a calf with a damaged/dead leg who had to be bottle fed. I can't remember what happened him, maybe his mother lay on top of him or something. I loved that little calf so much, but something made me feel that I should hide my compassion and empathy for him because he was a farm animal. I remember being asked by my brother what I was going to call him, and my reaction was to try to pretend that I wasn't attached to him.
“So I said 'Nawthin'. Garry thought this was hilarious, so that became the calf's name for as long as we had him and he grew into a big strong bull calf. Of course one day I came home from school and there was no more Nawthin. I never asked where he was or what happened him. It was part of being a farmer's daughter, I guess if you are 'strong' enough to be detached emotionally, it was a good thing. When I look back on it now, I realise how sad it is that children's natural empathy for farmed animals through the ages is 100% suppressed.
“The name 'Nawthin' reminds me of something that happened a few days ago while I was at home visiting my father. He loves Nathan Carter and he calls him 'Nawthin'."
"The West of Ireland accent is in the habit of changing words to suit ourselves,” she continues. “Such as beans and peas are referred to as 'banes' and 'payz'. ”Sharon can remember her Father asking “’How do tha get the payz into them?’ when he first saw the bean bags that we were using as furniture at the house in Galway. He was always a great man to play dumb for the craic. I remember at one stage when we took him shopping for a mobile phone. The sales assistant was giving the whole spiel about all the different things that the phone could do which was like double Dutch to my Father (most of it to me too) and Daddy's only comment at the end of it all was that he wanted the one with the blue teeth in it.”
“That reminds me of my band member Jim Murray's similar story of a neighbour of his from West Cork in a phone shop. At the end of the sales assistant's big long spiel about the wonders of the new fancy phone, the man asked ‘Is there a toilet in it?"”
“Another lovely old neighbour of ours was a great character called Packie Cahir," Sharon continues. “He had huge long teeth and we were fascinated by his teeth. He knew that, and he would entertain us by holding his teeth with his fingers and moving them. He would say ‘I does be able to move all my teeth! They does grow down like a pigs tooth.’ He was a great laugh altogether. We used to love when he'd visit. His remarks about unfortunate road kill; ‘Tha swells up when tha dies you know’ (pronounced 'juunoo'). . .”
"We used to have sword-fights with tin whistles," Sharon goes on, another memory jumping out of her head like a Spring lamb. And as she remembers, her beautiful eyes light up with the memories.
"We also used to play acrobatics - where Mary was kind of an object to be swung round. We used to make little houses and hang-out areas in the bushes, bringing out tea and we used to have conversations with an imaginary guy called Pock. There was also an imaginary mysterious kind of scary guy who would come and give us powers - or take them from you." She can't remember his name. "The Pone or The Tone or something."
In any event, Mary became superwoman, "'the tuhher', who was stronger than us all." Sharon used to pretend to Mary that she was able to knock her on the floor with the slightest push. This was because, Sharon explains, Mary was given "magical powers by the mysterious imaginary guy. Mary used to run down the field and try to lift all the trees and lift up the tractor up above her head. So she thought! We would all be encouraging her and pretending to be amazed by her strength. I was so young myself I wondered if she really was lifting up the trees."
She says when she was a child, her mother expressly forbade her and her sisters to use swear words. Sharon can remember one day: “Mary and I locked ourselves in the bathroom and had a mighty belly laugh naming all the swear words that we could think of. What my mother didn't tell us until years later was that she was outside the door listening to us and she was also in knots laughing.
Brimming with her own brand of beaming genuineness, Sharon Shannon sometimes comes across like a character from an as-yet-unwritten novel by Patrick McCabe, or maybe a written one by John McGahern. Growing up on a farm, surrounded by all sorts of animals in Co Clare, the world-famous country girl has a naturalness and an innocence that you don't find in many people. I don't think there is a cynical bone in her body. As Eileen Battersby wrote in 2012, "If more people were like Sharon Shannon, the world would be a great deal happier."
The staunchly vegan Sharon is supposed to be here to promote her groovy grub area 'Sharon Shannon's Garden of Vegan' at Groove Festival in Killruddery House & Gardens in Wicklow on July 7-8, but her mind is drawn inextricably back and back.
"My mother was a very keen knitter," Sharon recalls of her late mother Mary, who died four years ago aged 81 of Motor Neuron Disease. "She used to try her hand at knitting, not just woolly jumpers for us, but also woolly trousers and the funniest of all, woolly knickers! Of course, the woolly knickers weren't one of her most popular ideas."
Sharon recalls that the Shannon family made many trips to the beautiful beach town of Lahinch in the summer, on what seemed like the only stretch of good road in the whole of Co Clare. The good section of the road was between Ennistymon and Lahinch. "It was here that Daddy used to put down the boot and try to get the old Volkswagen Beetle up to 90 miles per hour with the four kids in the back seat roaring and squealing with the excitement of the speed, shouting 'up to 90, up to 90, Daddy'.
"We used to look forward with great enthusiasm and excitement to some sort of a carnival day in Corofin, with bumpers and swinging boats, candy floss and various stalls selling knick-knacks and gadgets."
Looking back on it now, Sharon says, it was probably something similar to "the Father Ted carnival day".
And a carnival is what Sharon's house in Galway must feel like, now that her beloved Jimmy is once more fit as the proverbial fiddle.
Sharon's Garden of Vegan will be at Groove Festival, brought to you by Energia, which returns on July 7-8 at Killruddery House & Gardens, Bray. Headline acts include Fun Lovin' Criminals, Heather Small and much more. More details and tickets at www.groovefestival.ie For more information on organ donation, see www.organdonation.ie
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