Monday 27 May 2019

'It’s a story that needs to be told' - Ex-international Irish rugby player Shane Byrne reveals his family's remarkable past

Shane Byrne | Inset: Shane's grandfather Dr James Hanlon with Helen Keller
Shane Byrne | Inset: Shane's grandfather Dr James Hanlon with Helen Keller
Shane Byrne
Shane Byrne and the Irish Legends after beating England Legends at the RDS Picture: Sportsfile
Geraldine Gittens

Geraldine Gittens

Ex-international Irish rugby player Shane Byrne says he owes much of who he is, and who he was on the pitch, to his grandfather.

His grandfather Jim Hanlon has a story so unique that movie industry scouts have considered it for a feature film.

“It’s a story that needs to be told…" he tells, ahead of World Sight Day which takes place on Thursday.

“He was a head surgeon in the Eye and Ear hospital in town, and when he was in his early 40s, he was just operating on someone’s throat, taking their tonsils out, and the patient coughed, and the phlegm went into his eye.”

“An infection started and it was starting to spread and it was a serious infection and he went to London to get treatment for it. Streptomycin was a new antibiotic at the time, and innocently, not really knowing, the surgeon gave him 30 times the dose.”

“It killed his eyesight in both his eyes, and another side effect was that it killed his hearing as well in the space of around nine months.”

Byrne (47) explains: “Everything had been going extremely well for him. He was a champion diver and a scratch golfer; he had a young family of four at home; and he went from that to being blind and deaf.”

The loss of both senses in such a short space of time was traumatic for Hanlon and his family.

“Their life was flipped completely upside down, they went from being the movers and shakers... they were a big part of the social life in Dublin.”

“My granny had to really step up and take on much more responsibility. In the time before he went to Lourdes, she had to take care of finances, the running the house, everything to do with the kids. There was a whole patch of time when he wasn’t earning.”

Helen Keller and Dr James Hanlon
Helen Keller and Dr James Hanlon

But remarkably, a trip to Lourdes helped a devout Hanlon to reset his goals and he became possibly the first deaf-blind person to train as a physiotherapist.

“He attacked life and went for it. He set out to be a practising physio. He applied to Trinity and because he was deaf and blind, they didn’t think it could be done so he couldn’t there. He had to write to the then-new Queen, Queen Elizabeth, to get permission to study in London and he went over and we think he was the first ever person to study physiotherapy blind and deaf.”

“He had a secretary and while they were at lectures, she was doing the sign language and was taking notes and would convert everything to braille.”

“They soon realised that he was way ahead, having been a top surgeon, so after nine months he was given an honorary degree, and we think he was the first blind physiotherapist in the world, fully practising.”

Hanlon met American blind-deaf author Helen Keller and the pair became friends. An old photo of the pair together is a vestige of that friendship.

“Helen Keller, she’s a famous lady who was born blind and deaf and she became the face of that affliction, and they had what became a famous interaction with each other. They wrote to each other a lot and he said 'you’re so brave considering what you’ve gone through'. But she replied: ‘what I’ve gone through is nothing to what you’ve lost’.”

Jim Hanlon and his wife Betty
Jim Hanlon and his wife Betty

But Hanlon was larger than life, Byrne explains.

“There was a huge polio epidemic, and he became central to that because his sense of touch went absolutely through the roof [because he had lost two other senses]. He was so important with regards to diagnosing so many people with polio. One of the first signs of polio is loss of movement, and the dragging foot, and because his sense of touch was so good, he was able to diagnose it.”

“He was a larger than life, and his wife Betty became a real matriarch of our family. She was living the life of a socialite you could say, she had a young family, she was on top of the social world in Dublin, and all of a sudden she had to step up for the family."

“His only form of communication was tactile sign language, which is spelling out every word onto your hand.”

Hanlon's children, Byrne's aunties and uncles, would sign into their father's hands. And Hanlon's sporting pursuits continued, with the help of his peers.

“He still played a little bit of golf… he was a scratch golfer in Portmarnock and my granny used to tell him, you’re so many yards out, you’ve a pitching wedge in your hands, fire away.”

Dr James Hanlon
Dr James Hanlon

“He used to dive off the forty foot in Blackrock; there used to be baths there, himself and Eddie Heron, an Olympic diver, would dive side by side. My granddad was a very good diver beforehand, and just before they’d hit water Eddie would tap my granddad so he’d know he was about to hit the water and he could put his arms out.”

"I'm sad that I never met him. Because, in life, you just don't come across people like that," Byrne adds.

Ahead of World Sight Day, Fighting Blindness is offering people with sight loss an opportunity to meet the experts at its forthcoming Retina 2018 public engagement day. Supported by Novartis, the event takes place at the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, Dublin, today, October 6. People can register by visiting

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