Sunday 18 February 2018

Man who gave a lift to his community now getting a lift from them

Wheelchair bound Robert Barry of Leam, Kilflynn, sustained serious spinal injuries in the accident in August. Photo: Domnick Walsh/Eye Focus LTD
Wheelchair bound Robert Barry of Leam, Kilflynn, sustained serious spinal injuries in the accident in August. Photo: Domnick Walsh/Eye Focus LTD
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

There's a tragedy here today and courage and love too. You will have to decide which wins.

Is it despair or hope? I believe the love of family, and community has saved the day. The man who did so much for his community is now getting the dividend he never asked or thought he would ever need.

Robert Barry lost the use of his legs when he was cutting down the hard old ewe tree. That was on August 14 last and he has been in bed or in a wheelchair ever since.

The community leader who helped build a small GAA club in rural North Kerry, without even a field of its own, into a thriving community of friends was always on the go. But he will never walk or stand again.

I had two reasons for writing this story. The first was to pay homage and the second was to discover for myself, if I'm to be honest about it, how to turn tragedy and despair into love and hope.

I could see him as I walked in sitting in the chair waiting. I gulped hard. But before long, and I hope this does not sound all wrong, I wasn't sorry for him any more. His courage and good form drained the pity and replaced it with admiration.

Robert has lost weight since we last met but that's all part of the plan. He has to stay slim, to keep off his backside, to avoid bed sores. He lifts himself up off the wheelchair and then stretches his arm down to touch the floor. His house has had to be adapted for wheelchair use and he too has adapted.

"There's no point in giving in", he says. "We have to keep going. 'Have you calmed down?'" he asks, changing tack.

"Worse I'm getting," I say.

We were the two youngest and fieriest managers in Kerry and we often had at each other. But Robert was smarter. St Senan's used to run rings around us.


"We let the ball go in fast and there had to be tight marking."

And Robert shuffles in the wheelchair, on to the edge. Like he's ready for a pitch incursion. Barry's eyes are fiery and back-lit by his passion for the game.

Senan's won all around them. He was the manager all through. Several of his players wore the green and gold and Robert was elected as a Kerry minor selector. With Mick O'Dwyer. Robert's Kerry minor team won the All-Ireland.

"I'll be back on the sidelines soon," he says. "Oh feck," says I .

St Senan's have plans for a ramp and railings. Chairperson Aidan Behan tells of club plans for a perimeter road to make it easy for Robert to get around Jackie Finnerty Park. Jackie was one of Robert's players and a budding poet. Jackie died tragically while working in England.

The field was opened in 1984 and Robert was the chairman of the club. Up to then St Senan's were homeless. Robert was given a massive honour that same year when he was chosen as Kerry Club Man of The Year in centenary year and he was only just past the 30.

I ask Robert about the accident. "I was cutting down the yew and the tree swung around and hit me in the back. I knew straight away it was bad. Then the doctors gave us the bad news. I made up my mind there and then to keep going."

Robert's wife Anna comes in from work mid-story. "Robert and I go to Mass every Sunday and our faith kept us going."

She tells of how her husband wasn't out of bed for 52 days. "There was never a word of complaint out of him even though he was suffering from bed sores."

Their neighbours couldn't do more. Says Anna: "When I used to come home from visiting Robert in Dublin, the fire was lit and there was a dinner ready. It was a great lift after such a long journey."

She's emotional now. Robert leans over to touch her hand.

We were there talking about life in old times gone by and football for nearly three hours. The time goes like it's five minutes. Robert's vision for the GAA club and rural Ireland makes sense.

"A GAA club has to mean more than playing. We put on plays in our hall and we have an all-weather pitch and a pre-school and card games.

"Lately I notice new people who came in to the area and who were using the gym have joined up the club. Some are training teams. You have no GAA club without the community behind you."

I'm sure some of the bravery is to boost his loved ones but this is more than putting on a brave face. This is about keeping on going, no matter what.

Seeing it through. Before long I've forgotten my own few troubles. This man would lift the Titanic with a pitchfork.

There in the beautiful country between the foothills of the Stack's Mountains and the Atlantic, Robert shows us how to live through adversity.

Robert worked as a porter in Listowel Hospital. He was lovely to the patients and used his skills as a motivator to boost morale.

"I saw people like Colm Carmody in the hospital. Colm was in a wheelchair after an accident and started his own business. If they can do it, I said to myself, well then so can I."

And as he twists his green and gold wristband, Robert tells of the boost the received when the nurse told him St Senan's had won the county novice.

The players, I am told, were fired on by a man who was lying in a hospital bed far away from home.

What's lovely is the kids have brought on the desire to help out others. Kerry still has many who put community before what can you do for me.

Daughter Maria is studying International Development and has worked in Ethiopia with Trócaire. Son John is the physical trainer with the Kerry minor hurlers.

John and his partner Rebecca had a new baby. Ivy Rose was born just a few weeks after the accident. Robert was able to hold his granddaughter for the first time. Rebecca and John live in Listowel. So I say that means Ivy Rose will play for Listowel Emmets. "She will in her arse," says Anna.


Robert asked me to thank his carers, the staff at Tralee General, The Mater and the NRH. Heroes don't just appear in comic books. The men and women who work in our health services are the true patriots of 2016.

It was back around 30 years ago and I was driving down a narrow road in Senan's country. Who should I meet coming against me only Robert and his old banger was full of young lads. It reminded me of one of those Indian trains with people pitched up on the roof and hanging out windows. There were two or three kids in the boot and a small lad was almost stuck to the dashboard like a plastic Jesus.

Aidan Behan was there in the car. There were a good few more too who travelled with Robert Barry. And now they are giving him the lift.

Irish Independent

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