Thursday 23 November 2017

Ger Gilroy: Resurrection man Murphy saved by the love that almost killed him

Declan Murphy in 1995. Mandatory Credit: Phil Cole/Allsport
Declan Murphy in 1995. Mandatory Credit: Phil Cole/Allsport

Ger Gilroy

Horse racing can seem inaccessible to the uninitiated, particularly National Hunt racing. Too many factors seem to matter when trying to understand the why?

Everything from breeding, to the ground, to the direction they run around the track, to the weight of the jockey, the age of the horse, the sex of the horse, the type of obstacles they're racing over, the relationship between the jockey and the horse and the general mood of the yard the horse has come from. It's opaque.

It can take a while to wrestle with these contexts and build a picture of how to listen to people talk about them in a meaningful way. Once you manage it though you're rewarded with a complex ecosystem that fringes the edge of human control. The mystery, the glory of it, is the fact that horses aren't machines and are therefore beyond our control.

Centaur, Declan Murphy's stunning life story, or at least the story of the first 30 years of his life, as written by Ami Rao, feels similarly opaque in parts until eventually he and thus the reader arrive at a moment of harmony and revelation.

Murphy was a brilliant Irish jockey finding success in England when he suffered a catastrophic brain injury from a fall in a hurdles race. His book has generated a lot of publicity for a number of reasons, principally because it's very good.

It also has ghoulish hooks like the fact The Racing Post published his obituary. Then the book's hero does the rest, for he is gifted with an intense self-awareness during a period where he lost his mind. Waking from his coma after his skull was shattered by a hoof to the head, he finds that he has only the memory of his first 12 years on earth. A grown man with a child's brain. Slowly his brain begins to catch up, but still the most recent four years before his accident are missing and even then the pieces aren't in sequence. It's confusing. It's tangled and chaotic. The claustrophobia of his past torments him because he can't remember who he is supposed to be and is too unwell to build a new identity.

The sequence in the book where Murphy battles with the physical damage to his nervous system is harrowing. He details the tiny increments of progress measured out in inches and days. Months into his recovery he bleeds from the feet as he wanders around on sticks outside his house blissfully unaware of the blood because he has no sensation in his extremities. He makes us aware of our own nervous system as we read. It's a rare feat to make you feel present as you understand, right now, I'm reading these words detailing another human explain how he taught himself to feel, to be aware of his fingertips, to remember to move his hips while he walks. It's a jolt. It's what a good book should be.

Murphy's battle with his mind elevates this book into something more profound than a recovery story. It's not a roadmap for everyone though. Most people would require significant psychological help from experts in the aftermath. Instead he checked out of hospital 10 days after his surgery and stopped taking his medicine.

He told no-one about the scale of his memory loss and refused to acknowledge the mental anguish he was suffering. Wild hallucinations occurred, sometimes in company, like when Barney Curley arrived to visit the recuperating Murphy only for the patient to be gripped by terror and run screaming from the house, compelled to hide until Curley eventually stopped looking for him. As you immerse yourself in the book, it's impossible not to be terrified of the outcome for the hero.

Then on Wednesday last Declan Murphy strolled into our office, with the glow of a man who lives a happy Mediterranean lifestyle with his partner and seven-year-old daughter, in Barcelona, working in the property industry. I felt like Thomas meeting Jesus after the resurrection. Jesus's handshake was plenty firm and he smiled and laughed at the discombobulation of someone who'd just read his book.

Later I couldn't help but watch how his hands made the motion of someone holding reins when he spoke about how it was horses that had saved him and brought him back from the dead. It was a reflex action, innate to the horseman as he spoke and explained how the horse is a character in the book. Feeling harmony with something external, something fundamental, salved his mind.

It was a horse that nearly killed him but it was a horse that rescued him too. The opaque terror that hung over his recuperation dissipated on the back of a horse. A year after his accident, he was back on horseback.

"I found the experience intensely moving. It returned something to me, something I had naively allowed to be taken away - it gave me back perspective. Ever since I had woken up from my coma, my mind had been full of clutter. Focusing on my missing past, on my uncertain future.

"The thing about a horse is that it always knows when you are present with it. It knows if your mind is focused, if it is actively engaged, or if it is somewhere else, a million miles away.

"The horse made me focus on my present. On my now. And I realised something immeasurably profound. I realised how fortunate I was to have a now. This life, this precious life, was mine to lose".

Ger Gilroy is a presenter on Newstalk's Off The Ball

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