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'They wanted to turn off my life support . . . but my parents knew I'd live'

James Healy has found way to express himself with Mixed Ability Rugby


Alan Craughwell of IMART with James Healy, Munster Rugby CEO Ian Flanagan and former Ireland scrum-half Tomás O’Leary at the launch of IMART 2020 (International Mixed Ability Rugby 2020) and MAW 20 (Mixed Ability Week 20). Photo: Joleen Cronin

Alan Craughwell of IMART with James Healy, Munster Rugby CEO Ian Flanagan and former Ireland scrum-half Tomás O’Leary at the launch of IMART 2020 (International Mixed Ability Rugby 2020) and MAW 20 (Mixed Ability Week 20). Photo: Joleen Cronin

Alan Craughwell of IMART with James Healy, Munster Rugby CEO Ian Flanagan and former Ireland scrum-half Tomás O’Leary at the launch of IMART 2020 (International Mixed Ability Rugby 2020) and MAW 20 (Mixed Ability Week 20). Photo: Joleen Cronin

"In all things in nature there is something of the marvellous." (Aristotle, circa 350BC)

James Healy doesn't remember the accident that changed his life forever. But every day is a reminder of the accident that almost took his life.

James was just three years old when he fell from the top floor of the family home in Dublin Hill, on the north side of Cork City.

For 21 days, he teetered between life and death; his parents, intently by his side, hoping for the best; the doctors anxiously scanning, fearing the worst.

In the second week, hope and fear collided with jarring reality. It was suggested to his parents, Tim and Assumpta, that life support should be withdrawn.

They didn't allow any room for the suggestion to lodge; how could they, who had given everything to provide life, suddenly surrender themselves to its withdrawal? How could they allow James to slip from their lives without having been allowed the right to fight to the end, no matter how bitter?

They didn't want James' life to end this way. They didn't want it to end at all. Maybe they were deluding themselves.


"The doctors and nurses wanted to turn off the life support machine but my mother and father wouldn't leave them do it," he says. "They knew I was going to live."

Miraculously, their almost feral parental instincts defied medical logic. And now, 28 years later, you can find James Healy working in the garage of former Irish rugby international Noel Murphy on the Pouladuff Road near Irish Independent Park.

If not there, then on with the COPE Foundation in Montenotte, the voluntary organisation in Cork which supports children and adults with intellectual disability.

James survived but some scars remained; both physical, the indentations upon his skull from his death-cheating descent which remain visible to all; and mental, the resultant brain damage which is not initially evident at all.

The vulnerable child is now officially classified as a vulnerable adult. We are not sure if we have met quite so many human beings who have emerged to become the opposite.

Aside from holding down two jobs, James will this year form an integral part of the only Irish rugby side to ever win a World Cup (Sunday's Well, in 2015) as Ireland prepares to host its first World Cup (the third staging, in Cork, will be in June).

Mixed Ability Rugby has made spectacular strides since Anthony Brooke pioneered the first club in Bradford 11 years ago.

Brooke, who was born with cerebral palsy, had been denied access to the sport he loved in a playing capacity so he decided to establish his own club.

This summer represents another staging post on the journey; this year's tournament will gather 28 teams from 14 countries, 1,000 players and, for the first time, four women's teams will compete for the Winners' Cup and Spirit of Mixed Ability Rugby Cup.

There will be four teams from Ireland - Sunday's Well, West Cork Jesters and Malone Tornadoes; Ballincollig entering a women's team.

Mixed Ability sport, under which umbrella the Mixed Ability World Cup will take place, is a unique off-shoot from competitive sport and its secret is literally in the name - this is neither elite sport nor is it strictly reserved for those in society who are less able.

There may be uncontested scrums and rolling subs, while certain players who cannot be subjected to a full impact tackle are identified by markings; but otherwise, the game is indistinguishable from the "real" thing.

"Tackling is my favourite part of the game," says Healy with particular relish, despite the genesis of his condition, he literally embraces the rough and tumble of the sport.

"We've worked really hard to change people's perception," says Alan Craughwell, who works with the COPE Foundation - in conjunction with Sunday's Well, he inaugurated the first Mixed Ability rugby club in Ireland, who with Healy amongst their number backboned that 2015 triumph.

Now he has helped do what the IRFU couldn't and host a World Cup in this country.

"We wanted to demonstrate that someone with a disability could play sport, but not only that, they could also play with someone who does not have a disability.

"It's about playing a game without necessarily radically adapting it. It's a social sport. Rugby at the moment is about the elite of the sport, the one per cent. But what of the other 99%?"

The able-bodied Padraig Sisk is an example, a Sunday's Well club veteran, their most capped player who was minded to continue his involvement when Craughwell began his venture; Sisk would play a crucial role in the Irish Mixed Ability side that won the 2015 World Cup.

"It's about looking beyond labels and categories," adds Craughwell. "A bit like society, people should come and look at us before they judge us. Too often, society had closed its eyes to difference. We're trying to open them.

"And it works both ways. We have had a player with a disability that plays for the Junior Thirds in the main club alongside able players. Not all intellectual or physical abilities are visible."

For all that sport preaches diversity, few can realistically achieve this, whether because of economics, geography, race, religion or sexuality.

However, Mixed Ability sport, whatever the discipline, is utterly inclusive. And it normalises the experience, as much as is practicable.

"I feel good, I feel confident," is how James replies when you ask him what it feels like to be included in something that might have once excluded.


As you speak with him, the self-assurance that the sport imbues in him - and its inevitable social side, with multiple tours already under his belt - is clearly evident.

His instinct can absorb the fact that the solidarity of team-mates and coaches is not effected in a patronising manner, rather a partnering one.

"It's not necessarily about people just caring for those who need it," says Craughwell.

"It happens naturally. Your team-mates are there to be your team-mates, not your carers."

There is difference but not discrimination; the pair laugh when they recall Healy having a Stuart Hogg moment when exiting the second World Cup in 2017.

"I over-ran the line when I should have scored a try," says Healy, sheepishly.

"I was born to play rugby," he whoops. Ask him if Ireland have what it to win this summer and he chirps, confidently.

"Of course!"

l PERMANENT TSB are headline sponsors of IMART 2020, which will take place in Cork from the June 7-12, but another €300k of matching funding is still needed, as are volunteers.

See https://imartworldcup.org

Indo Sport