Listen to the Beautiful Sound of the Human Body at Rest

The Congress Altar, Cappagh Hospital, May 16, 2008. Photo Philip Casey
The Congress Altar, Cappagh Hospital, May 16, 2008. photo credit: Philip Casey some rights reserved.

As the result of an early childhood illness, by fourteen my right leg was five inches shorter than my left, and inevitably without attention would fall further behind, so I was brought to Cappagh Hospital in October 1964 for a series of operations which would stop my growth and leave me two inches shorter in height, but with only a slight limp. Most of these operations would be under Mr McCauley, but at least one was under Mr Joesph Gallagher, who I not only respected, as of course I did Mr McCauley, but warmed to as a person. On one occasion he introduced me to his entourage thus: “This young man is as healthy as a trout.”
When you’ve been confined to bed for some time, a remark like this can only be described as Positive Medicine, and I’ve never forgotten it as such.

For me, Cappagh was a positive place. When I entered St Mary’s ward for the first time on a beautiful autumn evening, the ward was full of light and sound. It was like walking into a tropical aviary, such was the energy and colour. Being from the country, adjusting to twenty-four hour company took some time, but almost immediately I realised that while many of the boys had been here for years with ailments such as polio, most of them were full of normal, healthy mischief and fun.

Imposing order on this chaos was Sister Angela. I was only fourteen, but I quickly saw through the stern mask to a deeply human heart and sense of humour. Once, I was dared to ask her did she want a Kiss, which was a popular toffee. Without hesitation I intercepted her on the corridor and popped the question. She was of course taken aback at my effrontery and disrespect for her vows, but when I quickly proffered the tube of Kisses, she erupted into laughter.

Because children were often in Cappagh for years, I remember many of them, though not all of their names, of course. There was Larry W., a fine tall youth who was disabled by polio. He once had a classic, slow-motion fight from his wheelchair with a tall, thin boy, Alan K., also stricken with polio, over a chess game. It took them so long to get their fists to a sufficient height to land a blow, that the strike count was probably one a minute, but it was no less ferocious for that.

Although they had ample reason, very few if any of these boys showed self-pity. Danny M. struck me as particularly brave. He had brittle-bone disease, and invariably fell and broke another bone almost as soon as he had recovered from the last misfortune, but invariably, hopes dashed as they were risen, he smiled through it. There was Gerry from Clare, and Philip from Finglas, and Oliver from Kilkenny, and Willie, famous as Little Willie – but by the time I knew him was far from little; he was wild, and great fun. There was Mossy D., about whom more in a moment, and the great Tommy Lavin, who had an arm amputated and who died from cancer a few years later. He, too, never lost his spirit in adversity, a young man of noble courage and elegant character.
There was John C., from Waterford, an inveterate reader who advised me to read something decent, rather than endless Agatha Christies, and handed me the plays of Sean O’Casey, thereby changing my life.

And there was Paddy Doyle. A few years later Paddy would be muscular and married to Eileen – I would be his best man. But when I first met him, he was a small, skinny thirteen year-old orphan, his feet twisted by what would later be diagnosed as dystonia. There was certainly no inkling that he would be internationally famous as the author of The God Squad.
Being a farmer’s son capable of carrying a sack of wheat, Paddy was like a feather to me, so I carried him on tours of the hospital, including around the Congress Altar and up to the top of the fire escape of the Nurses’ Home, from where we had an excellent view of the farm, which if I’m not mistaken was owned by the Sisters of Charity and partially supplied the hospital – but I’m open to correction on that. Later he would reach the Congress Altar under his own steam.

Beneath the Nurses’ Home was the Occupational Therapy department, run by Sister Bride. She was so beautiful she could have starred in The Nun’s Story, but would probably have been horrified at the suggestion. One of her occupational therapists was an English Rose called Pat, so all in all the atmosphere in the OT department was very pleasant! I had my first inkling of a literary bent when I was asked to work on a magazine with Paddy and others. I can still smell the Gestetner ink. Paddy was particularly good at weaving as he would be at writing.

Needless to say, Paddy and his wife Eileen and their three sons and their partners are my friends to this day.

Then there were the lovely girls in the girls’ ward, every bit as lively and mischievous as the boys. In summer, the beds were wheeled out onto the verandas, and we didn’t need binoculars to see them. On the long summer evenings, there were not-so-secret rendezvous behind the Congress Altar, no pun intended. Separating us was a ward, or wards, for asthmatics, but there were girls there too, including the stunning Hannah, who I’m sure had a legion of admirers. I remember several lovely ward maids, too. It was all great fun.

Of course there were dark moments. Operations are never easy, and the aftermaths of some were excruciating over a long period. Some of the children were orphans, and others weren’t but never had visitors. No doubt some of them envied me my visitors, specifically the gifts of my visitors. It was of course difficult for relatives to travel long distances in those days, but it was thought that some children had been abandoned by their families. Some had diseases which would dog them all their sometimes abbreviated lives.

But the nurses were heaven on earth for a teenage country boy. Goddesses in their pristine uniforms, it was only later that I realised that the student nurses were teenagers like us – only more mature. We gave many of them nicknames. I was in love with some of them, of course, including Twitty from Wexford and Benjy from Dublin.

Benjy, a beautiful redhead whose perfume I will never forget, swore she’d never marry…
Some of them, like Fritz and Benjy, and indeed one of the primary school teachers, sometimes brought some of us to see Dublin, with Sister Angela’s blessing. Sister Angela on at least one occasion gave us money “to treat the girls.”

As nurses, some of them were outstanding. I believe that a staff nurse, Martha Moroney, saved my sanity when I was having my leg lengthened. Her calmness and superb nursing skill saved me a great deal of pain and I want to thank her here, some 42 years later. Perhaps I remember her particularly in contrast to another staff nurse at the time, who I dreaded coming near my leg.

Among other great healers were Fritz, and Staff Nurse O’Callaghan, also both deeply calm in a crisis. Some have a healing touch and others don’t and one doesn’t forget it. I have been in hospital a lot since then, and their skill and demeanour has always been the gold nursing standard for me.

It must have been 1966 when Mr O’Malley, Minister for Education, swept through the wards and decided there should be a secondary school in Cappagh. It was held in the more spacious girls’ ward, and the teacher chosen was the bi-lingual novelist and poet Eoghan O Tuairisc/Eugene Watters. His first wife had recently died and he took the post to help him endure his bereavement. It was more like a university, or perhaps a hedge-school, than an orthodox secondary school, though of course the curriculum was addressed. Arriving in beds and wheelchairs and on crutches, there were no benches. We were encouraged to think and to ask questions. He lectured us on the Bible, including, if memory serves me, the Song of Songs, and he lectured us on John Keats, a great literary love of his. He had just won an Oireachtas prize for one of his books, and he put up a monetary prize for the best essay on Keats, which I won – my first literary prize. But the best moment of education I have ever received happened by accident.
Mossy D. had a spinal problem, and was confined, on his back, to a striker, a narrow, semi-rotating bed. Mossy must have been sleep-deprived, but in any case he fell asleep in Eoghan’s class, whereupon there were cries of “Sir! Sir! Mossy’s asleep.”

Eoghan put his finger to his lips and shusshed us.

“Listen,” he said slowly and quietly, “to the beautiful sound … of the human body at rest.”

First published in the Cappagh Centenary Commemorative Book, 2008