A career cut off in its prime

An Irishwoman’s Diary on the lifelong bravery of a man afflicted by spinal cord injury

Ronnie Conlon campaigning for accessibility in Galway City. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Ronnie Conlon campaigning for accessibility in Galway City. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Mon, Aug 4, 2014, 01:00

Time was when the job of a young garda might involve sourcing fuel to heat the local station in winter. Ronnie Conlon was one such willing recruit, back in 1966, just eight months after he “passed out” from Templemore College as force number 16399. Conlon, from Tuam, Co Galway, had been stationed in Cashel, Co Tipperary.

One November morning, he was on his way back from court with a sergeant when he was asked to head for Rockwell College wood. He drove over with a detective that afternoon and was working on a tree when he was seized with a severe pain in his chest and across his forehead – a pain so intense that he collapsed on the ground, digging his fingers deep into the wet clay. The detective was preoccupied with a chainsaw nearby, but Conlon managed to signal for his help.

“I remember seeing two teams of young rugby players playing further up the field as we returned to the car,” Conlon recalled. ” I remember thinking to myself that they did not know it, but that I was going to die ...”

He didn’t, but life as he knew it changed forever. He was transferred eight days after his accident to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire. Just three months short of his 21st birthday, he was diagnosed a tetraplegic, with paralysis in all four limbs due to a severe spinal cord injury. A year later, in November 1967, he was discharged from the force with no income and no future. His certificate, delivered to him several months later in hospital by a sergeant in tears, described him as an “exemplary” recruit.

Former garda 16399 returned home in September 1970 toTubberjarlath Road in Tuam to his mother, Bridie Bodkin, who quit her job in Erin Foods to mind him, and his father, John Conlon, who worked in the sugar beet factory. Anger and distress and pain could have consumed him entirely, but the following June he had found himself a job as a direct mail firm employee. Each morning, his mother helped him with the long and arduous preparation, and his father drove him to and from work.

He secured a position with the multinational Digital in Galway city, promising his interviewers that if he was not up to it, he would be the “first to go”. Already, by 1978, he had been successfully approved for local authority housing, and was living as independently as he could. It was a severe daily struggle, but one that he made light of. Colleagues within the force and without raised funds to help him purchase his first hand-controlled car.

He stayed with Digital for over 19 years, even studying at night and graduating with a BA in 1992. A higher diploma in education followed. By then, he had become acutely aware of disability rights issues, had formed strong links with the Irish Wheelchair Association, and heard about the independent living movement which had started in Berkeley, California, in 1972. With several colleagues, he founded the Galway Centre for Independent Living, based on the citizenship – rather than the medical – model of disability.

In 2008, he picked up the phone to talk to the detective who had been with him on the day he was injured in the wood. For the kindnesses he had experienced from individual colleagues in the force had not been replicated by the institution. “As he talked,” Conlon said, “the hair stood up on the back of my neck ...” The detective’s recollection of events did not concur with his.

On the day that I first met him, he had driven his bright yellow wheelchair-accessible van up to a multinational in Oranmore, to stage a one-man protest. He had heard on the radio that morning that Taoiseach Enda Kenny was due.

Mr Kenny was late, and we got to talk, and there was no attempt to move him on by the young gardaí who chatted away – perhaps not fully aware that this one elderly man with a wheelchair had once been as agile, ambitious and able as any of them.

Conlon never did receive the full explanation he had sought before his sudden death two years ago this month.

The Garda Press Office has said that there was “communication” with the Garda Commissioner’s office. “From inquiries carried out, there is no suggestion that Mr Conlon’s discharge while on probation was related to his injury on duty,” it maintains.

His uncle Michael Bodkin recalls how people from Cork, Limerick, Dublin, and “all over”, came to his nephew’s funeral. “They knew him as a lovely, lovely man.”

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