It is exactly 18 months since I was last standing here, on the doorstep of the home in Dunboyne, Co Meath, shared by Martina and Seán Cox, and their children, Shauna, Jack and Emma.
The house was quiet that April day; heavy with the chasm that had opened in their lives almost one year earlier. On an ordinary Tuesday morning the previous April, Seán left home to catch an early flight with his brother to see his beloved Liverpool play Roma in the Champions League semi-final.
Anybody who has heard his name knows what happened in the hours that followed, knows about the 17 seconds changed the family’s life forever. They know about the so-called “ultra” football hooligan who launched an unprovoked, brutal attack on Seán outside Anfield, before calmly removing his balaclava and going inside the stadium to watch the match. They have imagined themselves taking the call that came to Martina in her kitchen that evening, saying words she could barely make sense of.
One year on, I sat with Martina in the room that used to be Seán’s “man cave”, on the sofa he designed, in front of the TV that he used to watch sport on. At the time, he was in the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire and had been home only twice in a year. The constant sense of his absence, she said, was “one of the hardest things … We’ve been living here without Seán, without his presence, and it’s just awful,” she said then. She just wanted him home. She wanted his presence in the house again.
As soon as Martina opens the door this time, it is clear that everything is different.
For a start, Seán’s den is now a sleek new kitchen, with glossy off-white cabinets, and a breakfast bar cleverly set at three alternate heights. Golf is playing on the TV in the open plan sitting room. The family photographs I remember from my last visit are still there, arranged on every shelf.
We go through to the garden, which has just been landscaped by Diarmuid Gavin, and is an oasis of undulating curves, dicksonia palms and leafy plants set in raised beds. And there he is, sitting in his chair, waiting patiently to have his photograph taken.
Seán Cox raises his hand in greeting and says “Hiya.”
Here, in his family home, he’s not defined by what he can’t do, but by who he is, by his potential and “the progress he has made. He’s so much more relaxed, very much at ease” since he came home in February, Martina says.
“He’s getting a lot of stimulation. He’s listening a lot more and understanding more. His cognitive skills are improving. The reality is the speech centre of his brain has been damaged because of his injuries. He doesn’t initiate a conversation, but he responds well to prompts.”
And sometimes, she says, “I’ll be having a rant about something, and he’ll throw his eyes up to heaven.”
When she told him a journalist was coming, he wondered if I was there to talk about “the virus”. She shows me a video of him singing along to The Fields of Athenry during his Zoom music therapy session.
Before I arrived, he had prepared himself an omelette with the help of a rehab assistant from Acquired Brain Injury Ireland.
Most of his weekday mornings are spent working out in the gym on the other side of the garden with a carer, under the watchful gaze of the family dogs, Bruno and Roxy. The aim of the physiotherapy is to build up muscle and strength on his left side, which was affected by the damage to his brain. He also has a Motomed bike, an electric bike which he operates from his wheelchair. “He uses that every day,” Martina says.
He gets tired after a session, “so he’ll have a rest then and he’s ready for the afternoon. He enjoys physio. He’s got that determined streak in him.”
In the afternoons, he’ll settle in to watch some sport, re-runs of Friends, or any kind of slapstick comedy. “He’ll be in stitches laughing. Or he’ll listen to a sports podcast.”
Today, while we sit down to talk, he’s got the golf for company. Jack is working remotely upstairs and Shauna is here too, finishing her thesis in early childcare education. At intervals, they come downstairs to check on their Dad and throw their arms around him for a hug. There is a lot of love in this house. Everyone who comes here feels it.
All of this is why Martina spent the year after we met working so hard to get Seán home.
“It’s only when I look back I realise that year was really tough. There was so much going on,” she says.
In the last 18 months, a time when most of us were busy just surviving, Martina has overseen the renovation of the house, ensuring that, although adapted for Seán’s needs, it still feels like a home, and not a hospital. She shows me his bedroom in the space that was family’s old kitchen, which is more like a plush hotel suite than a hospital.
She managed Seán’s transition out of the NRH and into a lovely private room in Marymount Care Centre in Lucan while she set the wheels in motion for the next step: a rehabilitation clinic in Sheffield in the UK, where he spent 15 weeks between September and December. With the help of the huge community of support that rallied around the family after news of the attack on Seán, she set up a trust, The Seán Cox Rehabilitation Fund, to manage the funds raised through events like the Liverpool Legends match last year.
She went back to work in her job as a buyer for Dunnes Stores, took leave to travel to the UK with him, and then returned to work. She looked after her family. There was the minor matter of a pandemic to be got through. And along the way, upstairs at night when the carers had taken over and the house was quiet, she wrote a book about it all, With Hope In Your Heart. Written with journalist Susan Keogh with a foreword by the Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp, it is a powerful and unflinchingly honest story about their lives before April 24th, 2018, and the process of piecing those lives back together afterwards.
“You only get one shot at rehab. I was disappointed that towards the end, his therapies were reduced, and he got very frustrated. It should have been consistent'
When we last met, Martina spoke honestly about how she didn’t enjoy the attention, but she looked on it as something that had to be done for Seán. She may not relish it still, but she has grown into it. “Seán had no voice, so I had to. I’ll always say it: Seán would have done the same for me. A lot of it came from the fact that we did so much fundraising, and I had to be the face of Seán. And rightly so. I never wanted to do it, but I’m glad I did it. And speaking out for him – I’d no choice, really. It’s your instinct, to look after him, to fight. There were a lot of not-so-nice things that happened along the way that I had to challenge. There was too much at stake,” she says. “My intention was always was to get Seán home. But we had to jump through a lot of hoops.”
Some of those hoops are recounted in the book. In the early months, there were her worries when he was moved into a low-dependency unit at Beaumont, placed in a bed at the far end of the ward, while he was still extremely vulnerable, if not as acutely ill as other people.
She recounts some distressing incidents concerning Seán’s care while he was on that ward, though she stresses now that majority of the nursing staff were kind. “To me what was alarming was to see how the resources were so stretched and the impact that this could have on somebody vulnerable. That’s when it really hit home that I needed to be on top of Seán’s care.”
Later, after his time in the NRH was coming to an end, she believed there was a place available for him in the Royal Hospital in Donnybrook. But, after an upsetting meeting between the family, the hospital and Donnybrook, it was made clear that this was far from certain. Two weeks later, she got a phone call from the NRH confirming what she had realised in that meeting: Seán’s needs were too great, and Donnybrook wouldn’t be able to take him. This left nowhere else for Seán to go, until the NRH subsequently agreed to extend his stay on a bed, breakfast and evening meal basis until somewhere else could be found.
Martina has since had a written apology from Donnybrook and been told the assessment procedure would be changed. “I would like to think for the future that nobody should have to go through something like that ever again,” she says now.
The encounter made her all the more determined to find somewhere Seán could be helped to realise his potential. “You only get one shot at rehab. The NRH did an awful lot for Seán. They really did. But I was just disappointed that towards the end, his therapies were reduced, and he got very frustrated. It should have been consistent.”
So she toured clinics in the UK with Seán’s family until she found the privately-run STEPS clinic in Sheffield, which she felt was the right fit for him. “When you leave rehab, your journey is only beginning. And yet in Ireland there’s nowhere to go next. There’s a lot more rehab available in the UK,” she says.
“The message has to be we need better resources. We need a clear pathway. People with brain injuries are forgotten in Ireland, and I don’t think it’s right.”
'In my eyes, Seán was always coming home. I could see people looking at me thinking, that’s never going to work. But it does work'
The final hoop came last February when, with the country on the verge of lockdown, she pulled out all the stops to get the build finished and a home care package in place so they could bring Seán home.
In the book, she says that 2020 will be remembered as the year the world turned upside down. “For us, the world was suddenly the right way round.”
Now, she says, for the family, “Covid meant getting Seán home. Everyone had to isolate so there were no visitors, but in a way it was a good thing. We needed that time to get Seán used to living back at home, used to the noise again after the hospital,” she says.
“This is us. This is our new normal. Seán fits into our life now. It’s a very different life than we thought we were going to have. We couldn’t have foreseen what was going to happen two-and-a-half years ago. But he’s at home. He’s part of the family, and we do everything together… We can’t go back, so we’re just trying to look forward, and keep Seán busy and happy.”
Before the restrictions tightened again recently, they had been getting him out for the odd walk, and even managed to get him to the GAA club of which he was chairman, St Peters, where he had two glasses of Guinness and met a couple of his GAA pals.
The book is a story of love and resilience. But it is also a stark insight into the absence of a pathway in Ireland for someone with a brain injury. “I couldn’t tell you the amount of times I was asked to sign the forms for the Fair Deal scheme [to get Seán into a nursing home]. I was like, I’m never doing that. He was in a nursing home for a time, and we were very grateful. But in my eyes, Seán was always coming home. I could see people looking at me thinking, that’s never going to work. But it does work. Putting people in nursing homes is what we do because we don’t have anything else.”
She’s anxious not to come across as critical of the individuals; just the system. On behalf of other families, she feels the need to be honest about how “we had to fight for everything”.
For all her positivity and determination to look forward, a part of Martina is still grieving for the life she expected to have. She finds it hard to think about Portugal in particular. They were just about ready to buy an apartment there when the attack happened. “Even now, it still brings up a lump in my throat,” she says.
She describes in the book how, in the months before April 2018, something disconcerting started to happen. Every time she went to buy something for the house in Portugal – bed linen or nice towels – she would be filled with a sense of trepidation. “There was something inside my head saying to me, this isn’t right.”
She never told anybody, and put it down to “thinking I’m being a little bit above my station buying an apartment in Portugal. But it happened every time. I’d get this awful pain in my stomach, an uneasy, eerie feeling.”
Martina and the children would like to get Seán back to Portugal some day but “that’s down the line. It’s not top of the list of priorities.”
In the more immediate term, when the travel restrictions lift, she’d like to get Seán to Rosses Point in Sligo with his extended family, where he spent his childhood holidays. “That might be our first family holiday.” Being Martina, she has already identified a hotel with a wet room and suitable parking.
For now, what she’s most looking forward to is “getting through Covid and throwing him the bloody big party that he deserves. And there are so many people I need to thank.”
'Yes, things have changed, and our relationship is different. But he’s still their dad, and he’s still my husband'
Tinged with all her positivity is a sense of realism about the future. It is unlikely that Seán will walk again, but she believes there’s still more he can achieve. “It’s not even me pushing him. He wants it. And I want him to get the best therapies he can, and lead as normal a life as possible.” A week later, I call her to check some facts, and she tells me he walked 300 steps in 10 minutes that day on a special machine. It might not sound like a lot, she says, but it’s a lot for Seán.
I wonder how she’s doing herself. “To be honest, there are days it just hits me more. If Seán has a good day, I have a good day. If he’s down, that gets to me. But in general I’m okay. There are simple things like I might see a couple going out for a walk together, and I think, do they appreciate what they have?”
It’s the little things she misses: him coming home from the pub on a Friday evening so they could watch the Late Late together. But as soon as she says it, she pulls herself up. “You just have to keep moving on. March forwards, not backwards. I take every day now as it comes. There’s no point in looking too far ahead or back. Covid has taught everybody that. And I’m so grateful for what we have: we have him here and he’s home with us. We have to keep going and enjoy life as best we can.”
She turns towards the sitting room, where he is engrossed in the golf. “Look at him sitting out there enjoying life. Seán, are you okay?” she calls.
“Yeah,” he answers cheerfully, giving a salute from the chair.
“We still have a bit of fun together. The odd night, it might be just the two of us having dinner, and Shauna will come in and stick a candle between us, just to lighten things up. Yes, things have changed, and our relationship is different. But he’s still their dad, and he’s still my husband.”
With Hope In Your Heart: The Seán Cox Story by Martina Cox with Susan Keogh is published by Gill