My Health Experience: Illness gave me a chance to paint

After giving up alcohol, having a pacemaker fitted and taking up the paintbrush, this artist has found a new lease of life


If I hadn’t been laid up 2½ years ago, I would never have learned how to paint and I’d never have gone to college. I finished at UCC last year at the age of 70 with a second-class masters degree in history.

A few months ago, I hung 20 paintings outside the church in Ballyphehane and sold six of them. That was a thrill. But what I started out wanting to do was to some day play soccer for Ireland.

I was on the Cork Celtic team in the ’60s and I was a fanatic about keeping fit, training four nights a week. I played squash up to the age of 50.

But after a game one night, I felt very ill. I blacked out and was carted off to hospital. It seemed like some sort of silent heart attack. I had no pain in my chest but I couldn’t breathe.

Avid walker
The doctors cleared one of my arteries and everything was grand. I was an avid walker. I’d walk from Cork to Youghal or Mallow.

I never felt I pushed myself too hard because I enjoyed going out on a sunny day in my shorts and sandals.

I was a postman until I was 43, cycling everywhere. But I gave up the job because I was mad keen on the theatre and writing plays. Some of them were put on and I’ve written 12 books.

I’m a fierce optimist. The two things I still want to achieve is having a play on in the West End and writing a real bestseller. But the guillotine still hovers. Because of what happened to me, I can’t lash into the gym. I do gentle tummy exercises and walk a mile and do a length of the pool. But that’s all.

About four years ago, I got very heavy. I’d say I was drinking too much. I was in this terrible rut. I had a regime of writing from 8am to 6pm, seven days of the week.

When I finished writing, I used to go to the pub every night. I was probably drinking eight pints a night. I did that for a couple of years.

But when a friend showed me a photograph that I was in, I didn’t know myself because I was so heavy. I was 17st 5lb and I’m 5ft 8in. I’d be in the pub, thinking: ‘What the hell am I doing here?”

And money-wise, it was ridiculous. It was just a habit; a rush. I never thought I was an alcoholic because if it came to it, I could go for a week or two without drink.

Anyway, I decided to give it up and I lost a lot of weight. But ironically, that’s when all my troubles started.

I was never much of a sleeper. One morning at about six, I got up to go for a walk. I remember feeling dizzy. I woke up on the Lee Road, covered in blood from the fall. I went to hospital and I was kept in for two weeks.

I had a pacemaker put in. It’s like a steel box the size of a packet of cigarettes, wired up to the heart. It’s like Big Brother watching the heart.

But when I came home, I started getting savage shocks, like explosions in my chest or being struck by lightning. I’d fall on the floor.

One morning, I had two shocks within half an hour. It was killing me.

The hospital took out the pacemaker and adjusted it. I’d say it was too sensitive. But then, after a holiday in Spain with my wife, I was about to get on the plane back to Cork when I got a fearful whack. I was down on the ground like a down and out.

My wife said not to say anything or I wouldn’t be allowed on the plane. I got home and went to the South Infirmary.

Racing heart
I was kept in for tests. They doubled the dose of a tablet that slows down the heart. The problem was that I had a racing heart. That was causing the black outs. I eventually walked from the South Infirmary to the chemist in Shandon Street.

I handed in my prescription and sat in the corner, waiting. I started to bawl crying. It just shows how down I was. I was given my new tablets and I’m fine since.

During that bad time, I also broke my ankle and I had a hip replacement. I suppose the hip problem was due to age and over-use. I had a lot of pain after the operation and I think it aged me by about 20 years.

But bit by bit, I started getting back to normal. The optimism started coming back. I always had the desire to paint so I decided to take it up. I was terrible at it but I went to a class and got better and better.

Stopping drinking was the greatest decision I ever made. Drinking would affect the speed of my heart. I now see not drinking and having a pacemaker as positive things in my life. And my life is so much better now.

In conversation with

Jim McKeon’s exhibition of paintings is at Blackpool Community Centre in Cork until December 20th. It is in aid of the Good Shepherd Services for homeless women in Cork city.