'I keep the best side out . . . I can find myself swiping three or four glasses off the table'
Shay Healy has spent the past decade living with Parkinson’s. The Eurovision winner, now a patient’s champion, tells SYLVIA THOMPSONabout coping with it
WITH HIS BLACK LEATHER jacket and combed-back hair, Shay Healy doesn’t look his 69 years. His firm handshake and clear facial expression also belie the fact that the songwriter, performer and broadcaster has had Parkinson’s disease for almost a decade. But the jerky movements characteristic of the degenerative neurological condition soon become obvious. As we walk to a cafe and then sit chatting, his head and body continue to move, swaying sometimes gently, sometimes a little more quickly. He speaks clearly and expressively for almost an hour.
“I keep the best side out,” he says. “When I’m under pressure my throat seems to go into a reaction and I spit the words out through my teeth; they sound strangulated to me. And sometimes I can find myself swiping three or four glasses off the table. And the tips of my fingers are so insensitive that tying shoelaces becomes an Olympic sport sometimes.
“What’s hardest for me, though, is not being able to walk distances. The South Wall [walk, at the southern entrance to Dublin Port] was my sanctuary from the madness of the world. The harbour wall on one side and the open sea on the other had a balancing effect. And now I can’t walk it.”
Nights can also be difficult. Healy sometimes lashes out while sleeping. His wife, Dymphna, or DeeDee, can no longer sleep beside him. “She had to move out of the room, but she has been an invaluable support to me. Although she suffers from chronic arthritis herself, she keeps the world ticking over and I slot into it.”
For Healy, who is still best known for having written What’s Another Year, the song with which Johnny Logan won the 1980 Eurovision Song Contest for Ireland, and for presenting Nighthawks, RTÉ’s late-night satirical chatshow from the late 1980s, the diagnosis of Parkinson’s came as a shock. The abrupt way he was told he had it annoys him eight years on.
“I was writing a cheque for my GP, and I mentioned how my handwriting was getting smaller and smaller. He said it was best to have it checked out. So I went to a neurologist in a certain Dublin hospital who gave me the diagnosis in a cold and most uncaring way. He did nothing to assuage my anxieties, and put me on medication straight away.”
After the diagnosis was confirmed – “I come from a family who would seek a fifth opinion if they could,” Healy says with a smile – he moved to another neurologist, who is still treating him. The low number of neurologists in Ireland is an issue that Healy believes will become more serious as Parkinson’s disease gets more common in our ageing population.
Healy says writing songs, playing guitar and piano, making films, staying sociable and “hustling people” for work keep him going. “My head is still okay, which keeps me active and busy,” he remarks as he passes me a copy of his new “Parkinson’s” song, Something Good Is Coming My Way, recorded by Paul Harrington, and his tribute to James Joyce, Finnegan, Are You Really Dead?
Tomorrow Healy will give the opening remarks at the Parkinson’s Association of Ireland’s national patient conference at Convention Centre Dublin. The day-long event will hear from medical experts visiting Ireland for the international congress of the Movement Disorder Society, which continues at the convention centre until Thursday.
“I said to the Parkinson’s Association that I’d do anything for them except go on a committee,” he says. “I didn’t know anyone with Parkinson’s before I was diagnosed, and the association has opened up a whole new vista and set of people to me with whom I share a common focus.”
He adds that although his Parkinson’s has progressed relatively slowly, his condition has moved into another phase in the past 18 months or so, forcing him to give up some work commitments. “I thought my television days were over, and then I was asked to be a judge on TG4’s country-music show Glor Tire. About a year and a half ago I said I couldn’t do it any longer, as it was eroding my confidence and that of those around me. I think they were relieved. I still do a little bit of radio, and I write a column in the Daily Mail.” Nighthawks Rehashed, a tribute to the original TV show, will be broadcast this year as part of RTÉ’s 50th-anniversary celebrations.
Healy says that, given his age, he’s not hugely interested in the medical search for a cure for Parkinson’s disease. “I go to the swimming pool every day. I get my five a day, as Deedee is a gourmet cook. My friends invite me out and include me in stuff. I still have a few drinks at the weekend, and I’m writing songs by myself and with other guys. That keeps my head straight, and the unexpected benefit of having Parkinson’s is that it offers you a protective shield from all other ailments and illnesses.”
The Parkinson’s Association of Ireland is at 1800-359359, firstname.lastname@example.org and parkinsons.ie