Charlie Bird: ‘I was hiding from people, from my mates in RTÉ’

The veteran journalist said the motor neurone disease diagnosis was a ‘nightmare’

Charlie Bird, retired RTÉ journalist. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Charlie Bird, retired RTÉ journalist. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

 

Charlie Bird, the former chief reporter with RTÉ, has been diagnosed with motor neurone disease and said for a long time he was “hiding” from his friends in RTÉ.

In a tweet today Bird (72) disclosed he had been diagnosed with the disease and thanked his friends for their support.

The well-known journalist who worked for the national broadcaster for 38 years, told The Irish Times that he first noticed something was wrong earlier this year when he began to have problems with his voice.

At the time he was working on a podcast series for the Senior Times website about a previously unreported attempt to extort money from the State in 1979 by way of a threat to unleash foot-and-mouth disease.

The series involved a collaboration with The Irish Times and interviews with the former head of the fraud squad, Willie McGee. It was while on the way to conduct an interview with McGee that the broadcaster first became concerned about his voice.

Nightmare

“I was thinking, there is something wrong with my voice, and it was scary, because my voice has been my life.”

As he worked on the podcast series he struggled with his voice but “I thought it was something else”.

Over the months since his voice has deteriorated but it was not until Thursday last that the cause of his problem was finally diagnosed.

“You know your own body,” he said. “I’ve known in my head there was something bad.”

Bird said his good friend at RTÉ, Colm Murray, had died from motor neurone disease, as had another former RTÉ colleague, Kevin Dawson.

“This is a f***ing nightmare,” he said. “It is probably moving fast, but not in my legs at the moment. So that is the one plus. I have no idea how long that will stay for. That is the one thing about motor neurone disease, no one can predict. At the moment the main issue of concern is my voice and my swallow.”

Because of the deterioration of his voice, Bird said, he had been avoiding people.

“I’ll tell you the truth. I was hiding from people, from my mates in RTÉ. I was in the Stillorgan Shopping Centre one day and I saw Eileen Dunne, who is one of my mates. I hid from her. I didn’t want to have to explain what was wrong with my voice.”

During long walks in Wicklow, where he lives, he tried to organise his outings so he wouldn’t meet neighbours and have to explain what was wrong with his voice, he said.

“I still have some power in my voice, but to me it is disappearing,” he said. “That’s what scared me so much. This was my livelihood.”

He said he decided to tweet about his diagnosis because it was “getting around” and there was no point in hiding.

“It’s psychological. You have to man up. I had to admit this. I don’t sleep at night. I don’t. I have hardly slept for the past three or four months. It’s hard to know what I’m facing. If somebody told me a few months ago that I had terminal cancer I might say, ‘that’s life, and you have to deal with’. But motor neurone disease, it’s an awful prospect.”

At the consultant’s on Thursday he had to deal with a form for the HSE that concerned his having a terminal illness.

“Having to cope with that is hard. Hopefully I can get, who knows, a year or two. I have no idea what is coming down the road. I do not want to go into a wheelchair. I don’t. I don’t.”

He said his hero over recent months has been cancer sufferer Vicky Phelan because of the courage she has shown despite having been dealt such a dreadful hand.

“She is a remarkable human being,” Bird said. “In a way she gives me a lift, courage.”

In a tweet on Wednesday Bird said: “Recently I spoke about issues with my voice. I now know why. I have been diagnosed with motor neurone disease. Thanks to all my pals for their amazing support. And the kindness from so many people. Stay safe everyone.”

Speaking on RTÉ’s Liveline show, Bird acknowledged that he had gotten a knock with the diagnosis.

Bird said that “ to be blunt, sometimes it was not easy to deal with” but that he had to get on with his life. “People every day are getting knocks.”

There were people with Covid, people on waiting lists, people waiting for operations.

Although he has difficulty eating, he can still drive and continues to take 10-mile walks every day, weather permitting, he said. One of his treats is to go to his local pub where he enjoys a pint of Guinness and does The Irish Times crossword.

“I am trying to be active. I have remarkable friends. The RTÉ family has been remarkable. They know the journey behind the scenes, they have kept me going,” he said.

Some weeks ago on the anniversary of the Don Tidey kidnapping, having been approached for interviews as he had covered the story, Bird tweeted that he was having problems with his voice which was why he could not participate. “I feel I’m struggling with my voice.”

Bird also acknowledged that he was in “a lot of discomfort” and was not sleeping well. Many people were living with motor neurone disease and he felt he had to confront it even though he knew what the “final outcome will be”.

“It’s hard, it’s difficult, but I have the support of mates, colleagues and neighbours.”

People in his local pub had been “brilliant” and “have been bloody marvellous”. He said he was fortunate to have a village to look after him.

His wife of six years, Claire, had pleaded with him some years ago to get a dog, he finally relented when her father was dying and the “creature”, Tigger, had been a wonderful source of comfort over the last four months, he added. “He knows when I’m distressed. It’s incredible the love of that creature.”

While the news he had received was “awful” he said, he was fortunate to have the support of his wife, his daughters, his sons-in-law and grandchildren. “It gets me through. In a way I pinch myself. I know I have to get on with it.”

Bird said he would continue to go to the pub for his pint of Guinness and to do crossword “maybe not all the clues” and that he wanted to continue “to shine a light in dark places”.

Bird spent almost four decades with RTÉ, joining in 1974 as a researcher. During his career he was chief news correspondent and later Washington Correspondent before retiring in 2012.

Since his retirement he has worked as a documentary maker and on a number of writing projects.