Charlie Bird: ‘My voice will go first. And my voice has been me’

Veteran journalist on coming to terms with his motor neuron disease diagnosis

As Charlie Bird opens his front gate, there's no hint that anything might be amiss. Lean and spry in build, sporting the goatee he grew since his retirement from RTÉ, Bird exudes a generous, if slightly nervous, energy as he welcomes us to his home. It's only when he starts to talk that it becomes clear all is not right. Bird's voice, so recognisable from his years as RTÉ's chief reporter, is no longer the urgently animated instrument that brought viewers stories from home and abroad. Instead, he sounds slurred at some times, while struggling to be heard at others.

It’s the only obvious symptom of the motor neurone disease (MND) that the 72-year-old journalist has been diagnosed with, but is all the more shocking for him otherwise seeming a picture of health. It was several months ago that he first experienced difficulty speaking, resulting in the bank of tests that eventually yielded his dreadful diagnosis. “My voice will go first. And my voice has been me,” Bird says, contemplating his future with the terminal degenerative condition, news of which he shared on Twitter on Wednesday.

We meet the day after his tweet went viral, and while he is buoyed by the emotional reaction on both social and mainstream media – "The outpouring in the last 24 hours has blown me away" – Bird has also been dealing with the stark reality of his illness. "Being honest, the last week has been hell." He has just returned from seeing consultant neurologist Prof Orla Hardiman at Beaumont Hospital, where the grim practicalities surrounding his condition were discussed.

“My voice will weaken, but whether it goes completely they don’t know. And it’s an awful conversation to have, about whether I should record my voice into a voice bank, so that when eventually you’ve no voice, you can use it on a computer. That was the reality today.”

There’s no firm indication on how fast the disease will progress: “Maybe a year, 18 months, nobody knows. I kept pressing them, and they don’t say.” Unsurprisingly, Bird has been struggling to process his new situation. “I’m just coming to terms with it,” he says. “It hasn’t been easy. I wish I could say I was the strongest man in the world, but I’ve cried my eyes out over the last month, and I don’t sleep at night.”

My honest feeling is, with no disrespect to anyone else who's going through hell and torment, I don't want to end up in a wheelchair. And you can read between the lines

It's a bleak scenario, but Bird finds solace in his surroundings. There is an eagerness in his step as he takes me around the Co Wicklow home he shares with his wife, Claire Mould. "I'm emotionally drained, but I still have all the energy," he remarks. He points out the striking wooden sculpture of a gallowglass warrior that adorns his front lawn, lauding the hardiness of the Lebanese cedar that the seven-foot-plus structure is carved from. "That will still be standing in 200 years," he says proudly.

There’s also a cursing stone, inscribed with the names of his two daughters, from his first marriage, and his five grandchildren, an indication of how important his family is to him. The affection between Bird and his wife is equally striking; Claire calls her husband by his surname, but somehow makes it sound like a fond nickname.

The house is crammed with reminders of Bird’s remarkable career, from pictures taken with Barack Obama to a photo of him standing among a gaggle of reporters during the Queen’s 2011 visit to the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin, the same venue where he used to meet Provisional IRA sources during the Troubles: “For 10 years I was the only contact between RTÉ and the IRA.”

And then there are the forest trails of the nearby Wicklow Mountains. Bird has been walking them at every opportunity since the pandemic began, but with more urgency since he began to realise there was something wrong with his health. “It was in my head, that maybe I can defeat this by walking and walking,” he says. All of which makes the relentless advance of MND seem particularly cruel. “If there’s one positive thing I’ve been told, it’s that my legs may be the last thing to go. That’s the hope I have today, that my mobility will be the last thing to go.”

The spectre of immobility haunts Bird. Speaking to Newstalk presenter Anton Savage on Wednesday, he spoke of his determination not to end up in a wheelchair. In retrospect, he thinks it was probably an unfortunate phrase to use, and expresses sorrow that wheelchair users may have thought him disrespectful. "It was not directed at them," he says. But he is adamant that he wants to avoid such an outcome, even if it may entail drastic action.

“My honest feeling is, with no disrespect to anyone else who’s going through hell and torment, I don’t want to end up in a wheelchair if at all possible. And you can read between the lines.” He pauses. “It’s something I have to grasp, to tackle in my head. People around the world are having debates and discussions about dying with dignity. And at the moment, it’s only in my head, I don’t know where I’m travelling on this road.”

His own situation notwithstanding, Bird is wary about the complex moral issues that surround assisted dying.

“I want to be careful raising it, I’m not going to become a campaigner at all,” he says. “I’m not a pioneer for anybody in this. I’m only going to be a campaigner for myself and my family.” Yet the prospect of his family being obliged to tend to him as his condition worsens means he cannot ignore the matter. “Everybody has to help me. But that’s why I come back to my point about where I want to end this journey. I have to wrestle with it myself, I can’t avoid it.”

In all this, Bird keeps thinking of his friend Colm Murray, the RTÉ sports correspondent who died from MND in 2013. "In the last six months of Colm's life, I used to visit him with two of my mates [and former RTÉ colleagues], Ed Mulhall and Joe O'Brien," Bird says. "I can remember walking out one day and I just said to Joe, I mean it's the most bizarre thing, 'If I was ever like that, shoot me'. And right now, I'm sitting here talking to you, a week after I got the diagnosis."

Bird is understandably anguished at this memory. But while he is rawly emotional – "I know in the middle of this, I'm going to cry," he says at the outset of our interview – he also tries to eschew self-pity. He constantly places his experience in the context of Ireland's wider issues, whether praising CervicalCheck campaigner Vicky Phelan or voicing anger at the intractable problems of health and housing.

“I’m going through a living nightmare, but out there in the big world, there are more people going through it too, and they deserve more,” he says. “As a journalist in RTÉ, I couldn’t opine about these things. But feck it, I’m now an independent person, I can say things that I couldn’t say before, and I feel we are a shame in this country.”

When I joined the RTÉ newsroom, I used to carry a pocket dictionary – there was no spellcheck on the computer, and I was so afraid I would be caught out

He is especially frustrated by what he sees as the political failure to deal with deep societal ills. “I’m not picking out any one individual party, it’s the system,” he says. “Yeah, we live in a democracy and it’s important , but it shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to wake us up to the fact that people can’t get a house or there’s almost a million people on waiting lists.”

At moments like this, Bird sounds like the passionate reporter who broke story after memorable story during his 38 years in RTÉ, whether highlighting Fr Niall O'Brien's unjust imprisonment in the Philippines in 1983, or doorstepping elusive Anglo Irish Bank executive David Drumm in Boston in 2010. But he stresses there was nothing foreordained about the career that started in the library of The Irish Times in 1971.

“In a way I’m proud of myself, because I never went to university, I failed every exam I did, I couldn’t spell,” he recalls. “When I joined the RTÉ newsroom, I used to carry a pocket dictionary – there was no spellcheck on the computer, and I was so afraid I would be caught out.”

But while Bird enjoyed his job, he had few problems adjusting to life after retiring from RTÉ in 2012. “I’m a big believer in good journalism, but if someone thinks you can’t be replaced – you can,” he says. “All the political staff in RTÉ are brilliant, as good as the ones who were there 20 years ago. That’s what happens – people move on, other people move in. That’s life, that’s what’s important.”

Just as he is philosophical about his professional life, Bird is sanguine in his personal beliefs.

My ashes will be taken to Inisheer, the smallest of the [Aran] islands, where I've been going for the last 50 years. I call it my second home, I love the place and people

Though he had a standard religious upbringing – “I was reared a Catholic, even though my grandfather was a Protestant” – he is no longer a practising Christian. He was married to Claire in 2016 in a humanist ceremony, but even this seems too restrictive a category for his optimistic outlook. “I wouldn’t call myself even a humanist,” he says. “I call myself a people person. I believe in people, in doing good for people, that’s what I’ve tried to do with my life. I believe in the goodness of the spirit.”

Does he think about what comes after death? “I don’t. I hate to say this, but I’m not worried, in that sense. I haven’t done anybody any injury or harm.” Given his condition, however, he has been thinking about death in a more practical manner.

"Without revealing what I call the secrets of Fatima, I've been making plans for my own funeral. My ashes will be taken to Inisheer, the smallest of the [Aran] islands, where I've been going for the last 50 years. I call it my second home, I love the place and people, and I just feel that's where I want to go."

It might sound morbid, but Bird seems almost uplifted by this thought. At other times, however, he unashamedly breaks down in tears. He tells me he wanted to tweet the Latin phrase noli timere, meaning "don't be afraid", the last words texted to my mother by my late father, Seamus Heaney. "I had it written and then I went no, it's unfair, that's their story," he says, suddenly tearing up.

It's bizarre, I don't know how many people plan their own funeral. But I'm a forward planner, I always was. I never missed a deadline

Such distress is almost unbearable to witness, but each time Bird rallies and focuses on the positive, from the love of his family and many friends to the heartfelt public support he’s received since he revealed his condition. He is all too aware of the harrowing personal trials that lie ahead, while still grappling with disorienting strangeness of his condition. “It’s unreal, sitting here having this conversation,” he says. But while Bird wishes he had not found himself on this daunting path, he is determined to keep going his own way.

“When I was growing up, my father always used to say, a man’s natural span is three score years and 10. And I remember when I turned 70, I said, ‘I made it’. I’m the youngest of four, they’re all alive, so chances are I will be the first to go. But in one way, I’ve been fortunate, I’ve had a great life. I’ve been lucky – for most of my time in RTÉ I never had a sick day. I’ve never been in hospital for a night, so I’ve had a good run. I was hoping for more, but maybe I’ll get a little wobble and get a bit longer.

“I know what’s going to happen, in the end we all know what’s going to happen. It’s hard to take, but I want to live whatever time I have left as fully as I can, and be with my mates. It’s bizarre, I don’t know how many people plan their own funeral. But I’m a forward planner, I always was. I never missed a deadline.”