Peter Ryan: ‘I was 22 and had nothing terminal. There was a long way to go’

‘Legally blind’; ‘former minor’; ‘alcoholic’: Tipp man shed the tags and took on cycling

Peter Ryan: “I am way more independent and it sounds strange but I am happier in my own skin now.” Photograph: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Peter Ryan: “I am way more independent and it sounds strange but I am happier in my own skin now.” Photograph: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

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In the early days, when the seen world was vanishing on him, Peter Ryan used to have these dreams about hurling that were so super-saturated in reality – the sounds and smells of his old life – that they deceived him every time.

“They were awful because . . . well, they were great dreams about hurling. But they were awful too. Because your mind’s eye is still fully functioning. So I was waking up from dreams thinking that I could see. It would take that few seconds.”

Of all the labels Peter Ryan has had to contend over the past decade, the “former hurler” tag has stung the most. In a matter of months, he went from being an elite teenage hurler in Tipperary’s giddily triumphant hurling scene to a young man all at sea. ‘Legally blind’; ‘former minor’; ‘alcoholic’: it was as if everything about his life was suddenly taboo.

It’s only in the past few years that the public has begun to see and talk of him as he is: a full-time athlete and cyclist who is deep in training for his second Paralympic Games. He is such a gifted conversationalist that when you sit just feet away from him sipping coffee, you’d have no idea he has this affliction.

His eyes dance with life and constantly make contact with your own as he emphasises a point so it comes as a shock when he explains exactly what he sees, even as the chef sets up the carvery in the Anner Hotel and the schoolkids fill Thurles square at lunch time.

He can just about make out the white milk jug sitting on the table in front of him when he looks directly down. He can make out the shape of it. But straight ahead is just greyness.

“It’s like the scope of a rifle where you have your axis but the circle is grey.”

After a diagnosis for Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy, a rare genetic condition that struck without warning when he was 19, his vision was left was reduced by 80 per cent, most of that peripheral.

“Or I can see faces if they are really, really close. But that can be, you know . . intimidating.”

It would be easier to simply look down as he speaks because that way he has immediate comforts and references. He can see his hands; the edge of the table; his mobile sitting there. But he prefers to look across at the face he can’t see as if he can.

“It’s a very awkward thing to do because everything in you wants to look down. It’s just my way of owning it. And I don’t have a monopoly on being right. It is just my take on things. Being visually impaired means you are taking in a different world. I am hearing the plates back there and a conversation over there. And I get really tired just from thinking because I am not taking in the outside world. I am in a smaller world and I want to keep interaction as normal as possible. Like, there is no pamphlet for this. You have to make your own rules on how to live and on what sits with you morally.”

He tells you all this without an ounce of self-pity. It’s just how it is. He has just finished a two-hour session on his stationary bike in the gym in the hotel, who along with Campion Insurance, a Thurles company, help him with sponsorship.

He would three days later fly out to Rio to compete in a world championship race with Seán Hahessy, his co-cyclist on the tandem, where they finished eighth. The bike has not been the answer to the challenges Ryan faced in the years after his world was suddenly and terrifyingly altered. But it has helped to make sense of things again.

National title

He won a national title just seven months after first sitting on a bike in the winter of 2012 and shortly after that found himself racing in Canada. From Thurles to Quebec is a radical jump for any young person to make; for one still adjusting to not seeing, it was an adventure is pure strangeness.

“Flat out trying to dial back to third-year French,” he groans. “Ended up coming off the bike and in hospital. Stitches in the knee.”

But almost straight away, cycling and competing gave him a rush that he believes remained trapped in the ghost-games of his hurling life. By 2015, he placed eighth at the world championships and competed in Rio the following summer.

“I love going to the edge of that limit. Like, I have hit 112 kilometres on the bike and there are no brakes at my end. So the trust between me and Seán is . . . like, there is a full conversation to be had in the dynamics of the tandem alone just on the rapport you have to have. Tandem cycling is about synergy.”

Ireland’s Peter Ryan, along with his pilot Marcin Mizgajski, in action during the Men’s B Road Race at the Pontal Cycling Road during the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile via Getty Images
Ireland’s Peter Ryan, along with his pilot Marcin Mizgajski, in action during the Men’s B Road Race at the Pontal Cycling Road during the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Hahessy, the pilot, is a national junior and U-23 champion. The pair of them train together at least twice a week, 100 and 150 kilometre loops around south Tipp and because they are nothing alike in personality, they get on like a house on fire.

“He’s a man of science; I’m a man of faith,” Peter laughs. “Seán’s an aerobic machine. He is crazily talented whereas in my head I’ve to work for everything. He’s one of the top 10 riders in the country. I’m probably of that standard if you put me on a solo bike now but I’ve to work for every inch of it. What we do is about communication. But really, it is hours on the bike together. I can almost read Seán’s mind on a bike.

“Even personality wise, I know when he is getting thick about something. Like, the man hates head wind. And all of a sudden, I will notice something in his back. I know what stimulates him. I need to do laps of the course to get my mind’s eye. When you are coming into a fast right hander you don’t have time to communicate verbally so you are doing things with pedal strokes.”

The routine of the athlete’s life and the training give him time to think. He is regularly invited to give talks to secondary school classes and GAA clubs on how his life turned after he learned of his condition. He remembers what it’s like to be at an age when every small problem –“when a spot on your face” – can become magnified and all encompassing. And because students at that age are wonderfully blunt, they just blurt out what they want to know. They are fascinated, agape. How do you dress yourself, they ask him. Can you still get with a girl?

Made men

He doesn’t hold back when he talks to them. You have to understand who Peter Ryan was. He came through in the same minor grade as James Barry, John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer and Noel McGrath.

“I was no Noel McGrath, now,” he cautions. “I was solid. I was the lad you’d send on to mark Noel McGrath.”

Making that grade thrust him under a kind of local strobe light of accomplishment that probably meant more to others than to him. They felt like made men, dousing themselves in cologne and getting the nod from security personnel on a Saturday night in Hayes Hotel.

“The ego that goes with that at that age . . . you are in the local pub and the girls from the local schools are happy out to be chatting to you. You have the swagger, like. It is a very real thing. Your world is small.”

When he finished school, a vague, unexplored part of him thought that maybe he could go on and do social work. But by then he had started working with OMC, a local fabrication company. The money was good. He had a car. He was a hurler. The weekends were a blast. All of the Ryans – there were nine in the house – had an appetite for work and he loved the camaraderie of putting in solid hours with people he liked. He didn’t question the life. Did he live for the weekends? Doesn’t everyone at the age of 19?

Peter Ryan: “I love going to the edge of that limit. Like, I have hit 112 kilometres on the bike and there are no brakes at my end.” Photograph: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Peter Ryan: “I love going to the edge of that limit. Like, I have hit 112 kilometres on the bike and there are no brakes at my end.” Photograph: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

He can say with absolute certainty his diagnosis triggered a two-year deep dive into drinking but he has “plenty of thoughts” on the way he used to drink as a normal Irish young adult. The old GAA thing – abstention for three weeks broken by an unholy three-day release – set the tone for the way he and his friends went about things.

He can’t be sure now if he became an alcoholic because he lost his eyesight or if that just quickened the inevitable. He wouldn’t take back the fun. And he wouldn’t take back the moments; the strange license that binge drinking gives groups of young men to actually talk honestly to one another in hazy fragments of nights, away from the DJ pulse and the crowd pressure.

“I’ve probably cried more with friends with drink on board – and not just me. That random you-go-out-for-a-fag and all of a sudden they have the real chat with you. But that is that Irish thing as well . . . it masks the masculinity. It is showing weakness or something so maybe in a manly setting like a pub it is less weak. So the amount of breakdowns I had on the third day of a session is not coincidental. The GAA attitude to alcohol; I think it is crazy to be telling adults what you can or can’t do. You create the monster that way by putting it on a pedestal.”

The drinking scene was the one thing that didn’t disappear from him after he was diagnosed. The world shifted on him with stunning brevity. He can easily place himself back in the chill of St Patrick’s Day, 2010 when he played with his club side against the Tipp U-21s and noticed that he wasn’t reading the game with the usual clarity. He went for an eye test that weekend and was told the worst within weeks.

No allowances

Instinct told him to make no allowances, to persevere with the life he knew. Word wasn’t long going around Thurles and, soon after, Tipp. But he behaved as if nothing had changed. The world began to remove itself from his range of vision anyhow. Elementary tasks he could complete on a job on a Friday evening would be out of his grasp when he’d come back in on Monday.

“Just seeing details on a measuring tape. I made shit of one of my thumbs one day with a saw. I needed stitches and wouldn’t tell anyone. One of the boys caught me and bandaged me up.”

And he still showed up as a hurler. Even when he couldn’t really see the ball anymore. Because if he was in that dressingroom, with those voices and still part of it, then he wouldn’t have the time to think about just how fucking terrifying what was happening was. He wouldn’t have time to entertain all the never-wills that were suddenly flooding his mind: I’ll never work. Never drive again. Never go anywhere. I’ll never have a wife . . . because I can’t even pick the kids up from school.”

Team Ireland tandem cyclists (l-r) Marcin Mizgajski, Peter Ryan, Damien Vereker and Sean Hahessy, at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Photograph: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile via Getty Images
Team Ireland tandem cyclists (l-r) Marcin Mizgajski, Peter Ryan, Damien Vereker and Sean Hahessy, at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Photograph: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Around midsummer, he packed the hurling in. It was just a junior league match.

“And I wasn’t able to hack it. I was getting that bit dirty because I had lost the edge. I had become a shit version of myself. And it wasn’t sitting well with me. Word was getting around. People didn’t know what was what . . . some of them probably wondered why I didn’t have a cane with me. It was all whispers and circles.”

He moved back home at Upperchurch-Drombane as his vision grew dimmer. His parents, Dinny and Eileen, were brilliant; loving, heartbroken, lost. He resented the loss of independence; hated even asking for a lift into town. But he’d do that much anyway because the one thing that could continue uninterrupted were the weekends. He could look down and find the glass. And don’t peg him as a lonely drinker because he was way too crafty and charming for that. He could sniff out any party going in a 50-mile radius, up as a college student in UL for three days and back in the old haunts at the weekend.

Rarely a 21st in Tipp was held without an appearance by Peter Ryan. He could still talk and work the smile and, on the outside, he was fazed by nothing. The last proper drink he remembers having lasted about nine days. His parents were worried sick. By the time he was persuaded to check into the Aiséirí Centre in Cahir, he was, he says, “screwballed”.

His scepticism – “I thought they were going to pray the drink out of me” – was outweighed by his desperation and his realisation that being in the middle of a large family ranging from 17 to 36 and surrounded by nephews and nieces, he didn’t want them, he says, “growing up with a wreck of an uncle”.

“Because I was 22 and had nothing terminal. There was a long way to go. And without getting too down and out, we mightn’t have gone a long way.”

Visually impaired

So there are days Peter Ryan tells classrooms about those weeks in Cahir and about his slow emergence from the canopy of fear that came with his impairment. He’d tell them how he followed a man with a Cork accent onto the train rather than asking which platform it was on. How he’d dread asking someone in a restaurant for help with the menu in case they thought he couldn’t read. Or he might tell them about how nowadays he visits this cafe near George’s Street in Dublin.

If he has meetings during the day, he’d carry his cane and was obviously visually impaired. But once or twice he had set up Tinder dates for the same place.

“My brother would drop me off outside when I was going on a date and I had no cane with me. And I always figured: ‘if it’s the same staff on here they’re going to be giving me some looks’. Only when he stopped caring about what the outside world thought did he discover that it didn’t.

He gets all that now. He shows us around Thurles, whose rhythms and nooks he knows by heart. We call into the CBS, where he knows the teachers straight away by voice. Less than a decade ago, he was a giddy, distracted, mischievous 17-year-old who was terrific at hurling and could charm his way out of trouble.

“Sometimes I do pick up the hurley, and it’s like, Oh Lord. It is bitter sweet though. It really is. Nostalgia hits you like nothing on earth. Even if you’re just in the yard.”

It’s strange because he can still visualise their faces, remember the rooms. See himself back there. And of course he’d give anything to see all that ordinary glory again, more than any of us can imagine. But that genetic twist forced him into a way of life so fearless about failure and about speaking out that every so often, he almost feels lucky to have the condition.

“I am way more independent and it sounds strange but I am happier in my own skin now.”

On he races.

No brakes.

The Grassroots: The first of a monthly series looking deeper into sport in Ireland.

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