“I’ve had stage 4 cancer since 2009... I wasn't expected to survive until that Christmas"

A woman living with incurable cancer has teamed up with her daughter to publish a book, inspired by their home, Blackwater Castle, writes CHRIS DUNNE
“I’ve had stage 4 cancer since 2009... I wasn't expected to survive until that Christmas"
Sheila O'Keeffe. Picture: Dermot Lynch

SHEILA O’Keeffe is a double jobber. The ex-lawyer is a caretaker and assistant manager of Blackwater Castle in Castletownroche by day, and she is a writer by night. The Mystery of the Sheela Na Gig is Sheila’s debut novel, aimed at young girls age 10 and upwards.

“I both live at the castle and work there,” says Sheila, who previously practiced as a lawyer in Mitchelstown.

Where did she meet Patrick Nordstrom, whose family have owned Blackwater Castle since 1991? Was it a story book romance?

Sheila laughs.

“We met at the Cork Jazz Festival. We just clicked straight-away. Patrick’s father, Dr Rabbe Nordstrom, was a surgeon engaged in cancer research, but died suddenly in 1998.

“He developed the Nordstrom Family Trust with the objective of using Blackwater Castle as a tool to advance art and culture and scientific research and development, and also to preserve the magnificent heritage of the site.”

Sheila, an ordinary mother with a less than ordinary address, lives in the castle with her husband Patrick and their daughter, Moya, aged 10.

“Moya and her friends spend a lot of time milling around the castle,” says Sheila, who hails from Limerick.

“So I decided to write a book featuring them all.”

What was their response?

“Pretty cool, they said!” says Sheila.

Sheila O'Keeffe with a Sheela na Gig. Picture taken by Moya Nordstrom.
Sheila O'Keeffe with a Sheela na Gig. Picture taken by Moya Nordstrom.

Sheila not only has an out of the ordinary address, she is an extraordinary woman, living with incurable cancer.

“Moya was born in January 2009,” Sheila says.

“I sailed through the pregnancy. Afterwards I began to lose weight and I began to feel more tired. I put it down to new motherhood and thought that I wasn’t coping well.”

Sheila was shocked to discover that she had stage 4 cancer.

“I’ve had stage 4 cancer since 2009,” says the 47-year-old.

“I was affected in the colon and in the lungs. I had emergency surgery in my lungs and have undergone more than half a dozen operations and many bouts of chemotherapy treatment over 10 years.

“I have had three or four remissions. My illness halts, then it progresses; advancing and retreating. That seems to be the pattern. The cancer is contained, but it remains incurable, but it is manageable and it is treatable.”

Sheila gets on with daily life, being a wife, a mother, an author and keeper of the castle.

“When I was first diagnosed in 2009, it didn’t look good,” says Sheila.

“I wasn’t expected to survive until that Christmas.”

Sheila, who doesn’t retreat too easily, decided to take on the illness with a vengeance.

“I decided to take it on and to learn to live with it, getting on with everyday life.”

Sheila’s healthy lifestyle helped her when she was going through her medical treatment plan to deal with her cancer.

“I was always a runner and into sports,” says Sheila.

“I think my fitness levels could be part of the reason I’ve survived so long and that helped enormously aiding my bouts of recovery.”

Did she ever dwell on the fact that she mightn’t have survived?

“I thought about future events and I couldn’t imagine them happening. I couldn’t see them. But I didn’t let that upset me.”

Googling her disease upset her a bit.

“The percentages of surviving five years were low,” says Sheila.

“And at 36, I could be looking at a galloping cancer. The stats became a blur to me.”

Did missing out her middle years going through her cancer journey upset her?

“I kind of went from youth to old age all of a sudden,” says Sheila.

“There was no middle bit.”

Sheila O'Keeffe, daughter Moya Nordstrom and husband Patrick Nordstrom.  Picture: White Cat Studio
Sheila O'Keeffe, daughter Moya Nordstrom and husband Patrick Nordstrom.  Picture: White Cat Studio

She doesn’t dwell on the negative; but on the positive.

“I try not to indulge in the luxury of procrastination.”

What does she indulge in?

“I have a perspective on the important things in life,” says Sheila.

“The support that I’ve got even from unexpected quarters is amazing. I have found the services of the HSE second to none. The kindness and dedicated team of doctors, nurses and carers looking after me are wonderful. I have been one of their success stories since 2009 at UHL and CUH Cancer Centres.”

Sheila enjoys the luxury of a positive attitude. Just like her parents.

“Mum and dad are 82 and 77,” says Sheila.

“I stayed with them in Limerick when I was having treatment in UHL before going under the brilliant care of Dr Derek Power in Cork.

“My parents don’t drink and they never smoked. They enjoy being active, they love walking and they have a busy social life, always engaged with people.

“There is no substitute for a healthy lifestyle. The huge benefit of it is something money can’t buy.”

Sheila knows she is not alone in her cancer journey. The disease is the biggest killer in Ireland, accounting for approximately 30% of deaths every year. More than 9,000 deaths every year are from cancer.

“I don’t say, why me?” says Sheila.

“Getting cancer was a total random event. A group of cells just went bonkers!”

Sheila’s new book is enjoying success.

The Mystery Of Sheela Na Gig was Book of the Month in Easons, Mallow.

“It was fantastic!” says Sheila.

“My book was on the same shelf beside Joe Schmidt!”

And it features a rising star.

“Moya illustrated the book,” says Sheila.

So she double jobbed, like her talented mother, illustrating The Mystery of the Sheela Na Gig and featuring in it too!

“That’s right,” says Sheila proudly.

Has Moya any to her strings to her bow?

“She is a far better football player than the book suggests!”

Sheila O'Keeffe's book, 'The Mystery of The Sheela Na Gig'.
Sheila O'Keeffe's book, 'The Mystery of The Sheela Na Gig'.

The Mystery of the Sheela Na Gig is a tale of castles and legends, football and friendship, set in Castletownroche, Co Cork.

The book, exploring friendship, feminism, and folklore, draws on the ancient history and legends of Ireland, and more specifically North Cork. Entertaining and engaging, it is a great read for youngsters who learn, in a light-touch way, snippets about the history of Ireland through the prism of North Cork, an area blessed with a rich heritage going back to the Stone Age.

Moya and Sadie are best friends who play GAA, enjoying adventures together. Their adventures lead them on the trail of a family quest and a mysterious Sheela Na Gig, an ancient stone carving housed in the tower of Blackwater Castle, which is associated with fertility, female power, and the renewal of life. Don’t give away the spoiler!” says Sheila, laughing.

Indeed I won’t. But maybe Sheila will give away some information about her extraordinary guest who famously stayed at Blackwater Castle?

“Yes. We had Michael Jackson and his children stay at the castle in 2006,” says Sheila.

Blackwater Castle has played host to many international art and recording artists, as well as writers, historians, archaeologists and photographers.

“I remember Michael Jackson loved having Flahavans porridge every morning for breakfast! He wanted a bit of peace and quiet with his kids. I remember Sky contacted us afterwards to do a documentary about his visit. Patrick refused, thinking it would be an invasion on Michael’s privacy. It was disappointing what emerged about Michael Jackson afterwards.”

Sheila is far from disappointed with her personal achievement of writing Sheela Na Gig. The response to the book has been fantastic both near and far.

“I wrote the book in about a month and self-published it,” says Sheila.

“Litho Press in Midleton were great to deal with. Moya illustrated the book and Patrick was my sounding board. When I got the first copy into my hands; it was just fabulous!”

The Mystery of the Sheela Na Gig, €10, is available at Phillips Bookstore and Easons, Mallow; Fermoy Books, Fermoy; and The Favourite, Mitchelstown.

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