HE may have received the cruellest of diagnoses — multiple system atrophy (MSA) — three years ago, but popular ex-DJ Gareth O’Callaghan still has a lot of living to do.
“I treasure every day, each day,” says Gareth, 60, who lives in Douglas.
And as his brutally honest book What Matters Now explains, living every day with the best quality of life possible is what matters now to him and his Cork-born wife, Paula.
“People ask me; how long have you got?” says Gareth. “Every individual diagnosed with the condition MSA develop differently, even though the result is the same. In the meantime, I have a lot of living to do.”
MSA is a rare neuro-degenerative disorder characterised by automatic dysfunction, tremors, slow movement, muscle rigidity and postural instability. It is an incurable progressive aggressive condition.
“The diagnosis came as a huge shock to me and to my three daughters,” says Gareth, who had a 40- year career on radio. “Especially when we realised nothing could be done.”
“I have three very close friends who have cancer. They have hope with new treatments and wonderful medical trials.”
MSA has nothing. It is very isolating. It is known as The Beast. The pain associated with it is acute. Night-time is the worst; the pain is extreme.
“MSA is a sad, mad bastard of a cowardly illness. Maybe I’ll beat you still,” Gareth declares, displaying the strong defiant attitude of his Cork- born great grandparents. They are buried in Mahely, near Blarney, and Gareth visited recently.
“They are buried in a really old Cork graveyard,” says Gareth. “Way back, if the husband out-lived the wife, it was common enough that he seldom erected a head-stone because of the grief he felt. It was through my cousin Paddy that I found the white granite boulder marking the grave where they are buried.
“It was a lovely occasion and it re-iterated my ancestry and where I come from. I felt very emotional.”
Gareth, as well as his broadcasting, is also a trained psychologist, who suffered childhood abuse at the hands of a cleric. He has experienced the depths of depression, devastating marriage break-down and financial crisis; and lived through and survived much adversity in his six decades.
“I remember when I suffered from acute depression, after my radio show, I’d drive to a car park near the Phoenix Park, recline the seat and go to sleep. I used to think; some day I’ll walk out of the radio station, pretend to get something out of the boot of the car, and drive to Rosslare and find a remote village in France near the Pyrenees and disappear.”
People here in Cork are glad Gareth didn’t, as we have claimed him as our own since he met Paula in 2015 in Cork and married her last year.
“It’s great!” says Gareth. “I love living in Cork. The walks, the forests, the beaches here are so beautiful. Paula and I love going to Currabinny Woods to walk. It is one of our favourite places, we can’t wait to get there again.”
“We walk over to Frankfield and to the old Gunpowder Mills near the river. Coming to Cork, I feel it’s like a homecoming for me. Both my grandparents on my mother’s side hailed from Cork. I have fabulous memories of coming here on holidays as a kid staying, with my Cork cousins in Coachford, Dripsey, Nad, and Blarney. Wonderful times in my life.”
And, of course, he can thank the Rebel County for introducing him to Paula, whom he met in Cork night-club The Voodoo Rooms when he was doing a promotional gig. The couple married in a Cork registry office in September, 2020.
“That is right! Cork was where I found the love of my life,” says Gareth, who remembers the moment he spotted the dark-haired woman across a crowded room when Cupid struck. “I was supposed to get the 7pm train back to Dublin after the show for Classic Hits finished. I wasn’t feeling up to doing the gig but we were contracted to the Ambassador Hotel and it would be disrespectful to let them down. The lads on the team wanted to keep me there and said we had time for a drink and I ended up missing the train.”
But he didn’t miss the opportunity of a lifetime.
“I had noticed Paula who was at the nightclub with a friend,” says Gareth. “I walked over to her and said hello, we got chatting, and that was that!
Paula told me afterwards she had never heard of Gareth O’Callaghan! I gave her my number and asked her to ring it,” says Gareth.
Did he hold the fact she’d never heard of him against her?
“I remember laughing about it,” says Gareth.
Not all of his memories are happy.
“I firmly believe the anxiety I suffered as a child after being abused by a cleric when I was 11 years old, had an impact on my future health,” says Gareth, who many years later exorcised the demons when he re-visited Clara, Co. Clare, where his extreme childhood trauma occurred.
“Scientists believe through research that extreme trauma in childhood can lead to illnesses later in life like cancer and arthritis and bigger neuro-related illness,” says Gareth. “That will be scientifically proven in another couple of years. I’d put money on it.”
MSA put an end to Gareth’s career and to a pain-free, care-free existence.
“The abuse I suffered at the hands of a cleric was most likely the beginning of this MSA nightmare and the start of my depression, which was a side-effect from the trauma. The mind is active and the memories are sharp.”
Gareth believes the abuse not only robbed him of his happy childhood, but also of his hopes of a healthy future living into old age.
“My dreamy childhood world was invaded. My perfect view of the world changed forever. When a predator comes along; it hits you like a sledge-hammer,” says Gareth. “Your life evaporates and explodes. You are frozen in time like a block of ice.”
He still went on to do great things.
“I finished out school, got a job, got married. I am dad to three beautiful daughters and grandad to three amazing granddaughters. Many people who suffer abuse don’t go beyond that stage in their lives. They drop out. Some become addicts, some turn to crime.”
Why did Gareth turn to God, deciding to enter the priesthood after enduring his horrific experience?
“That’s a good question,” he says. “I met many great men who were priests. Of course they are not all abusive. Predators lurk wherever there is access to young children
“My reason for thinking of joining the priesthood was to reach out and help people. A year in, I realised it wasn’t for me.”
Gareth now realises living every day to the fullest, surrounded by mother nature and with his wife by his side, is for him. “Nature is a beautiful power,” he adds.
Gareth’s mother is 89. “I better not say she’s nearly 90! She’s hail and harty and still driving.”
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. “She’s a great talker,” says Gareth. “She’d talk for Ireland!”
No doubt she is proud of her DJ son who became a national treasure on radio and is now a famous author.
“What Matters Now took me 14 months to write,” says Gareth.“I had the notes in my mind.”
Does he view it as a legacy that he can leave for future generations?
“I hope there is another book in me! I face MSA head on. Accepting it and coming out the other end is what I’ve tried to look to.
“There is a possibility that Paula will become my full-time carer,” says Gareth. “When I was diagnosed with MSA, I said to her, go now.”
But Paula is sticking around, just like she did when Gareth chatted her up in the Voodoo Rooms.
“I love her very much,” says Gareth. “I love her for all she does for me.”
Is he sad?
“Life can be sad, but you’re not life,” says Gareth. “Life is not a person, life is a space that you’re in.”
And sometimes life isn’t fair.
“Yes, my illness is progressing; the pain gets worse,” says Gareth.
“Recently, I invested in hydrogen treatment that is front-line health-care in Japan and South Korea, which I hook up via cannula during the night. The pain at 3am, 4am and 5am in the morning is pretty intense.”
He tries to soothe the pain.
“I am now becoming an expert in classical music!”
He is also an expert in enjoying living Leeside and has embraced all things Cork; even the lingo.
“My mother says she can hear the Cork lilt in my voice!”
Gareth O’Callaghan’s rich, melodic voice, which kept us entertained on the radio for so many years, is alive and well He has found a way through the dark. That’s what matters now.
What Matters Now : A Memoir of Hope and Finding a Way Through the Dark, published by Hachette Books in all good bookshops €13.99. Available now