Born with two clubfeet but Cork woman  has made massive strides in life

Angela Sweeney, an author and historian based in Passage West, talks to CHRIS DUNNE about being born with a disability, her childhood in care, her return to education as an adult and writing six books
Born with two clubfeet but Cork woman  has made massive strides in life

Angela Sweeney, Passage

NO disability was ever going to steal away Angela Sweeney’s ‘can do’ attitude, despite being born with two clubfeet and undergoing her first operation at just three weeks old.

She even stole away her husband when she eloped with him at 17.

“He who hesitates is lost,” says Angela, née O Brien, from Passage, who is the mother of four grown-up children and the author of eight books.

“I met Paddy Sweeney at a dance in Ringaskiddy,” says Angela of her husband.

She didn’t hang about when she spotted him across the crowed floor in the ballroom of romance.

“I went up the band and I asked them to play ladies’ choice,” recalls Angela.

The rest is history.

“I manoeuvred my way over to Paddy and I asked him out to dance,” adds Angela, who was a fast mover.

“He said ‘yes’. Paddy was always the perfect gentleman.”

Angela Sweeney, as a child.
Angela Sweeney, as a child.

Paddy was a fast mover too.

“We eloped when I was 17 and we got married. We were so blessed to have four children and nine beautiful grandchildren. The grandkids often come here for sleep-overs and I missed them terribly during lockdown when I was totally cocooning.

“Paddy has COPD and he only has one-and- a-half lungs, so it was important for us to stay safe.”

Angela always looked on the bright side of life, and in her 69 years, that has never changed.

“We loved the peace and quiet when we were cocooning,” she says.

“The tranquillity and the slow pace of life was lovely.”

Angela was never one to hang about.

“I did 3,000 steps for the Mercy Hospital Foundation while I was cocooning,” she says.

“I set my clock at 3am, 6am, and then at 9am every morning, I completed the walk for the Mercy.”

Step by step, she got there.

“I took penguin steps, which took a bit longer!”

Angela has made great strides throughout her life, beginning school when she was 24 years old, attending UCC, and later going on to become the author of six books, including a trilogy that together meticulously document Cork’s Lower Harbour.

Angela’s books have raised in excess of €20,000 for Marymount Hospice.

On January 6, 2021, she was awarded the title of Irish Ambassador for the Clubfoot Association.

Given her challenging start in life, Angela’s achievements are phenomenal.

Angela Sweeney, spent her early childhood in Linden Care Home.
Angela Sweeney, spent her early childhood in Linden Care Home.

“When I went to Dublin for my first operation I remained in Linden Care Home until I was eight years old, when I was transferred to St Mary’s Orthopaedic Hospital, Cork,” says Angela, recalling her early years.

Up until then, she thought she was an orphan.

“When my mother visited, she asked the staff nurse why I was not told where all the parcels had come from over the years, and why did I think I was an orphan? ‘It was not our place to tell her’ was the answer she got,” says Angela, who then returned to Cork.

“My mother lost the plot and demanded that I be transferred to Cork immediately.”

Now she was a Norrie and a Culchie.

“I was!” says Angela laughing.

“On my first visit, I came into the sitting-room to a sea of faces. My accent broke the ice and they couldn’t stop laughing when I was asking in a Dublin accent, ‘where’s my Daddy?’ In Cork he was referred to as Dad. Everyone had a really good laugh!”

Angela came home on the same day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated, November 23, 1963.

Angela didn’t look back, she looked forward.

“I hit the headlines because I was the only case of someone with two clubfeet to walk unaided at the tender age of nine,” she says.

Being a people person, she was always interested in people and places.

“I got my love of history when I was convalescing at home for four years,” says Angela.

She joined the workforce.

“At 14, I started work in St Patrick’s Woollen Mills, working on tweed which was very popular in the ’60s,” says Angela.

Settling into married life with Paddy and rearing four children, she wanted to give them the best.

“I knew I had to get a good education when I couldn’t help them with their homework,” says Angela.

“When my eldest son asked me to help him with his homework, I had to tell him to wait until his father got home.

“He said, I know why you can’t help me, Mam. It’s because you can’t read or write, can you?

“I just tearfully answered, not yet love.”

But she could very soon.

Angela Sweeney as a child.
Angela Sweeney as a child.

Full of determination and drive, Angela didn’t let the grass grow under her feet.

“I could never allow them to struggle through life like I did,” says Angela.

“I enrolled in the College of Commerce on a special course for people with literacy problems for three years. It opened up a new world for me.” She was going the distance.

“At the age of 46, I decided to leave my job at the Video Club to return to further education,” says Angela.

“I enrolled on a Business and Secretarial Course at St Peter’s Community School in Passage. This opened up so many doors for me.”

She earned the title ‘Most Accomplished Student of the Year’.

“I am still certain they made a mistake, but I didn’t argue with them!” says Angela, laughing.

Make no mistake, Angela hadn’t gone the full distance yet.

“I acquired a place at UCC doing a course entitled Computer Science and Technology and Webpage Construction.”

That was no great surprise, given Angela’s drive and ambition?

“To my great surprise, I passed the exams, (barely), by the skin of my teeth!”

Working for the HSE, you’d imagine Angela had achieved so much that she had nothing left to prove. Or had she?

“I always wanted to write a book,” she says.

“I went to a specialist at age 65 when he said hiding my past just because I was in a care home was a major part of my recovery and to go home and tell my family it was not a hospital. I did as he advised.

“My autobiography will be entitled I Never Looked Back.”

Angela Sweeney with one of her books,  'A Birds Eye View of Cork's Lower Harbour'. Picture: Howard Crowdy
Angela Sweeney with one of her books,  'A Birds Eye View of Cork's Lower Harbour'. Picture: Howard Crowdy

She reached even greater heights.

“How I ended up writing six books is beyond me! It just happened!”

Maybe, just maybe, Angela’s self-belief and ‘can do’ attitude had something to do with it?

“There are no limits to what you can achieve in life, except the limits that you accept in your own mind.”

But superwoman Angela is only human like the rest of us.

“I suffered from depression,” she says.

Even that didn’t get to hold Angela back.

“It pushed me forward all the time because keeping busy always made the depression easier to bear and kept it at bay.”

Angela doesn’t keep progress at bay.

“Fittingly, my latest study undertaking is a Mental Health Study Diploma.”

Angela, who had a raw deal early in life, has enriched her life with many people and many things.

“I am very religious and I have travelled to Medjugorje numerous times,” says Angela.

“I’m also a Minister of the Eucharist. And I love volunteering at the Marymount Cancer Shop. I meet lovely people there.”

Angela doesn’t rest on her laurels. “I’m working on a gallery compiling old historical pics. I’m going through an archive of old photographs.”

Ahe never saw her disability as a barrier to a fulfilling life, going on to achieve so much success.

“I am very proud of my legs,” says Angela, “they brought me from deformity to success.”

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