Corkman's memoir will make you smile... and cry

Douglas native and lifelong Nemo Rangers fan James Cripps talks to Donal O’Keeffe about his autobiography, his life with cerebral palsy and quadriplegia, and his unofficial agent, former Taoiseach Micheál Martin.
Corkman's memoir will make you smile... and cry

James Cripps memoir 'At The Heart of the Action' was officially launched by Taoiseach Micheal Martin at Nemo Rangers Hurling & Football Club on Sunday 20th November 2022. Picture: Larry Cummins

Douglas native and lifelong Nemo Rangers fan James Cripps talks to Donal O’Keeffe about his autobiography, life with cerebral palsy and quadriplegia and his unofficial agent, former Taoiseach Micheál Martin

IT’S not every first-time author who gets one of the country’s most senior politicians as their unofficial literary agent, but that is exactly the case with Douglas man James Cripps.

James’s memoir, At the Heart of the Action, was launched last month in Nemo Rangers by Micheál Martin, and the Fianna Fáil leader has been singing the book’s praises ever since.

In a recent interview with Cork Life Centre students for their upcoming “The Teachables” podcast, Mr Martin described James’s memoir as “a very funny book, on one level, it’s serious, and it has some very sad moments in it too”.

James says he’s grateful for the good publicity but he isn’t surprised.

“He knows me for donkey’s years, and he’s a great friend of the family, and we’re lucky to know him,” James tells The Echo in an interview in his family home in Douglas.

James was born in August 1974, the fifth of seven children, to Eileen, a Douglas native, and Jim, a postal worker from Tullamore.

When James was a baby he cried a lot and wouldn’t settle. A bad chest infection led to hospitalisation, and, over the phone, a nurse told Eileen her baby was “severely handicapped”, a term James says he doesn’t like. A diagnosis of quadriplegic cerebral palsy followed, and in the book he relates his sister Sinead’s memory of their mother crying at the news.

He believes Eileen was told he would be blind and would never speak.

“They were definitely wrong about the speech bit,” he notes drily.

James’s earliest memories are of physiotherapy, lying on the floor with his mother trying to stretch his muscles as he cried in pain. He says his brothers and sisters would try to distract him by singing with him Paul McCartney’s Mull of Kintyre, a song he loved.

At the age of two, James began to attend what was then the Cork Spastic Clinic.

“That’s now called Enable Ireland because nobody uses the word spastic anymore and I am glad about that,” he writes.

For more than 44 years, Enable Ireland has been a very positive presence in his life, and he says its philosophy chimes with that of his family.

“To quote what my mother says, ‘I look at your ability, not your disability’.”

The book began as a lockdown project, with James dictating the chapters to his personal assistants, Blake and Amy from Cork Independent Living, and it was edited by his godmother and cousin, Mary McGillicuddy. At a brisk 83 pages, it’s a very readable book, and with the author’s unpretentious voice ringing true throughout, James narrates his story in a way that feels as though he is chatting to you over a cuppa or a pint.

“I was challenged by a brother of mine, Tom, he said, ‘You have fierce stories in you, get down and get them written’,” he recalls.

It was the first lockdown of the Covid-19 pandemic, and with all live sporting events cancelled, for a sports fanatic like James, the prospect of watching endless repeats on television didn’t appeal.

“I got a notebook, and I ran with it. My sister Sinead would come up on a Monday and a Tuesday and we would talk it out, deciding topic headlines.”

When Amy and Blake had transcribed James’s thoughts, his editor, Mary, helped to put a shape on the chapters.

There are many lovely moments throughout the book, and there’s a stand-out story about his brothers Pádraig and Eoin, the twins, two years his junior, when they were all small. It was Christmas morning, and Santy had left the presents under the tree downstairs. Not wanting to leave their brother out of the fun, and being too young to lift James down the stairs, they instead put him into a sleeping bag and dragged him bumping down the stairs.

In a particularly heart-breaking chapter, he relates the unexpected death of his beloved mum in 2017, at the age of 80, and his dad’s subsequent death, the following year. The death, in 2019, of his sister Emer, at the desperately young age of 47, is devastating. James’s writing captures beautifully the numbness of that bereavement.

“In the book, 95% of it is happy stuff, but there are tough parts in it too,” he says, adding that he had found it hard to write about bereavement but had persevered.

“I had to do it, it’s as simple as that, because if I didn’t do it, my story would be incomplete. It helped me an awful lot, just to get my pain down on paper.”

There is great joy in the book too, not least in the presence of his girlfriend Danielle, whom he met two years ago through Enable Ireland, and James’s great love for his extended family shines through too, as does a real sense of mischief in his storytelling.

James says modern technology has been a godsend, with Google Home helping him around the house, and Sky Plus allowing him to record sports from around the world and watch at his own convenience. He counts among his friends veteran broadcaster Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh, and they often chat on the phone, helping to fill rare gaps in James’s phenomenal sporting knowledge.

In the book, James’s brother Harry recalls their mum saying James would be the glue that kept their family together, and that seems true all these years later. While James speaks to The Echo, Harry and their sister Sinead sit in, and Pádraig – one of the twins - drops in for a chat too. No-one is spared a slagging.

Micheál Martin continues to champion James’s book. Who knows, maybe in his new role as foreign minister he can take At the Heart of the Action to an international audience.

Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh couldn’t come to Nemo for the book launch last month, but he sent a voice message.

“At the Heart of the Action is the right title. You are a man of action, and you have a great story to tell. You have a lot to be proud of,” he told James.

“Rinne tú níos mó oibre ná capall, a Shéamus. You did the work of a strong horse. I look forward to reading your book over the winter, while looking forward to the year ahead. Nemo agus Corcaigh abú.”

At the Heart of the Action by James Cripps is available now for €10 at Nemo Rangers.

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