THE first thing you see in The Two Norries’ new studio at the Marina industrial estate is a stunning black-and-white photographic mural, a Cork night-scape looking southwest across the city from St Anne’s Shandon (telling two different times).
The photo pans left to right, with the Sunday’s Well School of Music in the centre, and the High House, on Blarney St, away in the distance at the far right.
Timmy Long, one-half of The Two Norries, notes that the High House, now closed, is where St Vincent’s GAA Club was founded, back in 1943.
“Imagine that,” Timmy says, “all that sporting history probably all started with a few lads talking rubbish over pints.”
James Leonard, the other of The Two Norries, says:
“I nearly died up there. I was after an overdose, and two guards found me on that hill beside the High House. I would have died if they hadn’t found me.”
The Two Norries are friendly, thoughtful men, well-dressed and gym-fit, and both have come through the worst of addiction, including hospitalisation and imprisonment.
Both are Hollyhill natives with mischievous senses of humour. James is 36 and Timmy is 40. (Timmy says he might be older, but he’s better looking.)
The Two Norries podcast began in June 2020, with over 80 episodes broadcast so far, to an ever-growing audience.
Regularly topping 20,000 listeners, they recently signed a distribution deal with leading podcast platform Acast, and they have built a reputation for insightful interviews and a strong social conscience.
When asked about their favourite interviews, James immediately replies “I loved the one with my wife, of course”, before citing an interview with footballers Patsy Freyne, Brian Linehan, and Gearoid Morrissey.
Timmy says they have had so many inspiring guests, citing his own uncle, Seán, who shed “40 or 50 kilos, and he has a prosthetic leg”, to become a mixed martial arts cage warrior, and Cobh-born singer-songwriter Vickie Keating.
James says renowned Hungarian trauma and addiction expert, Dr Gabor Maté, was a huge coup for them.
“For him to come on our podcast, when he gets asked to do international conferences, was amazing. And he was a gentleman as well.”
Timmy says: “Do you know what, every person’s story is equally [important] and that’s why we struggle to pick one, because I was in awe of every single story told to us.”
The talk turns to their own stories. James says they were both very different kinds of addicts.
“My addiction was more cider, burning wheely bins, whereas Timmy was kind of the rock-and-roll lifestyle.”
Timmy agrees: “The mad, the completely chaotic, where, literally, you could be killed or die at any moment because of the madness, the bleak, chaotic madness. And James’s was…” James responds: “The depressive. The stereotypical street drug use. There was nothing glamourous about it. Just chronic addiction to benzodiazepines and heroin.
“They’re just different drugs that give you different lifestyles. Cocaine and alcohol, and the nature of that, just means there’s more drama.”
Timmy says: “And they both bring you to the same ending: They both bring you to death’s door.”
Both men agree that their personalities and formative experiences meant that by their first encounter with drugs, they were probably destined for addiction. They meet young people and can recognise in them the risk of addiction.
“Especially if there’s issues there already from trauma, if there’s self-esteem issues or confidence issues,” Timmy says.
“Next, all of a sudden, they’re using cocaine and alcohol and those self-esteem and confidence issues are gone. Now they can talk to girls or talk to boys, and if a substance is giving you something like that, you’re gonna want more.
“And that’s what it did to me. I was very introverted and very shy as a young child, but when I came across drugs, then I was like, ‘Whoa! What’s going on here? Can you feel like this?’ It just escalated then, at a really, really young age for me.”
Referring to studies on early trauma, James says that a child who suffers four or more adverse childhood experiences is at a vastly increased risk of ending up in addiction, prison, and mental healthcare, compared to a child who has less than four.
Most children will experiment in their teenage years, he suggests, be that with cigarettes, alcohol, or hash. However, he says, a child with low self-esteem, a lack of confidence, or baggage from home, is more likely to use that drug as a crutch.
James says there wasn’t a lightbulb, road-to-Damascus moment for either of them in getting clean, that it’s not that simple.
“I think it’s years of hardship, years of letting people down, of failing, eventually it comes to a head, and you get so sick of it,” James says. “I told you about the overdose, but it was the two guards who came across me, and they were saying, ‘You need to get yourself sorted, because you’re going to be found dead. We know you a long time, and this is the worse you’ve ever been’.
“I remember coming away and thinking, ‘The guards and all are here showing me concern’.
“So, I made a phonecall to a treatment centre a couple of days later. And that was kind of the event, but up until that, I was 27, I was homeless, I was intravenous drug-using, I was overdosing. I just wanted out.
“And that event was just the spark, but it shows, a kind word, you never know the impact it could have.”
James says he and Timmy are nothing special, and many other people have had experiences like theirs, but they feel ashamed to talk about it.
“The reason we’re so open is because we’re not bad people: Certain things happened to us in our lives, led us down certain paths, and we did things that we regret, but we’re actually decent people, and given half a chance, other people can be decent people too.
“People have an innate kindness and an innate ability to be good citizens and have full lives and we try to show people that you can come from the backgrounds we’ve come from and still go on and have a very happy life and help people.
“We get calls all the time from people saying, ‘I can relate with everything you said, I didn’t realise that I could do this’, or ‘Now I understand my family member’s addiction a little bit more, now I know where the help is’, so that’s our job done then.”
When James came out of treatment, in 2014, he tried to get a college placement, but a recent conviction worked against him, and he met closed doors at youth organisations, community organisations, NGOs, and charities.
Don O’Leary, Cork Life Centre director, agreed to meet him.
“It was my first time meeting Don, and he left a huge impact on me,” James says. “I went in and I gave him about 10 minutes of my story, who I am, and what I’m about, and my plans for the future.
“I was about a year in recovery, and I knew I wanted to do something with my life. And he says, ‘Stop there now, you don’t need to say anymore,’ he says, ‘you can start in the morning’.”
Don O’Leary told James that he could see a lot of potential in him, but, he predicted, James would meet many people who would throw his backstory in his face, but he would meet many who wouldn’t, and who would open doors for him.
“He says, ‘For every step back you get, just drive on, and another door will open’. So, I stayed with Don for two years, and sure I went from strength to strength afterward,” he says.
“And, like, as good as me and Timmy did in terms of recovery and education, we still need people to open doors for us and give us a leg up, and Don had his own story of being a Republican prisoner and going through education and coming out.
“Don doesn’t just say that the Life Centre is an equal opportunities employer, he actually practices what he preaches. And not all organisations are like that.”
Timmy is in the construction industry, a carpenter and building contractor, and he has a company, called Revive Me Building Contractors. “We restore a lot of buildings and we do refurbs, but it’s also about reviving people and giving people opportunities and bringing people back into society,” Timmy says.
“As a student in CIT, trying to get interviews to go working with firms, there was a lot of doors closed in front of me. I felt like my whole journey in college, I was full of anxiety, because of the moment that I’d be doing an interview for a construction firm,” he says.
“They’d ask me about the Garda vetting process, about my criminal convictions, and it just made me feel miserable, but, in the end, I just said, I’ll start my own company.”
He says people who have early lives like James’s and his struggle to be integrated into society because of their past.
“It’s bad enough having to go through trauma — you drank, used drugs, or whatever —but then dealing with that with counsellors, and then having doors closed on you because of your past as well, where does it stop?
“Where do we give people chances, and say, ‘You’re away from trouble now for the last five years, you’re sober for five years, let’s put these things to the side and start fresh’?” He suggests some form of board that might stand above the Garda-vetting process.
“We’ve both, on different occasions, come across difficulties with the Garda vetting process.
“We’re fortunate, me and James, that we’ve made decisions to bring us to where we are today, but some people are still struggling with that process, trying to get jobs, even into education.”
Agreeing, James says: “Every time you go for a job, you have to declare convictions, insurance, mortgages, car insurance, anything really.”
These days, James is team leader with the Cork City South Drug and Alcohol Service, and Timmy, in addition to his construction firm, runs Revive Me Carwash and Valeting on the Marina Industrial Estate.
“We employ people who have faced difficulties in their lives,” Timmy says.
“At the moment, we employ four people. We operate in an environment where there’s no judgement and no questions asked.”
The Two Norries go on the road in the new year. They play Dublin’s O’Reilly Theatre on January 8, Theatre Royal Waterford on January 14, and Cork Opera House on February 12. Their guest in Dublin will be Father Peter McVerry, in Waterford they will be Maurice and Dan Shanahan, and in Cork it will be Pat Falvey.
Before our interview ends, James asks that people mind themselves over Christmas.
Timmy adds: “For a lot of people suffering from their mental health at the moment, just know that there is help out there. If you want to go onto our website, we have links into different services in the community.”
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