Terminally ill, but I am happy, at peace: Don O'Leary on his cancer diagnosis

Don O’Leary, director of the Cork Life Centre, talks publicly about his diagnosis of terminal cancer for the first time with Donal O’Keeffe
Terminally ill, but I am happy, at peace: Don O'Leary on his cancer diagnosis

“AS soon as I’ve finished this interview, I’m the director of the Cork Life Centre again, and I’m not Don talking about cancer, I’m Don talking about the lack of funding from the Department of Education, which has been the bane of my life for the last 16 years.”

“AS soon as I’ve finished this interview, I’m the director of the Cork Life Centre again, and I’m not Don talking about cancer, I’m Don talking about the lack of funding from the Department of Education, which has been the bane of my life for the last 16 years.”

In the top room of the Cork Life Centre, on a cold December day, Don O’Leary is in puckish humour, talking publicly for the first time about his terminal cancer, and embracing the opportunity to have a cut off officials he says simply don’t understand the centre’s work.

There’s a twinkle in his eye, as usual, but the 64-year-old Ballyphehane native doesn’t pull his punches.

“I’ve been ill since the first lockdown, and, as I think quite a few people would know now, I was diagnosed with cancer on November 13 last year,” he says.

“Initially it was bone cancer they found. I believe I was lucky, because when they took the scan, they also found a tumour in the back of my neck, which wasn’t cancerous, but it was leaning on my spinal cord, and it could have caused me to be completely dead from the neck down if they didn’t do something.”

Treatment in St Therese’s ward in the Mercy Hospital followed, with five days’ radiotherapy in the CUH, and, with family ferrying him back-and-forth, he quickly realised he could work around his illness.

“The Life Centre is only a skip away, so even though I was in the hospital, I was here for most of the days that I needed to be when I was in hospital!”

A month after the initial diagnosis, a severe backache left him barely able to walk, and family and colleagues feared his health had deteriorated further.

He blamed bad posture and leaning over screens at work, but worse news was to come in February of 2021.

“I was informed that I had stage four lung cancer. It was terminal, I was told, and I had eight to 11 months to live.”

He decided early on to talk about his illness, first with his family, and then with staff and students in the Life Centre.

He says telling the students the truth reflected the trust that is at the core of the centre’s ethos, and he wanted them to hear it from him.

“One of the reasons I’m talking about this is I spent the last year meeting parents and young people and it’s been glorious, it’s been — this is going to sound strange now — it’s been very joyous,” he says.

“Parents don’t like me to say it’s joyous, because some of them have shed a tear, and that’s okay, I’m not worried about tears.”

He says that Irish people, men particularly, have been trained to hide emotions, but, he claims, that training hasn’t worked on him.

He laughs, remembering the reactions of some students.

“Some of the questions asked, like: ‘Don, do you know the day you’re dying?’ I said, ‘Well, actually, no, I won’t be just disappearing out of the centre and dying’. I said, ‘I will leave you know if I’m leaving the centre’. Off out the door with them, as happy as Larry, and that’s the way I wanted it to be.”

Another child asked what will happen to the Life Centre after his death.

“My answer to that was, ‘Well, I can’t take it with me, and what do you think Rachel and Thomas and Craig and the rest of the staff are going to do? They’re going to keep it going!’

“‘Oh that’s great’, and off out the door as happy as Larry again.”

The Life Centre has never been a job to him, he says, and he believes the staff all feel that way too.

“If I had one wish for anyone, it would be to give them one day of the last 16 years of days that I have had in the Life Centre.

“I’ve enjoyed every second of it, though some of it has been really sad, but there’s a kind of enjoyment in that, as well, that you come out the other side, and the younger person and the family come out the other side too, and you were part of supporting that.”

He says the centre’s management committee and trustees have fully supported his continuing to work through his illness, and he hopes to stay as long as he feels he can contribute.

“I want to enjoy every minute with the kids here, and when I’m not here, I’m going to enjoy every minute with my family, particularly my grandkids, just to be with them.”

Don has prepared video messages for his grandchildren, James, Daniel, Cian, and Eoin, who he says are too young to know he’s ill, for later. Here they are pictured on the day he received an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Arts at a Conferring Ceremony at University College Cork. Pic Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Don has prepared video messages for his grandchildren, James, Daniel, Cian, and Eoin, who he says are too young to know he’s ill, for later. Here they are pictured on the day he received an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Arts at a Conferring Ceremony at University College Cork. Pic Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

He has prepared video messages for his grandchildren, James, Daniel, Cian, and Eoin, who he says are too young to know he’s ill, for later.

“They mean a lot to me, and I want them to know that. I hope they have some good memories.

“I’m very lucky. My wife, Betty, our children, Don and Eilis, and their partners, and our grandkids, they’re amazing to me.

“They’re always going to be a rock and I’m very fortunate, I have that family, I have aunts, and uncles, and particularly two first cousins, they’ll kill me for saying, but Dympna and Sinead have been amazing, they’re like my guardian angels.”

He says friends have offered to pay for him to travel abroad for treatment, but while he stresses he is not commenting on anyone else’s decisions, he felt that wasn’t for him, preferring to stay in Ireland.

He credits the Life Centre’s success to the students and the staff, saying he did whatever he could to support them, and he says his goal was always to make the centre sustainable.

“And I fecking haven’t done that yet, it’s still an ongoing fight.”

Mr O’Leary has had public and ongoing disagreements with the Department of Education over funding for the centre and during our conversation he went so far as to thank the department for giving him something to fight and “for keeping me alive”.

In 1987, Don was sentenced by the Special Criminal Court to five years in prison for IRA membership. He served three years in Portlaoise Prison.

He was elected to Cork City Council for Sinn Féin in June, 1999, but ill health forced him to resign the following January.

On November 13, exactly a year after his initial cancer diagnosis, University College Cork presented him with an honorary doctorate. He says his grandsons were “bored out of their minds’’ during the ceremony, until they caught a reference to his time as a Republican prisoner – “grandad was in jail?”

A sports fanatic, he missed out on this year’s All-Ireland when an offer of a ticket came too late to work the logistics of a trip to Dublin around his cancer treatment.

Don O'Leary, director, Cork Life Centre, Sundays Well, Cork, outside the centre. Picture: Denis Minihane.
Don O'Leary, director, Cork Life Centre, Sundays Well, Cork, outside the centre. Picture: Denis Minihane.

“It’ll show you how good people are — a Limerick man was giving me a ticket to see Cork being destroyed by Limerick.”

A life-long Manchester United fan, he inherited that love from his father, listening to matches through the static on BBC4.

“I’m hoping to go to Old Trafford in April, but the way this bloody pandemic is going, I’m not going to get there.”

Unfortunately, his son became a Liverpool fan, and now three of his grandsons are similarly afflicted.

“I might get the fourth fellow. My daughter comes with me to matches, because she’s a rabid United fan, particularly Roy Keane.”

He says he is giving this interview to stop speculation about his health.

“If you were to believe the rumours, I’ve had tumours in every part of my body from my small toe to my brain, now, I know some people are going to be saying ‘what brain?’, but I don’t have tumours, to the best of my knowledge.”

He stresses that he is talking about his own cancer experience, and not anybody else’s, he feels everyone’s experience is different, and he has seen people suffer terribly, and he feels hugely fortunate to be pain-free.

He praises his consultant, Dr Power, and his team, and especially all in the Mercy’s St Therese’s ward, and he says at consultations he has been upset to see so many children suffering from cancer.

“To see kids, from toddlers up, with cancer, well, I have nothing — nothing — to feel sorry for myself.”

He says that when he thinks of Vicky Phelan, and the women who died as a result of Ireland’s cervical cancer scandal, he realises he isn’t in the ha’penny place.

“I’ve had a decent life, many strange paths [a reference to his prison term]... I had flat batteries, and then I was flying it, and I think that’s what’s keeping me going as well.”

He expresses his admiration for everybody working in the health service, cleaners, nurses’ aides, nurses, secretaries, social workers, and doctors, and he says we don’t realise how lucky we are with them.

“These people are dealing with death every working day, and how they’re able to keep such a professional standard and at the same time, to have such a human empathy and respect for what’s going on for different people, they’re just amazing people, and a lot of them are very, very young.”

Don O'Leary Life Centre
Don O'Leary Life Centre

Never a man to do what he was told, he says he is taking his medication, to his family’s disbelief, and while he has given up driving, he relishes being chauffeured around by family and friends.

“I’m happy,” he says. “I’ve always been happy here in the Life Centre. This is my happy place here, here and at home, and I want to be here for as long as I can.

“Now, I don’t get to decide that. There’s only two things that we’re certain of: you’re born, and you die. What happens in between is the fun, though, isn’t it? I’m still having fun.”

He says he is at peace, as he knows what is coming, but not when. He feels he’s ahead of the game, two months beyond the predicted 11 months, and he hopes to be around for the centre’s annual road trip to Wexford.

“Last Christmas, I wasn’t going to make it to this Christmas. I intend to, hopefully, get to the summer, and be taken to Wexford and go swimming at midnight in the sea.”

He says meeting up with past students and their families has been a “glorious” experience, and he recalls with delight the centre’s awards night this year, when the centre’s first band, The Unknowns, reunited.

“You get moments like that, and I just wish moments like that for everyone. And the moments aren’t over yet.”

And with that, the interview ends.

“From now on,” Don says, “I’m the director of Cork Life Centre, and there’s lots to be done here, and the lots to be done doesn’t care whether I have terminal cancer or not.

“I just want to get on with it, and enjoy getting on with it.”

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