Programme Three: Living With Polio
Each outbreak of polio in the 1940s and 1950s left devastation in its wake. Known as "The Child Crippler", the virus could kill or paralyse its victims. It mostly hit at the young. Many were condemned to a childhood of painful surgery, institutional life, and separation from family. The programme features three Irish survivors, Donal O'Boyle (Donegal based music journalist), Rose Russell O'Donovan from Cork, and Willie O'Reilly (once known as "Little Willie", the mascot of a fifties' polio fund-raising campaign). The Salk vaccine was announced in 1955, but a public vaccination programme was not introduced in Ireland until 1958.
Donal O'Boyle is based in Letterkenny, and has worked for many years as a music journalist for the Donegal News. Donal contracted polio in 1947 when he was only a few months old. He was sent to Cappagh Orthopaedic Hospital in Dublin and spent his first four years there. From the age of six, Donal was sent to a Galway hospital, suffering a large number of painful but ultimately pointless operations. His home was in the Donegal Gaeltacht, but in hospital nobody spoke Irish to him, and at home nobody spoke English to him. The dislocation added to his sense of isolation and loneliness. It was only when he was sent to a Scottish hospital, staffed in part by Donegal emigrants, that he got bi-lingual education and personal support. It was in Scotland that he learned to walk at the age of 20. Donal received very little formal education, so is proud of his achievement in making a career as a journalist.
Rose Russell O'Donovan contracted polio in Douglas, Cork in 1956 during the last major outbreak of the disease in this country. She had just taken her first steps as a child. Like many polio-affected children, Rose spent six months in isolation, not knowing her parents when they were finally re-united. Rose has largely positive memories of her repeated and protracted visits to St. Mary's Orthopaedic Hospital in Cork for a succession of painful operations on her left leg. She is a mother of three grown up children, and lives in Youghal.
Willie O'Reilly (aka "Little Willie") was the mascot of a massive fund-raising campaign initiated by the Sisters of Charity in Baldoyle in the early 1950s. As a photogenic symbol of all polio-damaged children, complete with callipers and crutches, Willie was brought out on big occasions like All-Ireland Finals, to raise money for a new hospital. Willie had been left at the door of the convent in Baldoyle by his unmarried mother. He already had polio at only a few months of age. Willie lived in Baldoyle Convent and Hospital for 17 years, and still lives in Dublin.
There are over 7,000 survivors of paralytic polio in Ireland. Having lived with the damage caused by the disease for many years, many have discovered that the polio virus has a nasty sting in its tail. Around 60% of polio survivors have, or will, develop new symptoms including fatigue, pain, or even further paralysis - collectively known as post polio syndrome. This has been the experience of Rose and Donal. Donal, in particular, continues with his career and lively social life, in spite of further paralysis.