In 2011, RTÉ Sport correspondent Colm Murray was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. Below, you can watch his 2012 documentary, MND - The Inside Track, and read Donal O'Donoghue's January 2011 interview with him for the RTÉ Guide.
Watch the documentary MND – The Inside Track: http://www.rte.ie/player/#!v=1132488
For more details of the work of the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association (IMNDA), visit: http://www.rte.ie/aertel/702-01.html
January 2011 Interview: “Suddenly everything you’ve taken for granted is thrown out the window”, says Colm Murray. “Your work, your hobbies and your passions all become secondary to the questions you ask yourself about life such as: ‘what’s it all about?’ and ‘how long have I got?’ You begin to take stock of your life. You think about the people you love, your children and your wife, and how they would manage without you. You think about God, about your beliefs and about who you really are. [Motor neurone disease] rocks you and forces you to confront yourself and be honest. The time for playacting is now over. This is reality.”
It’s a Saturday afternoon in mid-December, the day after Colm Murray’s Late Late Show appearance, in which the RTÉ Sports broadcaster talked about living with motor neurone disease. It was a powerful and inspirational 30 minutes of TV and in a near deserted RTÉ canteen, colleagues drop by to tell him as much. Murray, a modest man, seems uneasy with the fuss but is visibly buoyed by it – just as he was by the 80 or so text messages he received followed the Late Late Show. By his side is his wife, Anne, his rock and now his helper, as the 58-year-old now needs crutches to get about. Consequently, the simple things in life require much planning, but for a long time the greatest obstacle was psychological rather than physical as Murray battled to come to terms with having an incurable, degenerative disease.
The RTÉ Sports broadcaster, a stalwart at Cheltenham and other major race meetings, is a bright and articulate man. “I’m a talker”, he offers helpfully, someone liable at the drop of a hat to drop a Latin phrase or a word like ‘promulgate’ into the conversation. Maybe that’s the ex-teacher in him – he taught for six years before getting a job as a continuity announcer at RTÉ in 1978 – but this natural zest for life was obliterated following his diagnosis with motor neurone. “Before The Late Late Show I had a lot of requests from people to do an interview but my head was not in the right place”, he says. “I was on the floor, as the rug had been pulled from under my life. I was suddenly confronted with all sorts of realities associated with the sickness and words like ‘progressive’, ‘incurable’ and ‘terminal’ were mentioned. You come face to face with your own mortality way sooner than you would have dreamt of.”
Murray had felt unwell for some time. On January 19, at a meeting in Gowran Park his knee felt as if it had been ‘injected with anti-freeze’. By then he had developed a limp in his right leg and his limbs were prone to muscular twitches. Anxious, he tapped the symptoms into Google. A number of possibilities popped out. Motor neurone disease caught his eye (those twitches? muscle fasciculations). A colleague told him stop Googling and see his doctor. He did. A battery of tests and a number of physiotherapy sessions revealed nothing. But the symptoms persisted. His GP referred him to consultant neurologist, Ronan Walsh. There were further blood tests, a brain scan, a spine scan and an EMG test. On March 30, eight days after his 58th birthday, Murray got the bad news. “It was as if Muhammad Ali had delivered an uppercut to me”, he says. His wife broke down in tears.
On Easter Saturday, with his two daughters, Kate (21) and Patricia (25) at home for the holidays, Colm decided to break the news to them over dinner. “It was very hard and very upsetting as it was the first time that they knew about it”, he says. “It was a bombshell and they got very upset. They may not have known much about the disease but they knew then that something had come into their lives that was not good news.” As Ronan Walsh had insisted on a second opinion, they still clung to the raft of hope. “They prayed and stormed heaven, holding out hope for better news”, he says. But some weeks later, the country’s foremost authority on MND, Professor Orla Hardiman at Beaumont Hospital, confirmed the diagnosis.
Embarrassed by his illness and ashamed of his lack of mobility, Colm Murray stopped going to work. “I began to think that I might not be alive by the end of the year”, he says. “I could not believe the speed at which it was happening.” Some nights he went to bed, praying that he would not wake up – that he would die in his sleep, easy and peaceful. He was afraid, not just for himself but for those he loved most. “I began to think, ‘Jesus wouldn’t it be easier if I passed on and not be putting my family through this?’”, he says. In the darkness he strongly considered resigning from RTÉ. By then he had lost interest in everything: golf, sport, even his beloved horses. But his boss in RTÉ, Ed Mulhall, advised him against such a decision. Give it time, he advised. “It was the best advice I could have got”, says Murray. “If I had [resigned] then I think I would have sealed my own death warrant.”
Colm Murray was born in Moate, County Westmeath. He was the eldest of four, with three younger sisters. The youngest, Patricia, died from a tumour when she was just six years old. At the time, Colm was doing the Leaving Certificate and still remembers her cries of pain late at night. In memory of Patricia, he and Ann named their first child after her. But this tragedy was a rare darkness in a happy Catholic childhood. His father, who ran a filling station and shop that sold everything “from a needle to an anchor”, introduced Colm to the world of racing, a love that endured. Something else that endures is his father’s philosophy that life essentially breaks down into what happens outside the home and what happens within the home: and it’s the latter that matters most. Those words ring especially true these days, as Murray’s and his family’s world has been turned upside down. In a way, he has had to learn how to live again: to see the light of day. Appropriately, the turning point had to do with horses.
Last October, he “realised that if I was ever going to get up off the floor I would have to accept the reality of the diagnosis and my condition”, he says. So early one morning he found himself – after much coaxing by friends – heading down to see his latest syndicate horse, Sweet My Lord, at Willie Mullins training gallops in Co Carlow. “I really didn’t want to go but I did It was a gorgeous morning in Closutton”, he says. “I was out there for an hour, waiting for my horse, and watching these animals. I thought, God is in his heaven and the world looks absolutely beautiful. I thanked God for being there and that thing of appreciating life slowly ebbed back into me.” Later that day he backed a winner – his first bet in nearly six month – and Willie Mullins told Murray that he should be back on the box. “Just get in there and do your job”, he said, throwing down the gauntlet. That following Saturday, Murray was back at his desk.
Since then, he has been a regular on TV and radio, reporting on sports events around the country and the world. In December, he was honoured with a lifetime gong at the Horse Racing Ireland Awards and presented a series of documentaries for RTÉ Radio 1 (including interviews with Brian O’Driscoll, Johnny Murtagh and his hero, Alex Ferguson). “I have no idea how this condition will progress”, he says now. “I hope and I pray, but I have come to terms with the condition. Following that day with Willie Mullins I made the decision that I was not going to lie at home ashamed of meeting anybody, a motor neurone ‘victim’. I’m still the same Colm Murray. I’m still able to do a lot. I have motor neurone, that’s a fact, but I’m going to try and manage this as best I can. For the sake of my darling wife and my daughters I’m going to try and live life to the full.”
* For further information The Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association is at www.imnda.ie.