The Wheelchair Monologues

Gearóid Ó Cairealláin's extraordinary story is told in Gaelic at Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich in Belfast

He is a larger-than-life, highly respected public figure, especially in his native west Belfast. Then in 2006, a massive stroke pulverises his brain, prompting the premature announcement of his death, the commencement of funeral arrangements and the administering of the Last Rites.

Since then, his remarkable recovery and forward-looking acceptance of the rotten hand he's been dealt have conferred semi-mythical status upon him. At least, that's the impression one gets from the huge, and hugely supportive, turn-out for the opening night of Gearóid Ó Cairealláin's The Wheelchair Monologues.

He may now be permanently seated in a wheelchair, his physical movement may be severely constrained, but Ó Cairealláin does not flinch from taking on this gutsy one-man show at Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich on Belfast's Falls Road for Aisling Ghéar, the Irish language theatre company he co-founded.

His account begins at the beginning – not the beginning of his life, but of the rest of his life, turning the page into a dramatic and traumatic chapter in a still active and involved existence. Beaming with recognition at the familiar faces awaiting him, Ó Cairealláin bowls on stage aboard Michael, his trusty chariot, so named after his hero, Michael Collins.

With no preamble he plunges right into the meat of the story. It's July 3, 2006, an ordinary day like any other. His phone rings, he picks it up and begins a conversation but suddenly he starts to feel that he is losing control of his words. To the horror of his colleagues in the office, he drops to the floor. Fearful looks are exchanged. Is he dead?

This is the moment which changes everything for this non-stop force of nature – journalist, community worker, political campaigner, Irish language pioneer, radio presenter, a man for whom there are simply not enough hours in the day. The immediate challenge is just to pull through, but this is easier said than done, given the extent of the damage inflicted by the stroke.

But, come hell or high water, Ó Cairealláin resolved to confound the doctors and the people he laughingly refers to as the physioterrorists, who gave him virtually no hope of, first, survival and, second, significant mobility. They reckoned without the bloody-mindedness of an individual who lists his guiding spirits as his guitar, Elvis, Jackson Browne, his friends and, above all, his three sons and his wife Brid Ó Gallchoir, former staff director at Dublin's Abbey Theatre and now artistic director of Aisling Ghéar.

Under Ó Gallchoir's direction and Rory Casey's lighting, the presentation is straightforward and uncluttered, punctuated by music of the variety that gets everyone up and dancing. Ó Cairealláin weaves around the black box performance space in a whirl of restless energy.

The successive segments of his eight-year ordeal are interspersed with projections of precious personal photographs and video archive, showing him the way he used to be, at work and at play, at election time, on family holidays, at hooleys and outings, always smiling, always a knowing twinkle in the eye, always surrounded by people. A leader, an enabler, a life force.

And so he remains. It takes guts and a good memory to come out on stage and stake his claim to a life lived well; Ó Cairealláin says that it was easier to write this thing than to remember it. His sense of humour is acute and self-deprecating, but there is a knowing gleam when he sends up the way in which society treats citizens who are less than 100% physically perfect.

He may joke about now being the same height as a small child. He may grumble cheerfully about being put to sit in a safe spot in a shopping mall, only to cause the electric doors to open and close incessantly. He may submit patiently to being patted and kissed and fussed over like a favourite pet, but there is an edge to these observations.

Woe betide the person who dismisses him as harmless, unfortunate and disabled. No one in their right minds would wish to be in shoes of a woman who recklessly parked her flashy 4 x 4 and caused a traffic jam of toddlers in buggies and men in wheelchairs, while talking at length on her mobile phone? He grins wickedly when describing how he unleashed upon her the full throttle of his extensive vocabulary and social conscience, causing her to end her call and head off at speed.

And so it goes on, one entertaining, shrewdly observed anecdote after the other, all delivered in the language of the Gaels, which he loves so well and to which he has devoted so much time and effort. Non-Irish speakers may find the English translation crackling from their head pieces a distraction from the impact of Ó Cairealláin's muscular verbal delivery. This is an ongoing logistical quibble which the company continues to consider.

But for all the craic, the yarn spinning, the off-the-cuff jousting, The Wheelchair Monologues is essentially a love story, a eulogy to the woman to whom he proposed on the day that he was told he would never walk again. Seven years had passed since the stroke. Any hope of walking, running, cycling, swimming, driving, getting back a place he never had in the Antrim hurling team were off the radar. A new, frightening version of normality loomed. A life sentence.

She thought about it for a couple of seconds before saying, 'OK, then'. United on stage for a post-show discussion, Ó Cairealláin and Ó Gallchoir make a formidable couple, a partnership of equals. Words are redundant in the final moment when, with expert help from his other half, Ó Cairealláin summons his strength and rises to his feet to take the thunderous applause.

Visit the Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich website for information on forthcoming events.