Great to be alive

IT’S GREAT TO BE ALIVE!    

This article appeared in the Sunday Press in 1965 and was forwarded to Ardboe Heritage by Colette McGeown née Hurl

   Kevin Donnelly placed his hedge clippers on the ground, brushed a shock of white hair from his forehead and said with a smile, “Sure it’s great to be alive!” And for Kevin, more than most people, it was a statement full of meaning. For, at the age of 27, he lost both his legs and seven fingers when he fell victim to a disease which affected his blood circulation.

The story of Kevin Donnelly is a story of remarkable courage of a man who refused to be broken by a dread disease which practically immobilised him, in the prime of his youth. The courage of a man whose boundless vitality and love of life enabled him to overcome his tremendous physical handicaps.

“Mind you, I don’t consider myself as being handicapped,” he said at his home in Trickvallen, Ardboe, Co Tyrone. “Now, if I were blind or something like that, it would be far worse.”

And it was this calm acceptance of realities, plus an ability to look on the bright side of things which gave Kevin, then a young inspector with the Ministry of Agriculture, the courage to undergo the numerous operations which saved his life 18 years ago. Until that fateful year of 1947, Kevin had led a full life. Keenly interested in sport, he was prominent in Gaelic football circles in his locality and played regularly with the parish team. He also became interested in soccer and often turned out for a game.

When he first became ill there was no inkling of what that illness would eventually lead to. But in the years after 1947 the disease took a firm grip and surgeons decided to amputate. In successive operations both legs and seven fingers were removed.

“I was fitted with artificial limbs,” said Kevin, “and the doctors suggested that I retire and do nothing. In effect they were telling me to practically lock myself away from life. In persuading me to concentrate on using my artificial limbs, they often pointed to the example of Douglas Bader, telling me that what he could do, I surely could do. But after some time I decided against using the limbs. I disliked all the harness attached to them. It meant that other people had to help me to get them on and off.”

Kevin decided he would live his own life without being a burden on anyone. And the acres of flowers and shrubs around the house, in which he lives with his mother Mrs Maureen Donnelly, are a testimony to the tenacity with which he tackled the problem of adapting himself to a new life.

Using the front of a big wheelchair as a carrier, Kevin wheeled hundreds of brick to the gardens and laid out flower beds and small rock gardens. He pointed to the circular flower beds directly in front of the house and said, with just a note of pride, “Every brick you see there I laid myself, and when the beds were ready I began planting.”

Energetically he propelled his chair across a path, which leads to the back of his home, and showed us a half-acre garden with more of the delicately designed flower beds. “This was once an old and neglected orchard,” he said, “and when I had the old trees removed, I planned and laid out this garden.”        

In his greenhouse thousands of tulip, gladioli and daffodil bulbs were drying out, while at one end of the garden rows of small fir trees reached upward for the sun. “There’s still a lot of work to be done here yet,” said Kevin, “At the moment I am planning the layout of a small lily pond.”   

For Kevin, horticulture has proved to be more than just a hobby. Many of his flowers, small trees and plants are purchased by householders and amateur gardeners. “In fact,” he said, “people are coming from all over the north to see me and my place.”

In addition to his gardening, Kevin also acts as an audience researcher for BBC television in the Cookstown rural district. He travels about in his invalid car and this work brings him many miles from home.

As we said farewell to Kevin, we asked him what his advice would be, to people faced with the problem of being handicapped. “Look,” he said, “there’s only one thing for them to do and that is to forget their troubles and get on with the job of living. There are too many people who are inclined to sit and mourn their lot.”

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