In one of the strangest ironies of fate that I ever heard was the day, early 2006, when the renowned Irish singer Eleanor Shanley called into Charlie Lennon’s Cuan Recording Studios in Spiddal. Eleanor, with her distinctive, rich lyrical voice, was looking for a new song. She talked to her friend Éamonn Goggin, a sound engineer at Cuan. Éamonn’s passion was music. He loved nothing more than sharing his knowledge with friends. He enthused about a song written by Mike Scott of the Waterboys and Anthony Thistlethwaite, called ‘Strange Boat’. It was written some years ago, but it was a great song, that just needed some updating, a new look. ‘ We’re sailing on a Strange Boat/ Heading for a strange shore/ Carrying the strangest cargo / That was ever hauled aboard....’ Éamonn said it was ideally suited for Eleanor’s voice.
Suddenly everything changed. The following July Éamonn was involved in a car accident. He suffered severe head injuries. His mother Martina and father Denis rushed to his side in total disbelief that their ‘ tall, strong son, now breathing with mechanical aid , and thought how just 12 hours before, our son Éamonn, only child and best friend, looked so invincible as he sat and chatted in our kitchen’...
Four days went by, and the nights turned into dawn, and there was no change. Family and friends gathered in numbers in the corridors outside the intensive care unit keeping vigil, all willing, all praying, all hoping that the miracle that sometimes happens, would happen. But it was not to be. Instead Martina and Denis were spoken to sympathetically, and gravely of ‘brain stem death’, “A term”, says his mother, “ I hardly understood. Our beautiful son was ready to make his transition to some other world.”
Then a new hope was suggested. Would the family consider donating Éamonn’s organs? About 600 patients were waiting transplantation in Ireland. “There was no hesitation,” says Martina. “It was something Éamonn and I had talked about in the kitchen. There was an advertisement on the radio and I turned to him and said: ‘By the way, if anything happens to me, I want you to ensure that any part of me that could be useful to someone else, is given. Please see that it happens.” And Éamonn said ‘Right. And for me too Mum’.”
When Martina and Denis gave permission, there was immediate action, when for days there was inactivity as nothing else could be done. “It was a moment a tiny light shone in the darkness around us. The possibility that Éamonn’s death might not be entirely in vain, and that the legacy of his last act would reflect the courage, compassion and giving with which he lived his life. As we watched the specialist team prepare Éamonn for his last and greatest gesture of generosity, this light grew. We knew that by donating his young and healthy organs, Éamonn was now making the noblest possible act of generosity, giving the gift of life to others.’
One week later a surgeon from the Beaumont Hospital Organ Procurement Service phoned to say that four recipients, who had been seriously debilitated, had received Éamonn’s organs. Two years later the surgeon phoned again to say that the recipients were ‘now living full, active, and happy lives.’
Following a strange star
Other things happened as well. Martina and Denis were conscious that despite their unbearable grief, the fact that their son was living in the bodies of four other people was an immense source of comfort. They wanted to reach out to others, to set up the Strange Boat Foundation, and its web site, to raise awareness of the need for organ donation. They also hoped to meet the needs of donor families, to console them and give them hope*. Eleanor Shanley said she would be delighted to record Strange Boat as a signature song for the organisation. Immediately Mike Scott, Sharon Shannon, Alec Finn, Eddi Reader and Paul O’Driscoll, all gave their talents free of charge; Charlie and Ellis gave their studios for the recording. Sound engineer Tim Martin, a friend and colleague of Éamonn, happily put the CD together. It is a beautiful and memorable recording. Its poetic words reach back into a Celtic past. It tells of a voyage of discovery, challenge and hardship. There is no sentiment here: We’re riding in a strange car/ We’re following a strange star/ We’re climbing on the strangest ladder/ That was ever there to climb...
The CD is backed by an instrumental called ‘Sound man Éamonn’.
“If there is one phrase I can’t abide”, says Martina, “ that is ‘will it bring closure?’ There is no closure in losing a child. But you do develop coping mechanisms that help you through.”
Kindness of strangers
And there is more. The Strange Boat Foundation plan a National Garden of Commemoration and Thanksgiving, and would like to locate it in Salthill Park, where it would offer a place of sanctuary and reflection. It will extend a welcome to all. But it will have a particular relevance for organ recipients, and their families; and , of course, the friends and loved-ones of life-saving donors. The vision includes a central stone sculpture area, using local weathered limestone, surrounded by rich vegetation set out in an overall shape of a flower. It will cover some 60 metres in diameter. Donors from each of the 32 counties of Ireland will be specially commemorated by using stone associated with an historical, archaeological or religious site from each county. The concept has been enthusiastically received by all those involved in the organ donation movement, including the transplant services at Beaumont hospital, the Irish Kidney Association, and the Irish Donor Network.
The garden project, which is being created in consultation with City Hall, but has yet to go through the planning process, was launched recently by the GAA at a national league game at Croke Park. The GAA remembered Philly McGuinness, one of Co Leitrim’s most talented young footballers, who became an organ donor following his tragic death while playing a club match last year. Speaking at Croke Park, Mr David Hickey, director of transplants at Beaumont hospital (and a former Dublin county footballer ), said there were 600 people awaiting life-saving transplant operations in Ireland, many of whom were children. “Their futures,” he said, “ rely entirely on the kindness of strangers, and the generosity of bereaved families to donate a loved one’s organs in the event of a tragedy.”
‘Strange Boat’ sails on......
* www.strangeboat.org, contains stories from donor families, words of comfort, news and events, and facts such as that Ireland has one of the highest rates of organ donation per capita in the world. A total of 3,500 transplants has taken place here since 1986. In 2008 there were 136 deceased donor kidney transplants performed at Beaumont Hospital, Dublin, and a record 12 of these transplants also included simultaneous transplant of a pancreas. Ten extra kidney transplants were conducted via living donors making an overall total of 146 kidney transplants in Ireland in 2008, the same amount as in each of the two previous years.
Also to contact Strange Boat Donor Foundation, at Bothúna, Spiddal, Co Galway, email: [email protected].