‘We went into a dazed couple of weeks, we just hoped he would stay alive and survive’
17th Aug 2020
Pop artist Orla Walsh has created a limited edition Barry’s Tea print for Spinal Injuries Ireland, an organisation very close to her heart. Here she shares her family’s story
Right now, it can be difficult to put things into perspective. To give a rational view of the world and on our individual situations.
Some are worse than others, and it is perfectly acceptable to be upset and feel downtrodden. However, any life guru – medical or otherwise – will tell you it is your response and mindset that will determine the outcome.
A positive mindset with a mix of realism is the perfect cocktail. One such person who possesses this potion is renowned pop artist Orla Walsh. Its origin comes from the “get on with it” mentality that is bred into the Irish, but her’s has a little extra sparkle. Reality is omnipresent but there is wonderful humour and an effervescence light too.
I spoke with Orla ahead of her releasing 150 limited editions ‘Barry’s Tea’ prints in a special project for Spinal Injuries Ireland. Each print is €100 and 50% of every sale will go directly to the charity.
The Barry’s Tea print
Spinal Injuries Ireland is the only support and service agency in Ireland for people who have sustained a spinal cord injury and their families. It is a cause very close to Orla’s heart.
In 2018, her husband Kieran was involved in a biking accident that left him paralysed from the chest down. The numerous trips to the hospital were always met with a cup of tea made with a single Barry’s teabag, and so the inspiration for the print was born.
“In the beginning, I was always going across to the Mater and back to see him and I was drinking tea all the time. Everywhere you stopped and everyone you met would bring you tea. I’d stop at the garage and each time I would tear open one of the single teabags. And I remember thinking when I get back painting I’ll bloody well paint that.”
In the space of one night on October 1, 2018, the life Orla had led with her husband and three daughters irrevocably changed. Orla had been working towards a big show, so Kieran had been cooking and cleaning to give her more free time. To say thank you, Orla and daughter Tess decided to surprise him with a roast dinner. Kieran cycled to and from work each day and usually returned at 7 pm each evening, but on that evening the hours passed and he had not come home.
Initially, she thought he had suffered a puncture but she then received a phone call from a guard. “It’s really weird because the minute I answered the phone and heard this man talking on Kieran’s phone, I just asked if he’s dead. He said he’s not but he’s badly injured and I just said ok and asked ‘where do you want me to go’?”
At the hospital, Orla and her family were told Kieran was paralysed from the chest down. “We then went into a dazed and confused couple of weeks, where we just hoped he would stay alive and survive everything.”
Thankfully, Kieran did, but the process was long. The moment he first lifted his head happened months after the initial accident and the healing process is still ongoing with Orla saying, “we will have a couple of fabulous days and say we can see light at the end of the tunnel and you think we can live, but suddenly he is ill again. We have had that since the accident.”
Kieran came home and both life and the house had to be altered. From 8 am to 10 am a carer from the HSE would call and get Kieran ready, showered, and dressed. After that Orla would take the reigns for the rest of the day. The hope was that with the help of carers Kieran would get stronger and do certain things himself, but various infections entered and then Covid-19 appeared and made that impossible.
So what is it like caring for someone with a disability during a pandemic? Orla believes it’s a mixed bag saying, “it got rid of the daily stresses of life. We are never in a rush to go anywhere, there are no hospital appointments, I don’t have galleries to go to or deliveries to do. Everything stopped.”
She continues, “but I am terrified. Even before this, anyone with a cold or a sniffle wasn’t even allowed near him. Covid-19 to me is terrifying.”
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Spinal Injuries Ireland
Throughout the conversation, I found myself in awe of Orla and her attitude, and it’s a trait she says that runs through the family. Her daughters, understandably, found it immensely emotional but they too adapted and have a similar outlook to their mother.
“In my head, I said he’s alive and I’m happy and as long as I have him here it’s ok. And we still have the craic and we still have our laughs together.”
Orla can’t stress enough the importance of Spinal Injuries Ireland. The services they provide were a lifeline to her and Kieran, providing information that was not easy to find or learn when it came to his injury. “There is no one to ask or no one to tell you what to do and it’s an amazing service that provides that support. Every spinal injury is different.”
“It also supports those families who can’t afford the wheelchairs or to rebuild their houses. They will be there for those families. When a person with a spinal injury returns home for the first time, it’s a frightening thing. You need to be able to ring someone when you can’t physically do something like not being able to get into your car. They will help you.”
Like all charities, Spinal Injuries Ireland depends on public events for funding, but due to the Covid-19 crisis these had to be stopped. It has never been more vital to support these organisations and Orla wanted to do her part with her art.
I left the conversation with a new perspective. One that takes a real and honest look at life, but paints it with vivid colour in hues of joyfulness and optimism, no matter what the canvas may look like.
I also left our chat with a craving for Barry’s Tea.
And so, I poured myself a cup and drank it with a smile.
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