RTÉ’s Colm Murray: Fighting motor neuron disease with courage, dignity and class


In full knowledge of the emotional roller coaster we were about to board, my wife Eileen and I sat down to watch a television program, “MND: The Inside Track,” earlier this week on RTÉ (Raidió Teilifís Éireann, Ireland’s national broadcaster). Advertisements for the program revealed that it would chronicle the struggle of legendary sports broadcaster and horse racing expert, Colm Murray, against motor neuron disease, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease in the United States. Because I know Colm, I regret to say that this is the second time I have had the misfortune of coming into indirect contact with this incurable and fatal illness. It is a monster.

The first time was nearly twenty years ago when a good friend, Anne O’Shea (nee Flynn), broke the news that her father, a highly regarded and well-liked sergeant detective with the Boston Police Department, had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Daniel Flynn fought the disease with everything he had and valiantly continued his case work as a detective, but ultimately succumbed in late 1994 at age 48.

Colm Murray came into my life in a most unexpected, yet forever appreciated, way when he toasted me and Eileen, his friend and colleague at RTÉ, at our wedding in 2009. Pressed into service at the last minute by other colleagues at the wedding, who had heard him give toasts before and knew of his magical way with words, Colm quickly undertook to learn everything he didn’t already know about my wife, and whatever he could learn about me.

And learn he did. He managed to recount the story of my Irish-American family’s emigration to Boston, the details of our Irish connections and our rise in the world of Boston politics. In addition to regaling the crowd with tales of Eileen’s various exploits at RTÉ, he praised my mother and father-in-law for taking the biblical maxim “go forth and multiply” so literally. My wife is one of fourteen children. Colm stole the show and was surrounded by Irish and American guests who wanted to hear more for the rest of the night.

Since then, whenever Colm encounters my wife, he never neglects to ask how we are doing and to reiterate how much he enjoyed our wedding. He also got quite a kick out of hearing that one of my favourite outposts for relaxation and rejuvenation on the weekends – the lounge at Fitzpatrick’s Pub in Wicklow Town – is also frequented by one of his closest friends and that we know each other quite well. Colm even played a small role in recovering a lost pair of shoes for me. How he wound up with my shoes is a long story for another time!
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The television program told the story of how Colm Murray, a young boy from Moate, Co. Westmeath, traveled to the Galway Races one summer. That trip to the races engendered a passion for horse racing that he still has today. The program highlighted his storied career at RTÉ, his family life and the events leading up to his diagnosis in March of 2010.

Understandably shell shocked by the news, Colm vanished from the airwaves for several months afterward. At the prodding of a good friend from the world of horse racing, however, Colm made a return to RTÉ and is still going into work now. As he said on the program, “this is not the hand of cards I ever thought I would get dealt, or that anyone would ever want to have dealt to them. But this is the hand I’ve been dealt. And I’m going to play it as best I can.”

Colm is fortunate in a small way in that his doctor, Prof. Orla Hardiman of Trinity College Dublin and Beaumont Hospital, is one of the world’s leading experts on motor neuron disease. As well as pursuing his own course of treatment, and in an effort to aid the efforts of doctors and scientists seeking to create drugs that will slow the progress of or provide a cure for the disease in future, Colm is part of an experimental study to ascertain the efficacy of drugs currently being developed to fight motor neuron disease. The study dictates that he doesn’t know whether he is actually taking the experimental drug or a placebo.

Ever the journalist, the program showed Colm pointedly asking Prof. Hardiman whether a cure for motor neuron disease would be found. She responded guardedly yet affirmatively; yes, there would ultimately be a cure. If and when they do discover a cure, it will because of Colm and others like him who willingly undergo clinical trials, notwithstanding the risks to their own precarious condition.

Colm Murray has amassed a huge network of friends and acquaintances throughout Ireland. Since his diagnosis, I have heard, and overheard, a number of stories about encounters with Colm – usually at racing meetings in Ireland or England. I heard the best one, however, from a Dublin taxi driver the morning after the program was aired.

The taxi driver told me of a discussion Colm once had on the radio when his car had been stolen from a McDonald’s car park in Dublin. Gardai (Irish police officers) were soon chasing the thief, who stopped the car and jumped into the River Liffey. While angry about the theft of his car, Colm immediately voiced concern that the thief or a Garda would drown in the Liffey. After all, he said, it was only a car. The taxi driver, who never met Colm Murray, simply said, “that’s the kind of man he is.” While I don’t know if this – or any of the other stories I’ve heard – is truth or fable, it reflects the high esteem in which Irish people hold Colm Murray.

At the end of the program, tears were streaming down Eileen’s cheeks and I was trying to hold back my own to no avail. She told me that our reaction was shared by each and every RTÉ colleague she met the following day. That such a fate could befall one of the most popular people in the organization lies beyond their comprehension. Even more touchingly, the reaction of the small cross-section of the roughly 600,000 viewers I have spoken to since was precisely the same. Their reaction didn’t really surprise me though. This was an extraordinary program about an extraordinary human being, Colm Murray.

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For more information about Prof. Orla Hardiman’s work on motor neuron disease in Ireland, see http://www.beaumont.ie/index.jsp?p=103&n=142&a=191.

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