Where did you grow up and what childhood memories do you treasure?
I grew up in West Belfast with my 2 brothers and one sister. My childhood memories to be honest are all happy, of course the troubles where in full motion but we thought that was normal and you just got on with life. Our house was on a bend which made our garden the biggest in the street and we spent a lot of time in that garden with our friends.
My strongest memory of home was my Mum always baking, bread, pancakes and apple pie. She was brought up on a small farmhouse between the village of Carnlough and Ballamena in county Antrim by my grandmother Elizabeth Mc Cambridge/Mc auley. The little house is still standing derelict in a field with no road in or out. It is one room down stairs and 2 little bedrooms above and they kept a pig in the kitchen,lol. My Grandfather worked as a sailor deep sea and died after an accident on a ship leaving my grandmother with a small farm and 6 children to rare by herself. For extra money she cleaned and prepared the dead for burial.
My grandmother was the strongest person I ever met in my life, physically and mentally, she was also one of the funniest a real character. I always spent the 8 weeks of my summer holidays staying with her and working on my granddad’s brother’s farm my great uncle Jimmy. He had no electricity or running water on the farm and he made his own bread and butter, and if you wanted milk it was straight from the cow. He never married and owned land as far as the eye could see. His passion was music and he played as well as taught all the traditional Irish instruments. After the work was all done at night he would get the fiddle or pipes out and my cousin Charlie would play the accordion. Then it was on your knees while he led in saying the rosary. Charlie would always make faces at me to make me laugh and Jimmy would cuff my ears,lol When I wasn’t on the farm I would be on the beach with my friends.
What about your dad?
Most of the memories of my Dad were how he would sleep all morning and got out of bed in the afternoon for his dinner then to work his night shift at the post office. He always worked extra hours and stayed on night shift because it paid more money so he could pay the bills. Saturday mornings were fun because he always went to the bar before he came home drunk then he would wrestle with us, sing a couple of songs and then tap dance in the kitchen before going to sleep. My Dad is 73 now and still songs with a beer but his Freddie Astair days are gone. He was brought up in north Belfast on the New Lodge Road. His mum was Bridget Connolly and his Dad was John Connolly from Rostrevor, County Down. A fluent Gaelic speaker who fiddled and danced the hornpipe. My Granddad Connolly was blown up when the Germans bombed Belfast in the World War II. My Dad was sent to the countryside with his mum and brothers, which saved them during the Blitz.
Where did you go to school and what was that like for a young boy in Belfast?
My memories of school I would say would have to be mixed. I loved the fun in the yard at break time but the classroom had become a place of discomfort and confusion mixed with a feeling of fear of failure. Two teachers programmed me for this association in class and I can say with my hand on my heart that it hindered my progress. A child must always learn in comfort and even with an element of fun involved. Stress suppresses every system in the body.
My secondary school is definitely where I left my childish life behind. Even the walk to school would regularly be interrupted by British soldiers stopping us and emptying our books on the street and taking details. The first day was mostly fistfights to separate the weak from the strong and there was also a large element of bullying from older boys if you were not lucky enough to have older relations in the school to protect you. If you were different in any way from others you were picked on, and I had signs of a small dark mustache at 13 which was the butt of many jokes and slaps around the head by older bullies. Suddenly the priority was self-protection. I joined the after school Judo club only to find out the two idiots taking the class were in fact the bullies when the head coach was not there. One of them made life hell for me.
Why and when did you get into boxing?
After two bad beatings from older boys, one that fractured my cheekbone, I got together with some friends and went to the local boxing club Oliver Plunkett, which was run by Patsy Mc Alister. Patsy’s dad was a famous boxer who fought all over the USA and was a friend of the great Sonny Liston who Muhammad Ali took the title. He fought under the name of Patsy Quinn. When Sonny was in Ireland he visited Patsy senior for dinner at his home and was surprised to be sitting at dinner with 15 kids! Contraception in those days was to sleep in another house at night.
Around 15 of us turned up at the club and Patsy put us in for a good pasting with a senior boy to sort out who would stay. The frustration of the beating and not being able to hit the boy back just made me more determined to stay for revenge, I was sick of bullies, I was going to be strong and hard no matter what.
I boxed on and off for 12 yrs and went on to coach. They were times of great fun, fear, hardship and making great friends. By this time I had been convinced that I was not academic and it was more important to be tough because life was full of bullies, which it is certainly not the case now.
Did boxing keep you off the streets and out of trouble?
Although I was never involved in any paramilitaries, we all rioted against the police and British army for a buzz, everyone did, you made your own fun. My school was beside an army barracks and every lunchtime we would throw bricks and bottles at the Army for a chase, if you were lucky they would shoot some plastic baton rounds. These could make good money off American tourists. Some of my friends ended up in Jail, either for paramilitary organized activity or robbery and theft, some died through drugs in London, suicide, and some went on to be Doctors, Lawyers and successful Business owners and a few joined the Foreign Legion. Declan was a sniper, his brother Mickey was in the Seals and Paul became a Sergeant. All 3 of them have made a career from that type of work and are in Afghanistan today. You see it all has to do with how we are programmed as children. Some people get involved with trouble for excitement and others accept it as the world they live in day to day. Some believe they will be Doctors or Lawyers simply because one or both of their parents are and some believe they will never be any good because they are told so by those around them. I never seen a difference in anyone I met as my Mum always brought us up to see the good in people. Its funny when I think back none of my friends ever asked me to join any organizations or get involved with anything illegal. I also have to thank my life in sport for that. As my grandmother used to say, “ If you lie down with the dogs you will get up with fleas.” Most of my days involved sport and when I stood at the corner with the gang at nights most of them would be drinking or playing cards, while I sipped on a coca cola.
Where did life take you after school?
After my boxing career I worked as a postman where I befriended a man called Michael Crawford. Michael had a degree in Politics and was an Irish language teacher. Having a beer one night after work he asked me if I wanted to learn to speak Irish. I told him I couldn’t. “Why” he asked? “ Because I am stupid,” I replied. This was my honest belief at the time and I had never questioned it before. Why would I? The so-called experts in my life had told me verbally and non-verbally.
I remember Michael getting very angry and shouting at me “who told you that crap? No one is stupid!” He then preceded the rest of the night to break down and replace that negative belief. I remember that incident very vividly and I always remind Michael that he changed my life that day. Not long after that Michael started delivering Chinese take away after work for extra money. One night he asked his Dad to cover his shift for him and while delivering to a call out the UVF walked out and shot his dad dead. This was a regular occurrence at the time. Taxi drivers were also easy targets for loyalist paramilitaries, doormen or anyone walking about in a Catholic area. If a car stopped for directions or slowed down you had to keep a sixth sense about you. Michael still lives in Belfast and is an avid Celtic supporter as well as a criminal Lawyer. He still teaches the Irish language and speaks German and Spanish also. One thing the Boxing gave us during the troubles was friends in the protestant community. Boxing was never sectarian like soccer. You could go to any part of Belfast to box during the troubles and nothing was said. I think because it is a hard game where you earn your respect, the respect was real for each other.
How did you transition from regular boxing into Thai Boxing?
Around this time I was training in Thai boxing and had hurt my shoulder. One of the class members told me to call up to where he was training people in Thai Massage therapy and he would have a look at it. When I called in he encouraged me to take part in the workshop and that was it, I was hooked. Everyday I would practice on anyone I could get my hands on. I became obsessed with it and became very good with practice.
Who was your mentor and guided you scholastically back to College?
A Doctor who I befriended on the course told me that I should really go back to college and learn anatomy and physiology. Being eager for knowledge I did just that. After completing a diploma in anatomy, physiology and massage, I went on to complete diplomas in sports injury management and rehabilitation, acupressure, Chinese physiotherapy, chi gung and applied kinesiology. I flew through it all and it was easy because I loved it. I still wanted more knowledge and knew there had to be more.
How did you get involved with the Singapore, Fire Walking Festival in Asia?
The kinesiology introduced me into how the mind could affect the body and I had also started travelling to London to practice an old system of Kung Fu, which trained one to reduce pain by using the mind. It was around this time I was invited by one of my seniors to travel to Singapore and take part in one of the toughest fire walking festivals in Asia. I had to get soaked down with a hose and role in grit then roll a quarter of a mile with my arms above my head so that the grit would stick into me like thorns on the tiled temple floor. The next night there was no sleep as we waited for the fire to be lit at the Mariamam temple. A gravel pit 20 foot long and 2 and a half-foot deep with 5000 burning compressed hardwood logs. We had to walk 6 miles in the mid day sun around all the temples and church’s over the black tiled pavements which felt like hot plates. I even witnessed some locals taking lifts. My feet blistered badly and most of the skin had come off my left foot before I even walked on the fire. I had to be helped to my feet to enter the temple to walk on the fire, totally exhausted and in pain. The heat blew off it like a furnace as Indian men on both sides with sheets soaked in water raked the barbequed wood.
I remember thinking I am doing this even if it kills me, total abandonment, and I knew if I didn’t do it I would regret it the rest of my life. This fire is intense, it is not like those corporate fires walking gimmicks every Tom Dick and Harry takes part in. A lot of Indians backed out when it came to face it and the previous year a man fell on it and had to be rushed to hospital, it is unstable and deep. After the first two steps my brain wanted to shut down and I had to fight it. When I got to the end I was relieved and thought thank God that’s over.
Suddenly I could feel the heat of the fire running up the bones in my legs to the top of my thighs like two blowtorches. “What’s happening?” I shouted to an Indian man beside me. He said this was good as God was cleansing me of my sins. I remember wishing I could leave my body, I had enough, there were many ambulances outside but my group would not let me go to them but instead made me walk a mile to my lift, a pickup truck. The Indians got into the back and I sat in the front with the driver where I occasionally banged my head off his dashboard with pain. I started going into convulsions about 2 hrs later and was given a tablet to knock me out. In the morning I awoke with no pain or burns for that matter. The Singapore Hindu papers had printed the next day a westerner walks on the fire for Shakti for the first time in its history from 1848. I was proud of this as in my head I was representing the Irish.
How did people receive you when you went home?
When I got home a lot of people kept asking me how I could endure so much pain, but to me it was only a day. You get used to pain, I have broken ribs twice sparring heavy weight cage fighters, fractured my nose and check bone, dislocated shoulders, thumbs and broke most of my toes, I also chopped off the top of my index finger, but a lot of people have had worse. I watched my children being born, and I don’t know any man that would go through that.
Real pain is a parent watching a child slip away everyday in the hospital or not being loved by abusive parents. What I did in Singapore we can all do, we are no different really. It only lasted a day.
Most people want to hide a family crisis, but you endured, you have shared your experiences good and sad to try to help others. What triggered this inspiration?
When the year 2000 came in I was manager of the royal mail fitness suite and running a sports injury clinic. I was healthy and so was my family. Then on April my office phone rang and my wife was on the other end, she told me that I better get home quick as my youngest brother Gary was in my Mums back garden where he had hung himself. The journey of five miles to my mum’s seemed like 500 miles.
When I arrived at the house it was full of neighbors and the police where in the back garden below the tree. My Mum lives for gardening and she has produced many beautiful gardens from an old piece of flat land, which was full of rocks, separating each other with trees, hedges and flowers.
Gary had jumped off the tree from about 20 foot in the air with a rope thinner than my little finger around his neck. The rope had come undone over night and he had fallen in a red rose bush behind the tree sitting propped up as if he was just sleeping. To me he just looked like a sleeping baby. I cried and an anger raged inside me, I wanted to kill God for taking my little brother, I felt so desperate and helpless, if I could have cut my beating heart out to put it in his chest I would not have gave it a second thought. In the middle of my anger I heard someone screaming and turned to see my dad and older brother holding my mum back from seeing Gary. She fought and struggled with them, then eventually broke down and collapsed with no life left in her shouting “I want to see my baby!” Something died in her that day.
My mum had to be sedated and on the day of the funeral had to be lifted from her bed. I thought she was dying from a broken heart. My brother Gary’s nick name was smiler and he was always the life and sole of the party, he had more friends than anyone I knew and had represented Northern Ireland in Gymnastics as well as that he was a keen hurler and Gaelic footballer. If you were feeling down or had a bad day and you seen him approaching you with that big cheesy grin you just laughed. All the guys that lived and drank on the street even knew him as he would always gave them cigarettes and call on him in his little shop he of course would let them stand in out of the rain. Everyone was in shock and a lot of my family went into depression after this. I took time off to help and be the strong one not taking time to grieve.
Everyone was looking for answers and even blaming himself or herself for not knowing this was coming. It is very common after a suicide in a family for people to blame themselves because not many people know the symptoms or the severity of real depression and they feel as though they should have known something or did something more to help the person who has died. There is also an element of shame because the Catholic Church preached for years it was a mortal sin. Now that there is an epidemic of suicides in Ireland they have changed their way of thinking. I began my own research into depression. I wanted to know why Doctors, councilors and psychiatrist where not getting results at dealing with depression. I found out after how my brother had requested to be taken into hospital but was giving sleeping tablets on two occasions and after speaking to others about how they lost loved ones after seeing psychiatrists in our local hospital who did not take their symptoms seriously enough. Symptom diagnosis and drug prescription is not the answer, especially for children.
How did you handle all this, did you have the strength to move on?
I decided to focus on happier things like our new baby arriving and quietly hoped it would be a boy to name him Gary. It turned out to be a girl, whom we named Holly, however she was tragically born dead.
I returned to work and had a relapse of neurotic depression (feelings of disassociating, irrational thoughts and weeping for no reason). I had seen the work doctor who told me to take time off. I was then referred to a psychiatrist who made me feel ten times worse. He kept repeating to me “ Do you know that your brother was very selfish, this was a selfish act” I wanted to punch this idiot right in the mouth. The same man dealt with a friend’s mother and she took her own life, and there were others. Let me point something out here for any one reading this from the medical society. A selfish act is a conscious act. You consciously work it out for some sort of self-pleasure. Your conscious everyday mind is rational; it does not take part in irrational behavior unless you are intoxicated on alcohol or drugs. If I asked you to put a needle in your finger now you would not do it because you analyze that it will cause pain. The highest human intention is safety and survival. SO, if someone is having irrational thoughts about self-harm or suicide, why the hell are you looking in the rational mind for irrational behavior? Your rational mind cannot control your emotions.
This man also nearly pushed me over the edge as he sent a letter to my employers of 18 years and informed them that he could not find anything wrong with me other than he thought I did not like my job. I was dismissed, lost my redundancy money and they then froze my pension. What a result!! This man is still working in the national service and still telling his patience the same rubbish.
So in the period of 1 year I had lost my brother, my job and a child, but hey, according to the psychiatrist I was fine, so why worry?
The Irish say, thing happen in Three’s. When and where did you find your inner chore to pick yourself up and get back to life and living?
I had started dealing with my own depression and anger through alcohol and anything else that would numb me up. After a while I hit rock bottom, and one morning I woke up on a street in the town not remembering how I got there. This was it, I had children and a wife to think about and I did not like what I was turning in to.
Did you get your head back into studying again?
I got my head down and studied the mind, both sides. I also through myself back into my martial arts. I received diplomas in professional hypnotherapy with Neuro linguistic programming and went on to complete an advanced diploma in Medical hypnosis, which is specific for boosting the immune system as well as causing non-drug analgesia and anesthesia.
Did working with the local community help your healing process as well?
I began working in the local community with my knowledge of therapies, which covered the mental, physical and nutritional side of health. Working on the ground with ex prisoners and their families, kids in deprived areas and in young institution centers and also in sports as well as continuing my studies and progressing deeper into my own work. Gradually I noticed the importance of the emotional side of health being more important than the physical and nutritional and my passion grew in that direction.
I started receiving requests to take my work into corporate business’s and Universities and would even see Consultants on a regular basis for stress or confidence building. From this came requests for public speaking at AGMs for the Audit office, the institute of charted accountants and I shared a platform last year with the director of Disney at a conference for the chartered institute for public finance. I also starred in a six part TV series for BBC1 Northern Ireland where I had to take 6 long term unemployed people who had issues and build them up to get back into employment.
When did you start working with Irish Step Dancers?
I had always worked closely with the Irish dancers in Belfast treating injuries and balancing their muscles before an event. I noticed that before an event high levels of stress would make them ill or injured, so I began applying my emotional work with them. This had the effect of not only lifting their performance both strengthened their body making them jump higher and lifting their endurance levels. One to ones eventually became groups and with the results I was getting with dancers the word quickly spread now I have been sharing my knowledge all over the UK, Ireland the USA and Canada. I have been privileged to see behind the scenes in the world of Irish dancing and like most have become addicted to the music and the passion expressed, there is something magical about it. They train like professionals and are more determined and dedicated than most other sports I work with. Most of the teachers have been dancing from aged 5, go on from amateur to professional then go on to teach full time and travel around the world with their students competing, as well as keeping a family. They are sharp and self-driven. I had a real passion about what they did and wanted to be part of it and help.
I realized that if I could make these great athletes jump higher and further I could make a runner run faster, a boxer hit harder and a weight lifter up his maximum. So I went on to do this and have been doing this for 8 years in a mixture of sports professional boxing, cage fighters, runners, rally drivers, swimmers but I love working with the dancers, it does not matter at what level you are at or what sport you are in I can improve on your performance. It does not matter if you are an NBA super star already I can improve what you do. I specialize with dancers simply because I have worked mostly with dancers from beginners to multiple world champions and professionals. I have worked with Over 2000 Irish dancers and Ballet schools have requested me lately.
Tell us something about your film documentary?
I was filmed recently for a 12-week series on martial arts made in California by Anaconda productions. The producer actually phoned my home and told me he thought that was a bold statement that I had made on my web site. Well the proof is in the pudding I told him. So Arne Freeman organized a film crew in Northern Ireland and I had to take a professional cage fighter and help him break his strength record. You can view it on my website.
When will your book be published?
I am putting the finishing touches to my first book, which will be printed shortly. It is a book that will remind you of the greatest success strategy that has ever been used. We have all used this strategy to master thousands of skills that we take for granted. My little book will be a reminder for you so that you can read it and teach it in your children. I have also started to investigate the option of putting my program into a musical play which I am very excited about.
Can you sum up your dream, visions and expectations?
I have always done my best in my work and will continue to do so. You, me, and all of us must continue to grow in life, because if something has stopped growing it has to be dying, and we are no different. Sure life will still kick us now and then, but that is life. The only people with no problems I know are in the cemetery. So the more problems you have the more alive you are.
I dream of my Tools for Life program being part of every child’s studies in school and a play they can take part in to learn to love themselves and be the best that they can be in life, their best not other peoples best.
I have got to a stage in my own life where I am completely at ease with myself, I look up to no one, nor do I look down on anyone. I have a passion for life and I appreciate my family and friends. I feel privileged to be able to share my work and help change the direction in young people’s lives. I learn something from everyone I meet and I still have a hunger for knowledge. I don’t think we are all great, I know it, my job is to make you feel it, then you will believe it for feeling is believing.
You can tell a child that they are great but they will not believe you until they feel it. You can also tell people to say affirmations everyday like “I am thin” or I love myself” but they will feel like a hypocrite. Because they are describing something they do not feel and the analytical mind will interfere.
Now let me explain something very important here. If you are faced with a challenge in life, whatever that is, a competition, exams, an interview or having to overcome an illness or grab a massive opportunity in life that comes along. Right away you will have a feeling that will make you feel small and helpless or you will feel confident and strong. If that challenge seems very big and you cannot change it, then you can only make it seem smaller by making yourself a bigger person.
I don’t know about you but I want my children to be confident and happy in life as well as being able to cope with adversity and change when I am gone.
My Tools for life program teaches children and young adults the origin of self-confidence in all situations in life, how to create a real self-esteem and true self-motivation as well as how to deal with life’s obstacles, internal and external. And most importantly, never look up to anyone in this life, respect them, but if you always look up to others you will always feel beneath them. Bob Hope or the Pope, James Dean or the queen, I don’t give a dam, I am as good as any of them and so are you.
I have a powerful message for the Irish, American and all people, but I am only one person and I may never meet every one of you reading this, but I hope you can read my work some day or get to see my play.
Knowing I have left something valuable to others in this world I will be a happy man when I am 6 foot under pushing up the daisies.
For further information on Sean and his work visit www.seanconnolly.info