The very lovely thing about this job is the fact that you meet lots of interesting folk. Even better, you get paid to meet them. Occasionally, 'interesting' doesn't go hand-in-hand with 'nice'. That's not the case with gardener Dermot O'Neill. I had as much fun as you can have in a warehouse in Finglas last year when I interviewed him about his upcoming shows for RTE and his ambitions to renovate a 19th-century walled garden in Co Laois.
But when I went to see him earlier this month, the conversation was altogether more sombre. We're thinking of you Dermot.
FROM IRISH INDEPENDENT'S Weekend magazine, October 17, 2009
By SUSAN DALY
THERE is something not right about seeing Dermot O’Neill in a hospital bed. He should be standing in a flower border, energetically pruning back roses, or showing off the glut of winter chard from his garden in Co Laois.
Instead he is easing himself back onto a pillow, an angry crescent-shaped wound visible on the front left of his shaved head, pinced together with staples. It is through this hole in his skull that chemotherapy is being administered once a week to track down rogue cancer cells in his spinal and brain fluid. Last night, he joked with a friend that the opening was like having the lid of a wheelie bin on his head.
His trademark gelled quiff is gone. He decided to have his hair shaved off rather than wait for the fallout of severe chemotherapy to kick in. A woman walked into his hospital room last week and said she was the hospital hairdresser. “I said, ‘You’re exactly the woman I’m looking for. Will you shave my head?’”
It was Dermot’s way of taking back some control in his life, something he hasn’t had much of since he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in early September.
Everything had just been coming together for him this summer. His gardening expertise had never been more in demand; he was giving lectures and tours, rushing to festivals all around Ireland. His revitalisation of a 19th century walled garden at Clondeglass, Laois was coming along beautifully – RTE have commissioned a 12-part series about the ambitious project for the new year called Dermot’s Garden.
When Weekend magazine called for a tour of Clondeglass a little over a month ago, Dermot was buzzing with plans. As well as the regeneration of the garden, he was renovating the one-bedroom cottage beside it and looking at setting up a gardening school.
The picturesque cottage, with roses trailing around the doorway, was particularly important to him. Eight or nine years ago, Dermot lost his job and then his beloved home in Dublin’s Portobello, just off the South Circular Road. He has never forgotten the “horror” and the indignity of that time in his life and so earlier this summer he agreed to become a patron of homeless charity Threshold. Their corporate funding has dried up and they have had to shut their Limerick office even though demand for their services has doubled because of the number of people losing their homes in the recession.
“I asked them: ‘Are there people who get cancer being thrown out of accommodation?’ And they said yes. I thought that, well, when I’m back on my feet, I want to look closely at this.”
Dermot has plans, no doubt about it. He is throwing himself behind the fight being waged against his disease by his consultant oncologist Professor John Crown, a man well known to the Irish public for his formidable critiques of the government’s handling of cancer services.
“He’s very direct and it suits me,” says Dermot. “There’s no mollycoddling. He’s there fighting on your behalf, he’s like a soldier and he has an amazing team of nurses here.”
When Prof Crown told Dermot he would need to drill a hole in his skull, Dermot asked if neurosurgery wasn’t a bit risky. “And he said: ‘It’s simple. You do it or you die’. And I went, Right, say no more, I understand, I’m in your hands, do what you have to do.”
He sounds very stoic and, wrapped up in a dapper silk polka-dot dressing gown, looks well despite the harrowing trial his body is undergoing. (“It’s the steroids,” he whispers.) But he is the first to admit that when first told he had cancer, and the fast-growing version of it at that, he was plunged into fear.
“There’s a hopeless moment where you feel you are alone in the world, like someone suddenly switches out a light,” says Dermot.
He first felt unwell at the end of June, and was admitted to the Beacon in Sandymount when he developed chickenpox. The blisters were everywhere – “In my ears, my nose, my head, I looked like the creature from the black lagoon” – but he also had a bleeding ulcer. After ten days or so, he was about to be discharged when he developed painful gout in his foot, a result of being so run down.
It was when he returned for an endoscopy to check on his ulcer a few weeks later, that he got the first hint something could be seriously wrong. His consultant Dr Donal Maguire said they weren’t happy, the ulcer hadn’t healed and that there appeared to be something else.
The results of a biopsy confirmed that Dermot had a tumour in his stomach. The good news, said Mr Maguire, was that although it was very serious, it was very treatable. It was a fast-growing cancer, but the upside to that was that it would respond quickly to chemotherapy.
He was immediately referred to Prof Crown, a world-recognised expert in lymphoma. Dermot’s mental state, however, took a little time to catch up with the fast pace of events.
“You immediately start wondering: How long have I? How many months? You hear of people going in three weeks. We’ve all heard these stories. It was very emotional and I thought, Hold on a minute, you have the strength and the maturity to pull you through this. You’ve got to put on a brave face.”
Telling his parents, now in their 70s, was an awful moment. “Very very difficult to do that,” he says, “because I hadn’t come to terms with it and I knew how desperately shocked and upset they were.” Dermot’s aunt Ann Hall died last year of cancer at a relatively young age. “It brings it all back for the family. It resurrects the memory of what another loved one went through,” he adds.
Yet he has found strength in his lost aunt. He remembers saying goodbye to her and how she told him that she would always be with him.
He tries to think of it all as part of the cycle of life. The night before he was admitted to St Vincent’s Private Hospital to start treatment, he opened the harvest festival to mark 150 years of Killiney’s Anglican church. “I went early so I could be alone there. And I walked into that church and it was full of flowers… The love the care the effort that went into every arrangement.
“It was very appropriate, here I was coming to terms with something that might take my life and I’m in the middle of a space where people had been married, christened, buried. It was very grounding.”
Those positive thoughts have been reinforced by his “amazing” friends and parents, his sisters Carol and Louise. He’s had so many letters and cards that the overflow has gone to his parents’ house. Carol – who narrowly escaped death herself in 2001 when she fled her workplace, the burning Twin Towers, on 9/11 – came home from America to visit him last weekend. Dermot was allowed out wearing a mask to ward off infection because his immune system is at an all-time low.
Even though he feels he has what he needs to fight the good fight – support, love, great medical care – there are anxieties that can’t be brushed under the carpet. “I hadn’t cried at all until I was admitted into hospital two weeks ago,” he says. “But then it happened.”
He had an appointment to meet Prof Crown at St Vincent’s Private Hospital on the Friday. When he arrived, he was immediately admitted. As they weren’t starting any treatment on him that day, he was allowed to go out – “as long as I came back!” So he went with a group of close friends for a meal. On the surface, he was trying to enjoy the evening but underneath he was deeply upset.
When one of his friends brought him back to St Vincent’s in a taxi, Dermot just “exploded into tears”. He says: “I looked at the building and I thought: I might never come out of here.
“That was the little breaking point. I had left my friends and I was now starting this new journey… It just overwhelmed me.”
It still does. As we have been talking, dusk has fallen outside the hospital window and we are sitting in shadow. In the half-light, he covers his face briefly and sheds a few tears. It’s only a few short weeks since his diagnosis. He has six months of three types of chemo ahead of him. Crying is a healthy response I think.
“They said it’s good to cry,” he says, “men don’t cry enough. So every now and then I have a little cry. I’ve had a cry now and I look at it as: It’s good for me, it’s another little release.”
Dermot believes that not recognising what your body needs is a major root of any illness. “I’m convinced that stress had a big role to play in mine,” he says. “I was working very hard all summer long, enjoying it, but I was working around the clock. I was worried if I didn’t do that extra bit would I lose that contract, would I lose that opportunity, would that not be renewed. It’s like that saying: You’re running faster to stay still.”
He thinks this stress, the insecurity of being self-employed, is compounded by his desire to never again be in the vulnerable financial position he was eight years ago.
It is for this reason he has invited us to visit him in his hospital bed, for this reason that he spoke to Pat Kenny during the week about his cancer.
“I want to ask people: How many of us stop and think, Hold on, what about me? What about my health? What about that day off? I think if I had done more of that, I might not be in the position I am now.”
That, and the hope that even one person who hears his story might get themselves a health check, is what drives him on.
“If I live I can be proud of that, and if I die I did something good.”
Nobody’s going anywhere yet though. Dermot went through some pretty gruelling diagnostic tests, a bone marrow biopsy, lumber punctures, a PET/CT scan that left him with bad migraine. But all of these helped his medical team to tailor his treatment regime to the specifics of his cancer.
“It was giving Prof Crown that extra ammunition that he needed as a soldier to deal with this,” he says. There is much hope, he says, although the key is to take each day at a time and see how the tumour responds to the chemo assault.
Meanwhile, Dermot’s thinking ahead to what he has to look forward to. There is Dermot’s Garden, which will now have the journey of his cancer fight wound into its narrative. RTE has also commissioned a second series of Supergardens and asked Dermot to host it in next summer. He wants to get out there on the campaign trail for Threshold.
He has other ambitions too. “You know you’re responsible for the end of the Late Late Show appearance I made?” he laughs. The last time I interviewed him, over a year ago when he started work on Clondeglass, Dermot told me that he had a secret dream to be an opera singer. The Mooney Show on RTE Radio One read the article and sent him for lessons. He stunned a Late Late Show audience on March 6 this year by singing, unaccompanied, a sweet version of O Sole Mio.
I ask him, what I can fix for you this time round? “A trip to the moon. Will you send me to the moon?” he says, laughing again.
Then he thinks about it, and adds quietly, “Although I should be careful, because what you wish for… I could end up on the moon. The man on the moon.”