Katerina Erlebachova, author of this story, is an expat living in Ireland. Even though the story is not related to the Czech culture, we believe it belongs on this site. It describes the world and people through the eyes of a Czech woman, who found inspiration while living abroad and meeting people that impact so many of us around the world.
We would like to thank you for the wonderful and inspirational story.
Three years ago I was slowly walking alone down an ancient street in Galway, a city in the West of Ireland. I had a mood that people in the Czech Republic call ‘spleen’. A mood when the day feels grey and the mind wanders from nothing to nothing. My gaze drifted to the window of a health food shop and came across something inside that I couldn’t look away from. A very big guy leaning on crutches was laughing widely. I went inside for a moment to observe the situation. The man moved very slowly, then his body stopped shaking for a moment. I had to concentrate to hear what he was saying because his articulation was difficult to understand. When I realized what he was saying I was astonished. He was telling jokes, dallying with the salesgirls. I bought some healthy chocolate in the healthy shop. I went outside and ate it all up. It was irritating.
Why did I have spleen when this man, walking with crutches, had a sparkling humour and was as cheerful as the sun in the character of a gourmet who had just been offered a very good quality cognac? It started raining. I stood outside in the rain, glowering, my mouth covered with chocolate. I promised myself that I would find out his story.
From the beginning
Liam ´Jock´ Cullinane came into the world on the 16th April, 1967, in the city of Edinburgh, Scotland, where he lived until 1979. Then his whole family moved to the Irish city of Galway. In 1976, he won first prize in the Tokyo International Art Competition. That showed his talent to always occupy the first position, which he probably inherited, together with a special light in his eyes, from his grandfather Harry, who was a British boxing champion in 1936. In 1985, after finishing secondary school, he entered the French Foreign Legion. He was eighteen years old…
About the Legion
With his experiences in the Legion, Liam obtained a wisdom that he shared with The Galway City Tribune in December 4th, 2009: ´That taught me that where the mind goes the body follow’. He had no idea then how this truth would help him later in another battle. As Liam himself expressed in an interview : ´I remember joining as a young boy back in 1985, and the awe these people inspired in me grew into a deep sense of respect as I matured. Extraordinarily fit, silent, strong, hospitable men. The Legion is like microcosm. Square pegs in square holes´.
He spent seven years in the Parachute Regiment based in Calvi in the incredibly beautiful island of Corsica. Two years of which were spent on regular tours to foreign locations. After serving four years in the Mountaineering Company where he gained a strong foundation in mountaineering skills, he entered the regiments’ elite Special Forces Unit where the acquisition of new skills such as scuba diving and skydiving continued. But most importantly it was here that his love of photography was further enhanced by the expertise he learned in the photography wing of this unit.
Trip to Himalayas
After leaving the Legion in July 1992 Liam decided to trek alone to the Mountains of the Nepal Himalaya. He photographed the country’s scenery, capturing its people and society. He was also thinking about where his life on the road would lead. Shortly after returning home at the end of 1992 he began a Commercial Diving course in Fort William, Scotland.
On Friday the 23rd of April 1993 Liam had his last day at Diving School. He had been violently sick throughout the previous night and struggled with fever and a pounding headache as he completed the formalities of the final course paperwork. He thought it was just a very bad dose of the flu; and was planning to spend that weekend with his brother Harry in Edinburgh before continuing on with his life of adventure in some distant part of the globe. From that day however, life began to take Liam in a completely different direction.
When he returned to his flat that afternoon he slipped into unconsciousness. On Sunday the 25th of April, his landlady let herself into his flat assuming that Liam had already vacated it. She found him lying on the floor in a semi-conscious state. The apartment was thrashed because he had had violent seizures, and he had friction burns and bruises all over his body. He was taken to Fort William Hospital and from there to the Great Southern General Hospital in Glasgow. Through the performance of lumbar punctures it was confirmed that he had a rare form of meningitis called Listeria Monocytogenes Meningo-Encephalitis.
Open your eyes
After a fortnight he was stabilised and began to emerge from his coma. When he woke up he discovered that, with the exception of his right arm, he couldn’t move his body, and he couldn’t speak. But he doesn’t recall having any moments of depression or asking why this had happened to him. From his first moment of consciousness, he was totally focussed on getting well again. As family and friends began to visit him, Liam was given a board with an alphabet on it, and he spelt out what he wanted to say, letter by letter. Because of his tremors, it took him about 5 minutes to spell out 10 letters, by which time his visitors would often have forgotten the beginning of the word and they would ask him to start it again. His early attempts to brush his own teeth frequently resulted in his sticking the toothbrush in his eye, or giving himself a nosebleed.
What does it mean to have a brother with a big heart?
A big help for him was his brother Harry.
As Liam said:
´At that period Harry raised my spirits immensely. It was with him I mostly communicated and it was largely through him that I communicated with the outside world. As my closest brother – we grew up together – he knew me so well that often I didn’t need to speak for him to understand. During this time our relationship as close brothers strengthened – a bit like when we were boys.
Harry has a big heart. He asked me why did I have to go and get some damn meningitis that nobody else gets. He was great for making fun, which is a real boost when you are sick. All you want is a laugh and a little diversion.´ Harry also took him out into the hospital grounds. It was one of the best days in his life – he was out in nature again and he managed to move himself unaided from the wheelchair onto the grass – the first time that he was able to transfer himself independently.
On 10th June 1994 he returned to his family home in Galway. At this stage he was walking with the aid of a walking frame but soon after that, with incredible will and great support from his family, he progressed to crutches. He also through relentless lessons with speech therapists learned to control his voice.
On November 21st 1997, at the Logan Gallery in Galway, his first photography exhibition, entitled Titanic, was opened. It included black and white and also colour photographs from the one of the most elevated and enigmatic countries in the world – Nepal.
In June 1998, Liam was nominated a ‘National Outstanding Person of the Year’ by the Irish Junior Chamber of Commerce in the category of ´Personal Improvement and Accomplishment´. The message from the Junior Chamber read that ´His struggle to return to a normal life has been tremendous´.
In 1994 Liam’s old friend Tom McEvoy built a specially adapted bike. He made three different versions before he got it right, and even then the third model required several modifications which meant it was well into 1995 before the bicycle was adapted correctly and Liam learnt how to ride it. In 2005 Liam started to use a tricycle.
The possibility to use his bike brought to Liam greater independence and the ability to manage his own affairs in the city centre. But even this move forward was not entirely without difficulties. Liam’s unusual bike was stolen several times.Once it was found in the canal in a very bad condition. Repairing it again and again cost him money and a lot of frustration and most crucially – time. It last happened in October 2009. But Liam’s mind is empty of vengeance. To the magazine that helped him in the search for the stolen bike he said ´I just want to get it back.´
Nothing is ipossible
In the year 2000 Liam did a tandem parachute jump in Australia. Afterwards he supported the organization ‘Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind’ by sponsored parachute jump.
In April 2007 Liam graduated with a degree of Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Humanities with Philosophy from The Open University. In November of 2008 he went on a round the world trip: his primary objective was to visit his brother Patrick in Australia, but he also took a large amount of photographs and investigated a variety of therapies unavailable in Ireland. He returned to Galway in July 2009.
I recently saw the film: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, directed by David Fincher. At the end of the movie is an epilogue, which says:´Some people are born to sit by the river
“Some are struck by lightning
Some have a deep knowledge of Shakespeare
Some have an ear for music
Some people are mothers
Some people are familiar with the buttons, and some people are dancing.”
The man about who I am writing was born to be better and better. Here is question: ´Must we have a grandfather who is a champion boxer, to prove that we can do the impossible? Or is it enough when we just have believs in the depth of the connection between mind and body? Liam probably has both.
To be continued…