Brain injury does not stop Clare actor from taking Flights

Conor (far right) with his Flights cast mates Rhys Dunlop and Colin Campbell. Picture: Ste Murray.

By David Hennessy

Clare actor Conor Madden’s performance in John O’Donovan’s Flights is made even more impressive by the fact that he has overcome a brain injury to walk onstage and say his lines. Conor was hit by a sword while playing Hamlet onstage in Cork nine years ago. The traumatic brain injury he sustained means he can no longer do simple things that many of us take for granted and had to relearn how to walk.

Conor Madden told The Irish World: “I’m definitely doing it to the best of my ability but I question whether my ability is enough. This is what I do for a job. I stand up and talk for a job.

“I trained for three years and worked for very little money or no money for a long, long time to hone my craft and learn how to do this properly. So all the things I learned are then put aside because they never accounted for a brain injury, they don’t apply when you have one of these.”

“I was just starting to turn the wheel and this happened.

“I still have speech problems so sometimes I slur.”

Conor, from Newmarket-on-Fergus, had time in a wheelchair and was not sure if he would stand again let alone stand onstage. He says the experience has made any onstage success he now has bittersweet: “It kind of makes it worse actually because I can’t guarantee when it will be a good night so when it is a good night, it’s bittersweet. I’m delighted that I’ve been clear and I’ve said everything in the right order but I don’t know tomorrow if I’ll be able to do it again. I don’t know why I was able to do it tonight so it’s bittersweet, a double edged thing.

“At the time it was just a matter of, ‘This has happened, I now need to fix what has happened’.  It wasn’t until maybe five, six years later I went, ‘Hmm, this is not good, this is not going away’.”

Although Conor used to be an active person he can no longer do some of the things that he used to be passionate about. This leads to difficulties when auditioning for roles: “To be an actor: You’re asked to do something, you do it. That’s kind of par for the course. And if I have to say, I can’t do something then generally I don’t get the job and it’s just like, ‘Ya know this character does have to do this and you can’t do it so there we go’. There’s nothing anyone can do which is not good for me because I’m kind of going, ‘It’s not really my fault’. But it is what it is.

“I can’t run, can’t ride bikes. I used to climb, that used to be a passion of mine. Jesus, I would be a disaster (on a horse). I can drive but I don’t. I have double vision so I have no depth perception so parking is really hard. I don’t know where other cars are so my wife drives. Those small things you kind of take for granted.”

Flights is about three friends who gather to mark the anniversary of a friend who died at 17. Austerity is one of the themes of the piece. Conor believes it should get another life after its current run at Omnibus Theatre comes to an end.

“Flights is about a period in our culture that we’re not talking about. There are not any plays that are addressing this, the actual social effect of this earthquake, this financial bomb that was dropped on us, that we literally had no control over.

“I had friends in all corners of the earth not by choice. I have friends who have killed themselves and again there is no way this would have happened had it not been for this horrific recession that we’re going to be paying for until 2045, that Irish people are going to be paying for for another 25 years. That people who aren’t even born yet, weren’t born in 2008 are going to be actually paying tax for and what did we get out of it? We got nothing. We actually got a worse country, worse services, worse hospital system, worse infrastructure, worse everything. Our public services were destroyed. For what?

“And they say the economy is coming back. The economy isn’t coming back. 95 % of the apartments in Dublin were bought by foreign investment funds. They’re not Irish people being lifted up again by the economy, these are vultures essentially are coming in and making a buck. That’s not how a country should run.

“Flights is about the effect it has had on people, futures they thought they would have that have not materialised. I think it should have another life but where that is remains to be seen.”

Conor’s character in Flights has a poignant line of suicide when he says, ‘apart from hurling, it’s the national past-time’. Conor believes this is so poignant because it is so accurate: “There have been massive cuts to mental health services. You can almost draw a line between the recession and having to cut mental health services and then an incredibly sharp rise in suicides. You can see how it happened straightaway that these people who had their livelihoods, their futures taken away from them, then didn’t have anyone to talk to about that and they saw no other way out other than to take their own life. What did we gain? What did our country gain? In my opinion, we gained nothing. The people who make the decisions are still here. Micheál Martin may even be the next Taoiseach. He was in government when the country went bust. It’s crazy.”

Flights is at Omnibus Theatre until 29 February.

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