Colum Quigley


On the day that Colum Quigley was born, in October 1950, his parents were told that he would not survive long and was expected to be carried off as soon as he caught a cold. Colum was born with Down Syndrome. Down Syndrome gets its name from the British doctor, John Langdon Down, who first clinically identified the condition in 1866. It is caused by extra genetic material in one of the twenty three chromosomes which produces extra doses of particular proteins. These create certain characteristics - the recognizable physical traits associated with Down Syndrome and mental and cognitive disabilities.

Colum was sick for his first seven years but fought to survive, supported and nurtured by his devoted parents. He went on to develop his full potential and, though often frustrated at being misunderstood or not being able to fully communicate his thoughts, he enjoyed a happy life.

I had heard much about him before I met him last May in Toronto where I was giving a lecture on the twentieth anniversary of the hunger strike. When I came down from the stage we were introduced. We became friends immediately. It was impossible not to love him. He put his arms around me and kept them there for about an hour - even as I struggled to get my glass to my lips - in one of the warmest, longest, innocent and angelic hugs I have ever experienced. Then he would say several times: "How me know you? How me know you?"

Last Christmas he took ill, with a pain and swelling in one of his legs, and was taken to the hospital to be examined. It was then discovered that he had leukemia. Sadly, he died on February 28th last, at the age of fifty one, and was cremated in Canada. His ashes were brought back to Ireland last week to be buried in his mother's grave.

Last Saturday in Dublin, at the Jesuit College in Milltown Park, his family and friends gathered for a moving ceremony to celebrate and remember his life.

Brendan, the youngest of the family, recited W.B. Yeats' poem, 'The Stolen Child'. Michael, the eldest, with whom in Hamilton, Canada, along with Michael's wife, Helen, Colum lived for the last ten years of his life, spoke of "the great privilege it was to be a brother of Colum."

Colum was born in London, the second of seven children. He always told people he was from England: "Me UK," he would say. When he was sixteen the Quigleys returned to live in Dun Laoghaire. At home he was treated like everyone else and was part of the rough and tumble of life in a large family. He accompanied his siblings to the pub, cinema, galleries, soccer matches, political meetings and parties. Patricia, the only girl in the family, gave the eulogy, and recalled the times that Colum set out every morning the short distance to collect the papers from the newsagents but took three hours to get home. He was so gregarious that he would stop and call into neighbors' houses for a chat, a cup of tea and some cake.

Their mother died in 1987 and four years later Colum went to Canada to live with Michael and Helen (whom he called MikenHL) and quickly adapted, even becoming 'manager' of one of the local ice hockey teams!

"But he didn't forget us," said Patricia. "Every summer he came to Europe and made royal progress around the homes of each of his siblings… He would up the ante every visit by telling each of us how great a time he'd had in the previous brother/sister's house. He also insisted on informing the current sibling that he was really, really looking forward to staying with the next sibling… So, barbeques and parties and bowling trips would be organized, just so your name wouldn't be mud with the rest of the family. Of course, nothing - not your cooking, not your choice in movies, not your barbeques - could compare with 'MikenHL'. They were his benchmark and the rest of us just didn't measure up."

He was the ultimate party animal, she said, and believed that all parties were thrown in his honour. He was also an outrageous flirt. "You would be on the dance floor dancing with him, but the moment he saw a prettier woman, he would leave you for her." She described his patience with his nephews and nieces, toddlers who would wreck his jigsaw puzzle or Lego building. He would simply sigh and set to work rebuilding. However, she said, he could also be cantankerous, sulky and very stubborn, but after a row he would come and give you a hug and say sorry.

"Colum was the most affectionate person who ever lived. All he ever wanted to do was to love you and be loved by you… He was an innocent abroad in what can be a cynical world, and because of this, because as the phrase goes, there was 'no side to him', he brought out the best in every one who had the great good fortune to meet him. He enriched our lives immeasurably and we miss him."

He'll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than he can understand.

William Butler Yeats

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison