FAMILY STRENGTH Oisín Gannon, who is now cancer-free, with his devoted parents, Mick and Gemma Gannon. Pic: Trish Forde
ON Halloween night 2013, Ballinrobe Musical Society staged a fundraising concert for Oisín Gannon, a local young man who was ill with a rare form of brain cancer. The then 19 year old had hoped to be at the concert, or even to send a video message. However, as people packed into Ballinrobe Community School that evening, Oisín was clinging to life in a London hospital.
Before all this, he had lived an ordinary, happy life. He was a talented Gaelic footballer and even had trials with Mayo underage teams.
One evening at football training, Oisín noticed that all was not right.
It began with seizures and cramps, and soon he had lost interest in football. Eventually he struggled to walk.
His psychiatrist, neurologist and doctor were all perplexed by his complaint. Speculating that it was depression, medics referred him to the Mayo Mental Health Association.
The professional that saw him believed that something more sinister was at play and promptly referred Oisín for an MRI, which revealed a tumour on his brain.
The family were told it was nothing to worry about. But Oisín’s mother, Gemma, wasn’t so sure.
“I wasn’t going to let that go. I knew that there was something seriously wrong,” she told The Mayo News. “It took a year of banging on doors and shouting at people saying ‘You’ve got to listen. This is happening’.”
Sensing a serious threat to Oisín’s health, the Gannons flew to London for swifter treatment. And again, they were told it was nothing to worry about.
He was then brought to see another expert, by which time the tumour had tripled in size. A scan was ordered for the next day, and it soon became clear that Oisín required an operation immediately.
‘Nothing more we can do’
For his family, the cost of private treatment and accommodation would ultimately run into the thousands. That’s when the ‘Ballinrobe Sings For Oisín’ concert was conceived.
Without hesitation, Ballinrobe Musical Society rallied behind the Gannons. The family’s long association with the society goes back to 1974, when JJ Gannon starred in ‘The Pirates of Penzance’, and its members were only too happy to help.
However, the society had only just warmed their vocal cords when Oisín took a turn for the worse.
“It just all happened all at once,” recalled Gemma, who is also a long-time society member. “He went down to surgery, and they rang up and said they were happy with everything. It all went well. He had come around, everything was great. Then he had a massive bleed in recovery.
“He was taken back into surgery, and he was there for another three or four hours… then he was in ICU, and we didn’t know if he was going to make the night.”
Eventually Oisín recovered enough to be transferred to a teenage cancer ward, where he spent the next three months. By this time, his family had effectively moved to London to be with him.
Then came the news no parent ever wants to hear.
“He was to have four rounds of chemo, five weeks of radiotherapy and then he was to have a bone-marrow transplant. But after two rounds of chemo he nearly died,” Gemma recalled.
“They just said, ‘That’s it. We’re not doing any more. He’s going into palliative care. There’s nothing more we can do’.
“He had already gone into respiratory arrest. He was very, very sick. The concert was on the Thursday… We were told on that Monday morning previous to say our goodbyes.”
His sister, Sorcha, screamed at him not to go while his parents contemplated life without their only son.
Then what felt like a miracle happened. “Some doctor turned around and said, ‘The chemo has worked. It has literally wiped the tumour’,” Gemma said.
Long road back
Oisín had already been through hell – but he still faced a long road back.
His illness left him needing to learn to walk again, and over the last decade of gruelling rehabilitation, the warm livingroom in the family’s Cornaroya home became a one-room hospital, complete with a trolley, a hoist, a full-body wheelchair and a stair lift.
Today, Oisín is cancer-free and content. The hoist, the wheelchair and hospital bed are gone, and the stair lift sits idle.
Despite this, Oisín still lives with several medical issues. He is visually impaired, prone to fatigue and unable to regulate his body temperature. He also struggles with his balance and needs a shunt to drain fluid from his brain.
But all of these challenges never dampened his deep and abiding wish to be a part of Ballinrobe Musical Society.
Back on stage
“I love music. I love singing. I love dancing. I love being on stage in front of everyone,” Oisín told The Mayo News.
Oisín grew up watching his mother on stage with Ballinrobe Musical Society, and even joined her for the 2000 production of ‘Carousel’.
In October of 2022, Oisín felt it was finally time to give the musical another go. Given his conditions, Gemma worried whether he would have the energy for all the singing and dancing, and too-ing and fro-ing, that a show like ‘Me and My Girl’ would require.
She need not have worried. With his father, Mick, constantly by his side, her son took to the production like a duck to water.
According to Gemma, the society could not have been more accommodating of his needs.
Each week, the production team of Finola Higgins (musical director), Aoife McClafferty (choreographer), Kenneth McCarthy (stage manager) and Peter Kennedy (director) all went out of their way to ensure Oisín was fully involved in the show – he even got a few lines to say.
“All the cast made it possible for him to be on stage. If everybody didn’t come together it wasn’t going to work,” she said.
Every night, Oisín was made fully part of ‘Me and My Girl’ thanks to several unseen acts of kindness.
The backstage crew ensured that Oisín and Mick could enter and exit the stage safely. The costumes team gave him a place to change his clothes and microphone to avoid triggering his hypersensitivity. Whenever it was time to go on stage, the cast would gently prompt him and make space for himself and his dad to walk on.
“These things were all done very quietly, unassumingly, just done and taken care of. They allowed him to fully participate in the whole thing,” Gemma said.
“Anyone else in the audience would have no concept that that boy up there had any kind of issue because the cast made it look so effortless.”
‘Felt so good’
And what about his father, Mick, a man who’d never before set foot on a stage?
“I loved every minute of it,” Mick smiled.
“He was so nervous. He was so out of his comfort zone, but by the end of it he loved it,” Gemma said. “There’s no way on God’s Earth he’d have done it only for he was doing it for Oisín. He absolutely loved it.”
On the second-last night of the show, smiles beamed throughout Ballinrobe when Oisín revealed that he was completely cancer-free. It turned out the musical was medicine for body and soul.
“It did me the world of good. It was so much fun,” Oisín said. “It did my heart good and my body, my brain… it worked every piece of me. It just felt so good to be involved with so many people doing amazing stuff.
“The socialising, the laughing, singing, dancing… it was incredible,” he added. “People were just so lovely and so friendly. Ballinrobe Musical Society is just beyond amazing.”
Ten years ago Ballinrobe sang for Oisín Gannon, but 2023 became the year Oisín Gannon sang for Ballinrobe.