Visionary who battled the odds to transform lives

Arts Week with Judy Murphy

In 1963, at the age of nine, Martin Naughton and his younger sister Barbara, left their home in Spiddal for a residential hospital in Dublin. It was felt they’d get better treatment there for the muscular dystrophy with which they’d both been diagnosed. In later years, the pioneering disability activist used to wonder what might have happened had he stayed at home with his family and friends in this Gaeltacht community.

“I often thought, more with curiosity than regret, how different my life would have been if I’d stayed in Spiddal,” he told writer and documentary maker Joanna Marsden when he was in his early 60s.

In 2014, aged 60, Martin had asked Joanna to write a memoir about his life and the battle he’d spearheaded to liberate disabled people from institutions.

He and like-minded campaigners had driven this campaign, which resulted in the establishment of Ireland’s first Centre for Independent Living. That was in 1990. Five years later, they  secured State funding for Personal Assistance (PA) services so that people with disabilities could live as they wanted in their own homes, rather than having their routines dictated by institutions.

It was to such an institution that nine-year-old Martin and Barbara, who was a year younger, had moved in 1963.  Their sister Maureen, older than Martin by 16 years, had muscular dystrophy too but a milder form. She remained in Spiddal, becoming the local post mistress and she was a huge influence on his life.

Martin, whose condition meant he was in a wheelchair from his early days in Dublin, retained a close bond with his family. His parents, Peadar and Nora, visited him and Barbara in Baldoyle whenever they could and organised for friends and neighbours to call too, while the two came home on holidays every year. Then, in the early 1990s, he nearly relocated to Boston where his sister, Chris, and her family lived. However, Martin returned to Ireland, feeling the battle for independence that his friends were fighting here needed all hands on deck.

When Martin died in 2016 aged 62, the book he had started writing with Joanne was still in draft form.

She finished it by drawing on notes and recordings of her conversations with him as well as interviews with his sister Barbara and his friends. It has now been published as Never Know Your Place: Memoir of a Rulebreaker.

One of Martin’s favourite sayings was, ‘if it’s not in writing, it never happened’. While he used that phrase mostly in his dealings with politicians and civil servants, Joanne observes that it’s important in terms of history too.

Pictured: Martin Naughton at home in Spiddal in the late 1980s. The late activist recalls  his childhood friendships in the memoir.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune:

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