The Vita Cortex workers and their heroes – Part one
The online campaign team spent the best part of Wednesday in the factory canteen chatting with the workers about the idea of the hero. It just came up in conversation, and as these things do, it took on a life all of it’s own. It is very clear that the workers are more than a little uncomfortable with the ‘heroes’ label that has been attributed to them over the last 133 days. I remember, about 3 weeks into the protest, Jim Power turning to me and saying “We never set out to be heroes. We just want what we were promised and what we deserve. That’s all.” He seemed genuinely unsettled at the thought of people seeing him in that light and he wasnt best pleased when I replied “Go away boy! you love it! Where’s your red cape?” The slience that followed spoke volumes and I feel that he was weighed down by the thought. It was unchartered waters for a group of people who have spent their days working to look after their families, pay the mortgage and put food on the table.
Now over four months on I found myself sitting next to Jim again. In order to erase the awkward looks and rolling eyes thrown at me for asking if they believed in God (it wasnt the time or the place) I asked them who their heroes have been down through the years. This immediately seemed to be more fertile ground for a conversation.
“That fella there,” said Jim pointing proudly to a badge of George Best on the lapel of his jacket ” there has never been a footballer like him and there never will be again. Maradona, Messi and Ronaldo are brilliant but this guy was something else!” I am too young to have seen George Best live, in the moment and in full flight, but the conviction in Jim’s voice convinced me that he was indeed the greatest. I tried to ignore the fact that Jim is a fanatical Manchester United fan.
I was about to bring that up when Connie Griffin leaned across and said “Gandhi.”
I let out an involuntarily laugh and replied “what?”
I was just surpised because I really didnt expect it. “Some man to stick to his principles and he never gave in. I like that in somebody. He was a real leader. Maybe I would have chosen somebody else if I had not gone through this over last four months. But he was an inspirational person.”
When he finished explaining Iimmediately felt sorry for laughing. He was dead serious – Gandhi and Connie linked by an unshakable belief in having right on their side. It was a nice feeling to be sitting there.
“Joanne O’Riordan is my hero anyway… That teenage girl from Millstreet who was born without limbs….she just gets on with her life. And we think we have problems? Im telling you we dont know what problems are compared to that child. She is going to speak at the United Nations this month. She is mine.”
Those were the words of Cal O’Leary from across the table as he was stirring a cup of tea. I thought it was amazing that a man who has been through a quarter of a year of struggle could remember the story of a girl for whom he clearly has immense affection. But it made sense because while these workers are being dehumanised, they have never once lost their sense of humanity. I didnt respond. There was no need. I just did my job and took down what he said.
As I was writing I noticed Henry O’Reilly staring down at his shoes. He had been silent for the whole conversation. I watched him and imagined that he was thinking about the landscape his own battle – the chemo, the procedures, the medical opinions, the impact on his family and on himself. The “Big C” hit the O’Reilly household in mid January and Henry has been fighting a war on two fronts ever since. We have become very good friends and sometimes the injustice of his situation blindsides me at random times during the week. It is easy to be angry. It is harder thing to be a man of Henry’s calibre. I look at him until he realises that I am watching. He glances over and smiles.
“Mine is it?” asks Henry. “Darren, my heroes are these guys sitting here in front of me and that is God’s honest truth. I cannot believe that they have stuck it out for so long. I have no right to be called a hero by anybody. I have not been here every day for the last four months. But those guys sitting across the table are my heroes for not letting this cause die. I wish I could be here with them everyday.
Henry stopped talking and the only sound that could be heard in the canteen was the heaviness of his breathing. Cal O’Leary walked over and put his hand on Henry’s shoulder and said “We know you would be here with us every day if you could Henry. We know it boy.”
Cal looked him in the face, pointed at his temple and continued “You are here inside your head all the time and we know you are here in spirit. Dont you ever feel bad about that.”
In all my thirty years it was one of the hardest things that I have had to witness . It was beautiful and traumatic. It was like kissing the girl of your dreams and being stung by a wasp at the same time – hard to concentrate on the pain or the joy. You would just have to accept the misfortune of your circumstances. Let it be.
I glanced back over at Jim power. He shook his head at me and turned to look out the canteen window. Life was out there on Pearse Road.
Darren O’Keeffe is the Coordinator of the Support of the Vita Cortex Workers Online Campaign