IT’S difficult to explain the difference that Tom Kennedy makes to the lives of all the people who know him. The fact that he hates being blind and only considers it a nuisance explains part of his philosophy on life and demonstrates his positivity and his love of people and life.
He lost one eye when he was a child to a medical condition and the other in a car accident in 1978 and remains convinced that it was luck, bad luck in his case. “It’s all a lottery.” He feels that he has been lucky and that his life has given him much joy.
He recently completed the 100 kilometre Camino de Santiago (The way of Santiago de Compostela) walk in Northern Spain in the company of four wonderful companions (Don and Niamh Egan, Kate Giblen and Dan Lenihan). He did so as just another member of the group, his blindness was not an issue.
The man who answers 1,600 calls a day the reception Kilkenny County Council emits such a positive energy that is impossible not to be affected. And despite being blinded 33 years ago in a car accident, he hasn’t let it dampen his spirit or stand in the way of making the most of life. Just mention Tom Kennedy’s name to anybody that knows him and you will get a smile. When you ring him its like getting on to a radio station and that’s how Tom sees himself as a Tom Dunne or another chilled out presenter.
He runs, cycles and is the only blind person to complete, on his own, in the biggest canoe race in Ireland, the Liffey Descent. He is a bashful hero and only agreed to be interviewed after being cajoled into it and being told that it might cheer people up.
The man who has a friendly word for everyone he meets, is the perfect person to encounter when you first come to the local authority head office with a problem. “People are having it hard and I just give them directions to get to where they need to go and do it with a bit of respect,” he said.
Life started out much differently for Tom and after doing his Leaving Cert, he did a year in Kildalton Agricultural College, Piltown with the intention of getting into farming. That was in 1978 and then tragedy struck, he was involved in a car accident that changed his life but did not break his irrepressible joyfulness. He has his moments like when he accidentally lets something fall on the floor and can’t retrieve it; he will let go a string of expletives - he is human. But it’s his attitude towards any difficulty that comes before him, that sets him apart.
He knows he is lucky to have a job and said he really likes his work - meeting all the people who come through the door. “I suppose I am a people person and that makes it easier for me.”
He is very self-deprecating and when asked about his running, swimming, triathlons and other pursuits he simply answered: “When you are useless at all sports, you can attempt any sport you want. If you don’t mind mediocrity it’s fine and if I’m enjoying it and not making life more difficult for anyone else, I don’t give a hoot.
“I’ll try anything, I took a chance at canoeing, swimming, marathons, hill walking. I’ll attempt anything, once I am knocking the balls out of life and enjoying it, I don’t care.”
He certainly isn’t one to dwell on the past but he recalled the harrowing months after the crash in 1979. “I thought in a couple of months, I will get my eyesight back and everything will be rosy. That’s just not the way things worked out, The way I look at it is like this, everyone will use a different line of thought to defend how they end up in life but to me, I genuinely believe that life is just a lottery and you play the cards you are dealt.
“It’s an accident of birth where anyone is born, what walk of life they are born into or what their family circumstances are. And it’s also a lottery what happens to you when you come out of the womb.” Absorbing words
After the accident he had to make massive adjustments in his life. “The one thing about me is that I’m great at re-inventing myself - as a switchboard operator/receptionist, failed athlete, failed musician and chancer,” he said with his disarming wit.
“I’m not saying I will milk a situation but if I like something, I will latch on it, inveigle my way into the lives of those involved in whatever it is, music, or sports,” he said with a refreshing honesty. He gives an example: “Last Sunday, I did the 100 km cycle in ‘Comer with Martina Walsh from Bennettsbridge and it was great and I gave it my best shot.”
He lives at home with his mother in Kilmanagh and like many in that beautiful part of the world is captivated by hurling and what it means to the people living there. His life was turned around last Christmas when his father Paddy passed away in his mid-ninties and he misses him a lot.
He admitted getting as much satisfaction from Graigue-Ballycallan beating Tullaroan and the The Village and retaining their senior status as he does from Kilkenny winning an All Ireland not necessarily the one against Tipperary which he said was extra special. “You know what I mean though, don’t you,” he said. “It is essential for our club and our history to stay up in the senior ranks,” he said of the GAA club. “It’s like this, all my heroes are local and especially on the hurling field and it’s the same with music, Mick Walsh who plays in Cleere’s pub on Parliament Street on Monday night is another of my heroes,” he said.
There are many people who help him and he is deeply indebted to all of them and many of his work colleagues have been his eyes during various sporting and social events over the years and he recalled the year 2000 when he did the Liffey Descent in his own canoe and made it down the 18 miles with his tutor and friend, Jim Fitzpatrick from Clara behind him in another canoe. “Only for him I wouldn’t have been able to do it - He had the spirit to let me try it.”
Why is Tom so positive about his life: “You can try and make the most of what you have or you can come along or you can say nothing nice will ever happen to me again and give up. You have to go out there and embrace life and make things happen for yourself. If you sit back nothing will happen.”
On love, marriage and relationships: “I’m obviously getting past the half century and still single.” He hasn’t given up hope yet and being in peak physical condition, you’d never know his luck.
His greatest joy in life is getting up in the morning, feeling good, and looking forward to either going for a run or going for a pint at the weekend; going to play music or to listen to others play music. He claims to play the guitar badly but he is actually very useful on the six string.
Life has its ups and downs when you are blind and last year just before he was to compete in the Kilkenny triathlon he broke his elbow. He fell off his bike and he was out for a few months.
He has suffered a number of fractures but just gets on with it.
“I got as bad injury two years ago, when I got cellulitis in my foot and because I am allergic to penicillin it took three or months to clear up,” he said. In the middle of it he thought he was well enough to compete in the Berlin marathon and paid a heavy price for that decision but he is back on the bike and on the road again now.
He is very independent but not in an in your face way. - “I’m independent because I have to be. I don’t see myself as being disabled and although other people see me as blind, being led around or going along with my white stick, I’m fine.”
Technology has helped no end and it has as he said it “dragged him into the 21st century.” He has the software on his phone to allow him to hear text messages while the software on his computer is fantastic and allows him to use it like every one else.
He has also watched, with no little pleasure, how society has changed and how now, blind people are accepted into main stream life. He explained; “People don’t see it as such a stigma to be blind nowadays. When I went blind first in 1978, blind people made baskets, they went away on their blind weekends and were a separate entity, led different lives. Now it’s completely different - We are integrated into every day life and it’s wonderful.”.
He doesn’t like giving advice and like everyone else, has noticed the impact the recession has had. The queues for social housing have increased at the local authority and he really feels for those affected. “It’s easy to tell people what they should do but all I would say is that if you are down on your luck, bothered by money problems, drugs to other things, try and stay positive in some way even though it must be incredibly hard.”
Tom Kennedy does not complain and sees only good in people. Life has been hard but he is naturally not a worrier and is able put things at the back of his mind. “I don’t let things get to me,” he said.
What does the future hold for Tom Kennedy? “I’ll stay working and see what happens. I’m going to stay doing sport as long as I can because among other things, the social aspect is great and I’ll just hang out.”