From stroke victim to artist: Cork woman's eight-year recovery

In 2010, Aileen Farnan woke up on St Stephen’s Day unable to speak. Initially sent home by her doctor, she returned 24 hours later, having lost the use of the limbs on the right-hand side of her body, and was sent straight to hospital.

From stroke victim to artist: Cork woman's eight-year recovery

By Ellie O’Byrne

In 2010, Aileen Farnan woke up on St Stephen’s Day unable to speak. Initially sent home by her doctor, she returned 24 hours later, having lost the use of the limbs on the right-hand side of her body, and was sent straight to hospital.

She had suffered a stroke.

Now, eight years on and recounting her tale in her home in Crosshaven, and part of the Crawford art college’s latest crop of graduates, she still sometimes struggles with words when she’s tired.

Stroke, a condition that damages areas of the brain, will affect one in six of us within our lifetimes, but when it affects the areas of the brain that deal with language, the affects can be particularly odd and unpredictable.

“I could say words like helicopter, but I couldn’t remember the word for chair,” says Farnan.

Farnan has kept what she calls her “wicked sense of humour” intact throughout her eight-year gradual rehabilitation.

“For a week after the accident, all I could say was f**k,” she says, eyes twinkling.

“Some people can recite the rosary; I could say f**k. I wonder if that’s a reflection of character?”

A “rehabilitation boot-camp” followed her initial hospital stay; most stroke victims will make the largest part of their recovery within a year.

Farnan was 47 when she had her stroke and had recently left her job working for a shipping company.

While in recovery, she realised that not only would it not be possible for her to return to a career in logistics, but also that she didn’t want to.

“The stroke made me aware of the fragility of life and the world in which we live,” she says. “I had always wanted to be an artist.”

She sat a FETAC in Access to Design at Cork’s Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa and applied for a place on the Bachelor of Arts (Honours) Contemporary Applied Art in Ceramics, Glass and Textiles course at Cork’s CIT Crawford College of Art and Design.

As a student with a disability, Farnan was granted additional supports to help her through her Crawford course, including an assistant to take notes in lectures and, vital for the recent work she’s been producing, a personal assistant.

She was the only student availing of these services in her year-group.

“There weren’t any other people in my situation in the Crawford apart from me,” she says.

“I think they didn’t know what to do with me at first, and that it was a learning experience for them as much as for me, but the support was fantastic.”

Farnan’s discovery of art has been hugely positive, but it doesn’t cancel out the enormous battle she continues to face on a daily basis. “It’s the silver lining,” she says.

But the cloud is still a large one. How has she come to terms with her new limitations? “I still have trouble with it,” she says.

Stroke sufferers often experience changes in temperament and, for Farnan, this means that she cries more readily than she used to.

“I didn’t cry at all for 20 years, and now look,” she says, having battled to control her emotions while talking about the frustrations of living with her disability.

If Farnan’s stroke has made her more conscious of the fragility of life, this is very much reflected in her recent work, which is also inspired by her lifelong connection to the sea.

Working with her assistant, she created moulds of patterns found on the beach, and has fired delicate glass impressions of these.

They are arranged as sculptures, and Farnan then projects light through some of them to form an installation.

The result is ethereal and aquarium-like, and monochrome; she works with a single type of high-quality, green-tinged drawn glass that adds to the underwater effect.

“I experimented with coloured glass but it wasn’t subtle enough,” she says. It was a painstaking process of trial and error, made more arduous by the motility problems she still has on her right-hand side.

“My motor function in my hand is weak and my dexterity isn’t good,” she says. “I can use it, but I can’t do fine detail.”

Her work may be fragile, and life may be too, but surely she’s found the depths of her own endurance in her journey?

She smiles. “Yes,” she says, simply. “I have.”

CIT Crawford College’s Department of Fine Art and Applied Art’s 2018 degree show, SEE·SAW, opens from 6pm on Friday, June 1, and runs until June 9

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