Fergus Finlay: My wife’s credentials on disability? Just ask the esteemed professor

'My missus doesn’t believe in being grateful for charity and she certainly doesn’t believe in second-class citizenship,' writes Fergus Finlay
Fergus Finlay: My wife’s credentials on disability? Just ask the esteemed professor

Frieda Finlay’s academic credentials in the field of disability? Just 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year of practical experience.

Just for one day, enough about Brexit and Trump and the coronavirus and the madness around us. Enough bad news for one year. All I want to do today is to tell you a little story, and to wish you all a Happy Christmas. 

I’m hoping for each of you that you’ll be able to settle down with loved ones over the next few days. I hope it’s utterly happy, totally peaceful, and completely safe.

But the story I want to tell you goes back a long way. For a number of years after my missus (Frieda is her name) and I got married, we rented. 

And then eventually, we bought our first house, in a place called Bridgestown in the hills outside Cork city. £17,000 that house cost us – every penny we had back then. 

And it wasn’t worth that. The one thing it had going for it when we moved in was great neighbours, who we remember fondly still.

It also had mould and damp and a lot of rotten wood. My missus calls that atmosphere. She says she gets a “vibe” from a falling down house. 

This one did have one really good room which was to be the sitting room. It took us a year, maybe more, to get the plaster and concrete off the inside gable wall and reveal a lovely old stone wall underneath, with a great hole that served as a fireplace. 

And when it was eventually ready to be furnished, we bought a three-piece suite in Cash’s of Cork. On credit, repayable over three years.

In my memory, that’s all we had. A room, a fireplace, a three-piece suite and a few bits and pieces. 

But no matter how I tried to arrange the furniture, the room still looked like nothing.

Eventually, my missus decided I was under her feet, and ordered me off into town to do some shopping while she had a go.

I’ll never forget the sight that greeted me when I came home. 

Beautiful lighting from some well-placed lamps, a cosy glow from the fireplace, the furniture arranged in a way that had simply never occurred to me (nor would it if I was at it yet), some flowers, and a rug on the wooden floor. 

It had been transformed from a bare and ugly space into the warmest, most welcoming sitting room I had ever seen. And it was ours.

That was one of Frieda’s great gifts. 

She was a trained artist, but as she was to prove again and again over the following years, she could have been an architect, a builder, an interior decorator, a landscaper, a designer. 

There was nothing she couldn’t turn her hand to. And because, for a variety of reasons, we lived nearly all of those years hand to mouth, a great many things she had to.

One of the things she learned to do was to terrify builders. We had a smashing gang helping us to do up the house we subsequently bought in Dublin, and they put in a staircase upside down.

I have to be honest with you, if I was still gazing at it I wouldn’t spot the mistake. Frieda took one look and the argument started. 

After swearing solemn oaths for an hour that she was mistaken or must be half-blind, the builder eventually owned up.

But those skills were only the start of it. I’ve written here before about Mandy, our eldest daughter, who was born with Downs Syndrome. 

Frieda took that hard, but it wasn’t long before she set about becoming a teacher, a developer, an inspirer, and a fighter. Not just for Mandy, but for Mandy’s three sisters. 

And over the years for a lot of people with an intellectual disability like Mandy.

When disability comes into your house, so does second-class citizenship. 

They talk the talk about rights, but Ireland’s bureaucratic systems essentially still believe that people with a disability should be grateful for charity.

Frieda Finlay
Frieda Finlay

My missus doesn’t believe in being grateful for charity and she certainly doesn’t believe in second-class citizenship. 

She plunged into battle with anyone who needed to be taken on. 

There was a moment when a salaried professional (who lived to regret the remark) sniffed at her and said “some mothers have notions about their children”.

And there was another highly esteemed professor who, in the middle of a discussion in front of a group, asked the missus if she’d like to outline her academic credentials in the field of disability. 

“None,” says the lady wife. “Just 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year of practical experience. And you?” 

The thing that bothered her most was the presumption that people like Mandy weren’t entitled to have ambition, or access to the same choices that her sisters had – especially when it came to education. 

For Mandy, and thousands like her, education ends on their eighteenth birthdays. For Mandy’s sisters, and thousands like them, the State offers an enormous range of choices – most of them essentially free now – after they finish second-level education.

So the missus and a couple of other mums travelled the country trying to find out what really existed for their children once they reached the age of eighteen. What they discovered appalled them. 

Along the way, they conceived the mad notion that there was no good reason why the campuses of third-level colleges across Ireland shouldn’t be welcoming and educating young adults with an intellectual disability.

Crazy, right? But the Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities exists in Trinity College today because my missus and her colleagues beat the door down. 

It took years, but higher and further education – all over Ireland - has a place now for people with an intellectual disability. She did that. 

There mightn’t be a plaque anywhere, but it was her doggedness that persuaded university heads and others that they had to open the door.

I have to admit that she did most of that, as well as raising four independent and resourceful daughters – with a largely absent husband, who was immersed in politics for years. Alone, in other words. But that didn’t stop her either.

I haven’t mentioned her painting, or the brilliant exhibition of her work a few years ago, or the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities of which she was a member, because I’m running out of room.

And I can’t pretend that we’re talking about absolute perfection here either. 

For example, there can be (every now and again), the slightest tendency to believe that her husband is nothing like the finished article he could be – if only he’d follow her advice. 

I’m not saying she finds fault unnecessarily or anything, but she can be very generous with helpful and well-intended constructive criticism. Never more than a few times a day, mind you.

But because I’m just that sort of guy, I’ll forgive. I’ll even tell the whole truth. 

I’ve had a full and lucky life so far, but the luckiest thing that ever happened to me was when the woman I’ve been telling you about decided to become my missus, exactly forty eight years ago today.

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