Alastair Down meets JT McNamara at his County Limerick home last year
PICTURE: Healy Racing
YESTERDAY, in the early hours of a County Limerick summer night, a great struggle fought with inspiring tenacity against the grimmest of odds came to its honourable and inevitable close.
Some three years and four months since his fall at Cheltenham John Thomas McNamara came to journey’s end, having travelled the most harrowing of highways and endured suffering both mental and physical that should lie beyond the capacity of mere mortals.
So it is a time for sadness and it would be a flint heart that did not open to the pain that will be felt by JT’s wife Caroline and their three young children, Dylan, Harry and Olivia, for whom the bright sky of having both a mum and dad is now forever clouded.
Not being able to play with his kids was the cross JT found the heaviest to bear. Yet he bore every cross that came his way and usually had something pithy to say about the lot of them.
John Thomas was a jump jockey – an extraordinarily instinctive horseman – and he went out to race with all the carefree courage of his trade. But there is no doubt in my mind that the character, stubborn bravery and point-blank refusal to be defeated he has shown every day since his accident far outshone the undoubted qualities he had to show on course.
Jockeys are used to the physical cut-and-thrust of a staying chase – it is second nature to them. But JT fought a battle for more than three years with just his mental virility and unflagging soul as weapons.
Nothing moved from the neck down and his horseman’s hands lay flat on the arms of his wheelchair. A man familiar with harnessing half a ton of flesh through sheer strength and subtlety had to fight his new war without any weapon but himself.
Miracles of hope
But in fact JT was never alone. He had one priceless, indomitable, fearless and fabulous asset welded to him by love and sheer determination to succeed in giving her man a life worth the living – his wife Caroline.
She had fallen for and married a sportsman, the family home rang with the laughter of kids, but suddenly she found her home had become a hospital, her horizon reduced from the infinite to the infinitesimal as she – with the endless help of her mother Phil – worked their miracles of hope and sustaining love for John Thomas.
That great and incisive saying “kindness in another’s trouble, courage in your own” could have been minted for Caroline McNamara. Unstinting, often unsleeping and always unwavering, she simply refused to be bowed.
“We are not a teary house,” she once said, “though we have had plenty of cause.”
And to visit them was to be uplifted not downhearted. John Thomas would be complaining about the fact he should have read the small print when marrying his wife as he hadn’t realised how bossy she was, or Caroline would – outrageously – say: “The trouble with you John is that you have no patience. The last time you showed any was when you won the four-miler on Rith Dubh.”
He should have sued the woman, although to be fair taking your legend of a wife and eternal helper to court might be a little over the top.
An inspirational fight
What happened to John Thomas is the scenario that gnaws away in the most private and unapproachable part of every jockey’s soul. The weighing room has seen its denizens die and their shock and sorrow is always raw at such times of grief.
But to be rendered utterly helpless in a chair is some terrifying refinement they fear above all.
John Thomas woke to that living nightmare and however daunted and desperate he felt, he somehow screwed his courage to the sticking place and faced into that futureless future.
And I would argue that the way he fought the long defeat transcended his incarceration and lifted him to the inspirational. He refused to be ground into nothingness, his fighting spirit never flinched.
Many hands helped – friends, benefactors, and institutions various, all of whom deserve praise. But in the still hours of the night it came down to JT and his close team around him – and this was a man whose 24-hour care was the stuff of living minute to minute.
After he had breathed his last the hospital of home would have begun to wind down. The quiet hum of machinery stilled, the lights on monitors blinking no more.
In the end his chest got him, as it was always known would be the case. But I am not inclined to mark JT’s death as a defeat. There is a sense of relief about his release and above all he showed what the unquenchable human spirit can achieve in even the bleakest and direst of straits.
On Friday they will gather for his funeral and John Thomas McNamara will be laid with honour in the ground. A magnificent man in the saddle and also in extremis, may he indeed rest in peace.
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