Near death experience gives former Limerick mayor a new perspective on life

Former Limerick Mayor Michael Collins.

LIFE is a gift that many of us often take for granted. At least until manners are ultimately put on us and we figure out that our time is fleeting and doesn’t last forever.

Former Limerick Mayor and Fianna Fáil councillor Michael Collins is a man who has learned in the last year, through serious illness, to slow down and not sweat the small stuff.

After a close brush with his own mortality, Michael is now solely focussed on the future and his road to recovery, in the knowing that he is lucky to be alive. His positive outlook and sheer determination marks him as a driven and motivated individual. It oozes out of him and, for this reporter at least, is downright infectious.

“I wouldn’t be a ditherer,” he tells me.

A family man, married to Fiona and father of three grown sons, the Killeedy man is used to being on the constant go. He thrives on the hustle and bustle of his day job as an auctioneer. On top of that, he is in constant demand as a local representative for the people of West Limerick and devotes himself to his Council work.

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A fella you’d love to go for a pint with

We have only just sat down in his office on Bishop Street in the heart of Newcastle West town and the phone rings.

In fact, the phone is hopping. After telling one constituent that he will call them right back when he is finished with me, he mutes his phone.

“The day the phone stops ringing I’m in trouble,” he points out.

For now the 54-year-old has no choice but to slow down. He is under doctors’ orders. But you get the sense that, after a gruelling few months, he has learned to take each moment as it comes.

Michael is a real country gentleman, soft-spoken, good-natured. He comes across as a very likeable and laidback individual who automatically puts you at ease.

In short, he’s a fella you’d love to go for a pint with.

Life changed for Collins last year when a condition he has lived with for much of his life finally caught up to him.

“Diverticulitis can be very debilitating if you are at the extreme end of it and unfortunately I was at the extreme end of it. I had a full midline opening in June and the same in December,” Michael explains.

“They performed a bowel resection where they take out the diseased part and they resection. But my surgeon – who is amazing – didn’t want to put everything back in one go. He wanted to give me time to heal. So I’m taking his guidance.”

“It’s been a bit longer than I expected,” he admits.

“I ended up with a colostomy bag, which they reversed in December. So, to let this heal, they created a temporary ileostomy – which is another type of colostomy bag at the other side – and that’s quite challenging.

“But the way I look at it, it saved my life.”

“I have never hidden the fact I had an ostomy bag. Anyone I have ever met, I always told them. Others are very private and don’t want to know.

“First of all, it saved my life, and secondly it was a step I had to go through to get back to normality. So again, that just kept me going the whole time and I managed everything very well and I am nearly there.”

Cllr Michael Collins during his time as mayor

“Four days after her burial, I ended up in UHL in emergency at four o’clock in the morning

Michael was rushed to University Hospital Limerick (UHL) last June for life-saving surgery after waking in the middle of the night with a pain in his abdomen.

“I suffer from an ongoing colon condition for a good number of years. My mother Peggy died at the end of May, but I was sick while she was trying to pass away. She was sick for maybe five or six days, which wasn’t bad because she was 92 years of age. So she had a great long life, which we are very grateful for.

“But I was sick during that whole process and I suppose because of what was going on I wasn’t able to look after my own health. Four days after her burial, I ended up in UHL in emergency at four o’clock in the morning. The following day I had emergency bowel surgery.

“I could have had sepsis, it was an emergency, and I could have died. Thankfully I am still here. If I had left it any longer I would have been in even bigger trouble.

“I have had ongoing problems with it for maybe 15 or 20 years, but I never thought it would end up at this stage,” he admits.

On a personal note, at a recent local area meeting I was really struck by Cllr Collins and how his recent bout of ill health had changed his outlook on life.

As two council members went at it hammer and tongs for some time over some minor enough issue, he quietly raised his hands and said “lads, I am moving on. Life is too short for this.”

Don’t sweat the small stuff, indeed.

That man saved my life and he told all my family in no uncertain terms that I was a lucky person.”

When Michael was first brought into UHL last summer he was in very bad shape, and he now counts his lucky stars that he survived the experience at all.

“My stomach was really bad. It was something I hadn’t experienced previously,” he recalls.

“I ended up in A&E and there was a lot of sick people there. People sicker than I was. I couldn’t get to see a doctor. I was checked in at six o’clock in the morning and tried to explain to a nurse how I felt and I was constantly waiting for the team to come around.

“At 4.30 that evening, which was almost 12 hours after, I had still seen nobody. I was on a trolley. I was covered from head to toe with bed clothing. I just couldn’t look at anybody I was so sick. I heard somebody speaking. I looked from under the covers and I could see this tall man coming down the corridor and I caught his hand.

“I said, ‘Are you a doctor?’

“He said, ‘I’m a surgeon.’

“I said, ‘Can you help me, please?’

“Now, he wasn’t coming to see me, but there must have been some divine intervention or maybe my mother was looking over me.

“He lifted my shirt and said ‘Okay this is an emergency’. He called a nurse and said ‘I want this guy scanned immediately and don’t come back without the scan’.

Within 45 minutes, Michael says, the surgeon had returned asking him for the name of his next of kin (his wife Fiona).

“He told me ‘you are going for emergency life-saving surgery. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I open you up, but it is going to be serious’.

“He called Fiona, she said she couldn’t get there on time because it was an emergency. So I ended up having surgery. That man saved my life.

“I was told I would have died if I was seen any later. That man saved my life and he told all my family in no uncertain terms that I was a lucky person.”

Looking back now, Michael deems it horrifying to consider that if he didn’t engage this consultant and reach out when he did, he could be dead today.

“When I woke up after the surgery, everybody from the care attendants, the domestic staff, kitchen staff, the nursing staff, the doctors, the specialists, they were absolutely amazing. Anything that was needed was done and there was no question about it. I could not fault the system.

“Even today after going back for the second surgery, which was very daunting, I can still say they are amazing people.

“I was eight hours in theatre in the second surgery. I was in high dependency for five days. The care is second to none. When you hear people giving out about UHL, it really is only one section of it.

“I came very close to death. I am very grateful. I am very grateful that I have come out the other side. It has made me realise how sick people can get and how vulnerable people can be. I respect that a bit more now.

“When you are busy and you hear someone is sick you say ‘I am sorry to hear that person is sick’. But now I think, I wonder how sick are they and what are they going through. I am more empathetic to it,” he confesses.

Michael says that he was never one to worry about his own mortality, but admits that getting sick and coming close to death has given him a different perspective on life.

“Before, I suppose, I would have been high-flying, very busy with work and politics, ambitious, very ambitious with work as well.

“I am a qualified financial advisor and estate agent, so I have always been very busy. If it wasn’t my own personal work, it was political work. But having spent the last nine months flying on one wing, I definitely have a different perspective on life.

“You have to get the work life balance right, or someway right, and looking back it certainly wasn’t right for me. It was all work.

“There was one instance in relation to my political work where people would call you and say I want to meet you in your office and you say fine. That meeting could take a couple of hours.

“Now I will say can we discuss it on the phone, and it could be something that could be dealt with very quickly. So just little things like that.

“The phone is always going but I enjoy that. It has never caused me a problem from day one. As I say, if the phone isn’t ringing, it’s then I get worried.”

The singing priest bred from musical stock

A fresh-faced 35-year-old Collins was first elected to the old Limerick County Council in 2004. Now in his fourth term as a local representative, he will be 20 years in the Council next year as he faces into another local election.

Some of Michael’s earliest memories are out canvassing for Fianna Fáil. Politics is in his blood and he is looking forward to getting back to full strength and gearing up for his fifth local election campaign in 2024.

“My first election was in 2004. I have always been very involved in politics with my family background. Both my grandfather and grand uncle would have been in the old IRA, so I would have grown up with Republican politics. I have a huge interest in that period of politics as well.

“My dad, even though he wasn’t an elected member, was very politically active with Fianna Fáil, especially out in West Limerick.

“My earliest childhood memories would be going canvassing with him. We had a polling booth very close to home in a place called Ballykenny out in Killeedy. I remember going out with people to vote and travelling in the car with them. I always found that really exciting on election day and the buzz around a rural location in West Limerick. I grew up with that type of politics.”

Now heading into his fifth local election campaign, Michael was first citizen in 2020/2021 at the height of the pandemic when the country was in lockdown. He became the seventh Mayor of Limerick City and County Council.

“I thoroughly enjoyed it, even though I was a lockdown mayor, so I didn’t get to do a lot of the things that a mayor would normally get to do. But still, it was a great honour for me and my family and it was a huge honour to have my mother Peggy present as well. She was in her nineties. That was one thing I got to cherish, having her with me on my election day.”

Cllr Collins celebrating with mother Peggy being elected Limerick’s seventh mayor. Photo: Brian Arthur.

When away from the political stage and the day job in auctioneering, Michael turns to music to switch off and get away from it all.

He comes from a musical family. His brother Tim is a member of the Kilfenora Céilí Band.

Michael, who is well-versed with the jigs and reels of local politics, once ran a record store in Newcastle West for a number of years and is a dab hand at playing everything from tin whistle to concert flute, banjo, mandolin and guitar.

He is the proud owner of 20 banjos, an instrument he performs repairs on for musicians far and wide, and is well-known in musical circles across Limerick City and County.

“I have grown up in a musical family. The Collins side of my family would have been very musical. My dad played banjo. My grand uncles would have played music down through the years as well, and my mother was very musical. She came from a very musical family in North Kerry. When they had nothing else to do at night, they would go rambling in the old rambling houses. They entertained themselves by doing a lot of music and singing and dancing. So my mother was very musical as well. She was a good singer, a good traditional singer.

“We learned music when we were kids out in Killeedy and that developed then of course into getting involved in different music groups down through the years and playing music and attending Fleadh Cheoil and all that kind of thing. There was always music in the house growing up.

“Being involved in music would have lead me to doing a lot of travelling. I would have played a lot of music abroad as far away as the United States, Canada, and lots of places across Europe.

The biggest thing is keeping your head right

Michael confesses he once played with a group called Saggart, the ‘singing priests’ from Limerick.

After his final surgery this month, Michael says he is looking forward to doing more musically and travelling around Ireland in his camper-van, as well as helping those facing major life-saving surgery.

“When they put me back, I will be able to get out and do a lot more musically. The final surgery is in a few weeks and I have a couple of months recovery then. I’m hoping I will be good for the summer.

“I’m looking forward to getting back into hospital because I look forward to getting better. I have been very lucky.

“The biggest thing when you are sick is to keep your head right because most of the time your life is in the hands of the medical professionals.

“I have come across amazing people in their professional capacity in Limerick. I put my faith in them to put my body right but it is extremely important to keep your head right. I have been very lucky that my head has been right the whole way through. Every difficult process I have gone through, or every test or surgery I have gone through, even if it was physically challenging or demanding, I have always been looking past that to being better.

“I’m over the most difficult part of it, but the last surgery I am not even thinking about it. I just want to go in and get it done and get better and get back to doing what I do best, the music and my work and all that.

“I would hope when I am back in full recovery, with what I have gone through, what others go through (and go through a lot worse), that I may be able to help people from my experience. I intend to do that.

I leave Michael struck by his positive outlook and in the knowing that the old adage is certainly true: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”