Politics, mental health, and making the important changes in life

Limerick Post reporter Alan Jacques hit the pavements of Limerick City for a long run and a frank chat with Labour Party councillor Conor Sheehan. Photos: Alan Jacques.

AFTER turning 50 a couple of years ago, a good friend of mine pointed out that I now find myself in “sniper alley” and could be picked off at any time. A cheery thought indeed.

Around that time, my GP informed me that my cholesterol was fairly high and suggested I should consider taking up running for exercise.

I did and within a week I was hooked. Honestly, it was the benefits it made to my mental health that really spurred me on. I felt more relaxed, less stressed, and I found running a great way to let off some steam after a busy day. I felt more at ease in myself after it and happier too.

As far as the running went, I thought I was doing great. That was until last week when I met up with a local councillor who is 20 odd years my junior for a morning run on what was the hottest day of the year so far.

Labour Party councillor Conor Sheehan, who turns 30 this coming June 15, has been running on and off for about ten years.

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Conor is younger, healthier, and definitely fitter than this broken down old hack. But he too runs for his mental health and finds it gives him a welcome boost.

I had to remind Conor, who was bouncing around like a gazelle, that I was a lot older and a less experienced runner than he. ‘Please go handy on me or you will be calling an ambulance’ was my one main request.

Cllr Conor Sheehan setting out from Shannon Bridge.

He promised to go easy on me and off we trotted out over the Shannon Bridge with the sun beating down on our backs.

“I am liable to take sharp turns”

I ask the City North representative, as mischievously set the pace, how he got into running.

“I used to be what you call a social smoker. I find this is a good way of getting off them. I used to work with a fella before in Tullamore and he smoked 40 a day and now he’s a marathon runner,” he shares.

“I would have had the odd one if I was out, but not anymore. I cut it out because I thought it was going to kill me eventually. We have a history of heart disease in the family as well, but I love going out running because I find it’s a great way of clearing the head.”

“I do an awful lot of work from home and you’d be on that laptop from nine in the morning to five or six at night, and on and off the phone, and you just feel like the walls are coming in around you at times. I like being able to get out and just clear the head, and I mean especially on a day like today — they are so few and far between.

“I go to the gym as well, but I much prefer the running at this time of year. It is very hard to do it during the winter and I think that winter of 2020, when we had all those feckin’ lockdowns, I couldn’t go to the gym or anything like that and all I had at home was a set of dumb-bells and a footstool of a couch to do box jumps onto, and running. I remember going out wrapped up to the nines that January of 2021. They talk about January feeling long but that January of 2021, oh Christ, it felt so long.”

As he cruelly starts to pick up the pace, Cllr Sheehan tells me that he has been big into physical fitness for almost a decade now. Which, needless to say, puts the fear into me.

I am a reformed smoker, running about a year, but I won’t be winning the Great Limerick Run anytime soon. I’m not looking at breaking any records, just getting back to the office without any major coronary episode would be nice.

“I used to actually carry a lot of weight but I just went through bit of a patch last year just in terms of my own mental health and one of the things I found that really helped me was focus on exercise.”

As he says this, he veers, taking us off in a whole new direction, adding “I like to cross the road without turning so I am liable to take sharp turns”.

A cause for introspection

“I went through a patch with my own mental health and it was really strange because I never anticipated, well you don’t like, that you’d be in that situation. Long story short, I was diagnosed with depression.

“Last September I just went, ”F***, I got to do something’, so I went heavy into the exercise and I went for counselling. I really recommend the counselling to anyone.

“Just being able to go and talk to somebody outside of your own circle about problems or whatever, I feel a good bit better now but it was a shock to the system. A shock too for people around me because they would see me as being the ray of sunshine.

“I don’t know if it was COVID or fatigue or a combination of everything,” he adds.

Mark Twain once said that age is an issue of mind over matter (“If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter”). But those big milestone birthdays can be unsettling, often giving us pause for reflection, to take stock of where we are in our lives. They can be a major crossroads in the path of life.

“They also say 30 is a funny old age. People say those milestone birthdays – whether it is 30 or 50 or 60 – cause a bit of introspection. There’s so much societal pressure when you are at this age in terms of what society has expected you to achieve. You’re almost expected to be in a long-term relationship, starting a family, or in the process of starting a family and getting married.

“Obviously, I’m a single gay man myself, but maybe it was the subconscious of all my friends flying off getting married. I see with some people that they are doing these things almost because it is what is expected of them.”

Sheehan explains that he feels better for having had to go through the questioning experience, examining his thoughts and feelings from the inside out.

“I was diagnosed with depression early last September and it wasn’t that I felt suicidal or anything like that, I just had no interest in anything. I could have sat there on the couch with the telly in the background, staring out the window for hours.

“It was just like, Jesus Christ, I need to do something. You have to look after the body to look after the mind. At least with exercise I find you get the endorphins. I find I am 100 per cent more relaxed after it and it washes away all the stress of the day – especially in politics.

“The funny thing about being in politics is, you are sort of a bit of everything to everyone, you are a bit like a sounding board or a therapist but you don’t really have the professional skillset.

“One of the best things I learned in general about anything in life is only worry about that which you can actually control. I’ll do my very best at the end of the day, but if it is something that is out of my control then it’s out of my control. One thing I learned in the last four or five years is that you can’t carry everyone’s problems on your back. We just have to park things.”

Thank god for small mercies

Speaking of parking things, this middle-aged old reporter is starting to feel the strain of this energetic young politician’s gallop. I’m like a broken down mare trying to keep up with this spirited stallion, just now only getting into his stride.

Apologising for the need to stop and catch my breath – something Conor has no need for during our morning scamper evidently – I suggest to him he would have made a great free-diver. He makes me feel very old as we stop by Thomond Park just so I can regain my strength.

“You should have seen me after I did the Great Limerick Run,” he jokes.

“It was my first time formally doing a half marathon, but a good friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer recently and I raised money for her.

“Now thankfully she has a good prognosis, but I just said I want to do something. I raised over €1,500 for Breast Cancer Irelandand it was great.

“Running is something I flit in and out of. I’d get a figary and do a good bit of it and then I might back off.

“I have to tell you, when I was doing the half marathon and you get into the second half of it, it loses the glamour,” he admits.

Sheehan says that running has made a big difference in almost every area of his life. In politics, he observes, people can begin to pick up some unhealthy habits – both mentally and physically. This is his way of combatting that.

“You could become very unhealthy very easily in politics because you’re at a lot of meetings, you’re running and racing the whole time. Before you know it you’ve no time to do anything bar drive from meeting to meeting and when you get like that you stop eating regularly. You go into the Council, you’ve had no breakfast or whatever, so before you know it you’ve had seven triangle sandwiches and a scone,” he confesses.

After catching my breath, we’re off again. As we head back towards the Shelbourne Road I realise I am beginning to struggle to keep pace with Cllr Sheehan. I nervously ask how far he usually runs.

Stopping for a much needed (for me) break at the Westfields Wetlands.

“It all depends on my mood. If I’m tired, I could only do five or six kilometres. Last Sunday I ran 15.”

Perhaps I didn’t really think this through.

“I don’t even map my route. I just go and I turn wherever,” he says. “I could decide now to go out and around and I’d be looking at my phone to see how I am doing time wise.”

I once again remind him that I’m no spring chicken. Coughing and spluttering, I think I can see angels appear in the sky above me. My end is surely nigh.

“We’ll head back up here by Westfields,” Conor suggests.

“Oh please no,” I cry out unashamed. Slightly ashamed.

“We can always walk the rest of the way,” he assures me.

Thank God for small mercies.

“Fianna Fáil and the feckin’ Green Party”

One thing that strikes me about my morning run with Conor is how consumed by politics he seems. He lives and breathes it. In fact, I think talking about it is what spurs him on during our dash around the Northside of the city.

Have you ambition for the Dáil? I ask.

“I would. And not particularly because I want to be something. I want to do things. Even in terms of Limerick, I’d like to see somebody come along and deal with the inequality that’s out there in relation to UHL — the fact it is understaffed, under-resourced. I think this is the best place to live in Ireland and I think nationally I’d love to see a government with much more of a focus on young people, on Gen Z and millennials.

Commenting on the hard impact of the last recession on his generation, and the mass immigration the followed, Sheehan says that the country was a “basket case” when he left secondary school in 2011.

“In my age group, there’s some that are gone and will never come back. There’s some they’ve gone and have come back, and you have some who might just say ‘feck it, we’ll go’. It’s all swings and roundabouts.

“It was in the middle of an IMF programme because of Fianna Fáil and the feckin’ Green Party. I remember going for a retail job in 2011, a Christmas retail job, and they were queuing around the building with 17/18 per cent unemployment.

“The thing that frustrates me the most about the government is, you look at Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, like since 2016, the country economically has been doing really well and they have just squandered it. Essentially by failing to deal with the housing crisis.

“I remember Simon Coveney years ago as the Minister and there was probably 4,000 people homeless and this was considered a national emergency. Now if you turned around to someone in government and said we’ll get the homeless figures below 10,000 they’d nearly do a conga line down Kildare Street.”

I don’t give two continental f***s about the past

But isn’t this people’s bone of contention with Labour? I put to him that they didn’t exactly act on the housing crisis when they were in power either.

“People went away from Labour for a couple of reasons. For one, Labour went into government with Fine Gael in 2011 and the EU IMF programme that was there at the time, which was really essential, was like an iron lung around the government. They were basically told what they were to cut, how much they were to cut, and then to go and cut it. We lost our economic sovereignty.

“The problem with the Labour Party is they didn’t explain it properly, and then, second of all, when the IMF actually left in 2013, that government just went out of control.

“One of the things I want to see the Labour Party do, which I think it is beginning to do, is rediscover its soul. Rediscover why it exists.

“It’s a political wing of the trade union movement, that’s why it exists, and the fact of the matter is I’m not going to try and stand there and explain things the Labour Party did that I don’t agree with.

“The Labour Party did things that fundamentally stick in my craw. But at the same time, the Labour Party did an awful lot of good in government by maintaining social welfare rates, especially here locally in terms of school building when Jan O’Sullivan was Minister for Education and in terms of bringing in marriage equality – which wasn’t even in Fine Gael’s 2011 manifesto.

“Do you know what, I don’t even want to talk about the Labour Party being in government in the past tense. My job is to go out and convince people to vote for us going forward,” he says, with a literal spring in his step.

“After the next election with Labour, I think what you will see with us is a generational change in the parliamentary party. We need fresh faces, fresh thinking, fresh blood, and I think that’s what you are seeing.

“One of the things I really like about Ivana Bacik since she became leader is that she went out and won that by-election two years ago and nobody thought she would.

“She went out and did it because she created a vision for positive change. It sounds so clichéd, but I want for us to look forward. I don’t want to talk to people about the past. I don’t give two continental f***s about the past. And what I mean by that is, for me running as a candidate, I wasn’t even a member of the party back then. For me, I want to talk about what we are doing now and what we are looking to do going forward,” he concludes.

As we run back into town over the Shannon Bridge, it is clear to me that Conor Sheehan is a young man always looking forward and keeping pace with the rapid changes in the world around him. He will most certainly go the distance.

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