When Ray Sweeney was just 19, his Mam started at him about buying a house. “You should buy a house soon,” she’d say, “before they’re too expensive.” Ray was reluctant: “I was all worried that I wouldn’t have enough money for socialising! You know when you’re 19…” Eventually, as all wise sons do, he bowed to maternal pressure and bought a good house with a side garden. It was 1997, a long-forgotten time when young people could still buy houses, and it turned out to be a very good decision. Ray moved into his house, had a few parties like 19-year-olds will do, and then decided to rent it out. The house had just been painted and Ray was adding a suffered a C5 complete spinal injury.
“I was going around a corner, probably took it a bit fast, and I ended up on the wrong side of the road,” he says. “I didn’t realise there was a double-decker bus coming the other way. I ended up C5 complete. I was 6 weeks in the Mater waiting for a bed and then I was lucky enough to get to the rehab and I was there for probably about 9 months before coming home to my parents’ house.”
At first Ray took over his parents’ living room for 4 or 5 months. The family set about working out a way to give Ray his own quarters that would still be close to his parents. “My Dad sold his boat to pay for the conversion, but we had to wire and heat the shed, we did a proper job on it, so it was costing a lot of money.” nowhere, fate intervened again and they won €12,000 on a scratch card. “That was a great day in our house,” says Ray. Still, conversion.
The shed worked for 13 years, but it was clear that in the long-term, Ray would need more permanent accommodation. Luckily, the Irish housing boom had coincided with Ray’s years of rehabilitation. The house his Mam had badgered him into buying was now worth substantially more then he had paid for it, and Ray was clever enough to sell it at the peak of the market. A few years later he was able to buy another house with a huge garden in an estate in Kingswood in Tallaght, across the road from one of his sisters and twelve doors down from another.
Now, fifteen long years after the accident, Ray has moved into his own home. He is delighted, if a little apprehensive, to be living independently. “I was nervous at the start, yeah, but I’m not as nervous as I was. I’ve done one or two nights on my own and I feel better about it now,” he says of the big move. Ray’s stalwart Dad stayed with him in the new house for a few weeks to ease the transition and now Ray is looking forward to hosting Christmas in his fantastic new kitchen.
The new house took two years to plan and build, but the long preparation time has paid off a thousand times over as Ray has catered for every eventuality. “I have electric blinds in the bedroom, and I have 16 video cameras around the house so that if there’s a noise when I’m in bed, I can check all the cameras on my TV and I know what the matter is. Otherwise if the wind blows over a bin and makes a loud noise, I’d be paranoid that someone is trying to get in and I wouldn’t get a wink of sleep all night.”
The beautiful new house is a far cry from the shed in his parents’ garden, small. Ray has gone from living with one bedroom, bathroom and sitting room to having a large, fully-accessible home with a garden of .25 of an acre, a haven for his nieces and nephews to run about in. “My bedroom now is three times the size of my old one,” he says.
The house works so well because Ray used all his experience as a wheelchair user to design the house himself, exactly as he needed it. This is a man who knows his own mind. “I didn’t like any of the architects’ ideas,” he says. “I went round my Mam’s house and designed how many rooms I needed and I thought about everything, like where washing machines and things like that needed to go. I measured everything and really thought about what worked and what didn’t. I did Tech Drawing at school and I got an A in it at honours level and I watched my Dad drawing for years, he has a conservatory business so he would’ve drawn loads of them over the years. I started working for my Dad at the age of 12 in the summers, building conservatories so I had a fair idea of what I was doing.”
Such is his attention to detail, Ray should probably think about a new career as a consultant to disabled people building or adapting their homes. His shiny new cream gloss kitchen has granite worktops that move up and down by remote control. When Ray realized that the usual price for an adaptable worktop is €2,500 “per worktop”, he went about researching desk motors, determined there must be a cheaper way. “I looked at the mechanism and I thought ‘There must be a better way to do his, I can work this out’.” He was able to adapt a desk motor mechanism which cost him just €330 per worktop. The over-the-counter kitchen cupboards are adapted in the same way;; a massive saving and they all work perfectly.
The new house is so well insulated, it is permanently 22-23 degrees inside and in the kitchen, the whole gable-end is made of glass so “it’s about 28 degrees there right now in the sun, I need to get my sunglasses on.” The burglar alarm is text-activated so Ray can control it from his phone. And while it took him a year of he did. Ray now carries just one key-fob with four buttons, to activate the front door, the back door, the electric gates and the rolling garage door. The front and back door still work with a key for anyone else, but when Ray presses the button, the door unlocks and then he just pushes it open – “Or I just ram it in if it’s raining outside!”
“I would urge anyone who’s going to build or adapt to just plan it very well,” says Ray. “You really have to think about around where you live now and anything I’m going to be stuck in an electric chair when I’m older and I built the house with that in mind, you have to think ahead.
‘For example, once I’m in bed, because I’m C5, I can’t really get out by myself. So I have my phone beside me and the remote control for the telly and the blinds, and then I have a string to pull that controls the lights. So once I have all those things beside me, I’m set up.
And my family is close by and I have great neighbours. In fact, my next-door neighbour works as a home care attendant! So she says she’ll come straight away if I am ever stuck.
Ray is very thankful to his builder, Daren Molloy from Spring Construction, who was very patient and didn’t mind trying different things to get level access throughout. He even helped pick out Ray said he hadn’t really given much thought to.
It’s a big transition: having lived with own now and getting used to that. He is really looking forward to the summer, when his nephews and nieces will be round again, riding their bikes all over pond. On Christmas Day, 14 members of the Sweeney clan that have been such a support to Ray over the years will gather in his swanky new kitchen for their Christmas dinner. It should be a good party.