Author Ruth Fitzmaurice on becoming an accidental carer, writer and swimmer

In the midst of caring for her husband, who is paralysed from Motor Neurone Disease, and their five children, Ruth Fitzmaurice began swimming in the Irish Sea with a group of like-minded women and has just written a book about it all. She told Joanne Sweeney her and her family's remarkable story

Ruth and Simon Fitzmaurice with their children Jack, Raife, Arden, Sadie and Hunter Picture: Marc Atkins
Joanne Sweeney

THERE'S a saying that when life gives you lemons, make lemonade and that's exactly what writer Ruth Fitzmaurice has done.

The young mother of five children poured her heart out in a newspaper article about how sea swimming helped her cope with her extraordinary family life since her husband Simon was diagnosed with Motor Neurone disease in 2008 and given three years to live by doctors.

Simon, a charismatic and creatively driven film director and writer, now only communicates through an eye gaze computer, and is kept alive at the family home in Greystones, Co Wicklow, with the help of a ventilator and a 24/7 team of nurses and carers.

In her article, Co Louth native Ruth encouraged Irish Times readers to just ‘dive in’ no matter what life threw at them. The reaction to her moving, beautifully written article in January last year went viral. Within weeks, she had been offered a book deal and within months, her book, I Found My Tribe, had been optioned by Dublin film production company Element, which co-produced the film Room, starring Brie Larson and written by Emma Donoghue.

With her children, Jack (12), Raife (10), Arden (eight), and five-year-old twins Sadie and Hunter off school for the holidays and trying to fit in a round of publicity interviews to promote her newly published book, Ruth is understandably busy.

That didn’t stop her having a dip at the cove in Greystones beach at 7am on the day that we spoke, although this time it was for the benefit of a forthcoming magazine feature.

“That’s really not a normal day for me and I thought to myself, how showbiz to go to the cove with my hair blow dried and with make-up on to get into the sea,” laughs Ruth (41).

“It’s been crazy busy trying to juggle the kids on holiday with all the media interviews and in the middle of it one of our main nurse is away on holiday for two months.”

Her memoir moves between her life and falling in love with Simon before he became ill, the time he nearly died in hospital from respiratory failure in 2010, his coming home and how they decided in the midst of the chaos to have another child, which turned out to be twins.

And of course, the diving into the icy waters of the Irish Sea in Greystones which she now finds wildly exhilarating.

“I would definitely describe myself more as a dipper and am trying to build it up over the summer,” says Ruth. “I swim at least once a day in the summer and most days of the week in the winter. The seasoned swimmers at Greystones would probably snigger at me describing myself as a swimmer.”

The title of the book and the earlier article came from a suggestion of a friend when Ruth was wrestling where to live, either on the coast or in the city.

She was told to ‘find her tribe’ and she has, with her family of children and animals, her family of nurses and carers and her swimming friends, who help make up what she calls ‘the tragic wives swimming club’.

The presence of nurses and carers in her home around the clock is something that features heavily in the book.

“You don’t every really ever get used to it and you just take it week by week and I’ve learnt to live like that. I don’t really look too far into the future,” adds Ruth.

Both Simon and Ruth have used their creativity to try and make sense of the life they are living, mostly for their children in the future. Despite being unable to move or speak, since becoming ill Simon directed a film, My Name is Emily, and wrote his own acclaimed memoir It’s Not Yet Dark (Hachette Books, 2014). And he was only too supportive of developing Ruth’s voice when the opportunity came along.

She says: “Like most things in my life, this all kind of happened by accident. I hadn’t really set out to write an article for the paper, but I had been keeping a diary of my thoughts, really as a kind of therapy throughout the whole process of Simon’s illness. They were just little thoughts on bits of paper in a notebook which were written randomly on school runs, really as an ode to the swimming and to try and persuade friends to come out and swim.

“I pieced the article together from loads of diary entries over the course of the year and it came together really well. I showed it to Simon as he had written for The Irish Times before and he said that I should send it in. That was the start of it all.

“Because the reaction to the article was so good, and to use a sea pun, it’s been like a wave and I went straight into writing the book after the article. The reaction to the book has been similar and I’ve been blown away by it all.”

Ruth is now working on the film script for I Found My Tribe and hopes to continue to develop as a writer, something that she has been too shy to acknowledge being for quite some time.

But writing is something that gives her great joy.

“For a writer, there’s nothing more to make you glow inside when people react to what you wrote. You can’t ask for anything more than it and you feel completely fulfilled,” she says.

“I love being a mum and I love my kids but there’s a real sense of personal fulfilment when you doing something you know you are meant to do.”


:: I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice (Chatto & Windus) costs £12.99 (€15.49) and is available from bookshops and online.

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