Courageous hearts, resilient minds: we speak with Martin Mckenna

At 13, Martin McKenna was homeless in Ireland, with a loyal pack of stray dogs for company. Martin developed an instinct for survival and a unique understanding of canine behaviour. In our interview, Martin discusses his childhood, his remarkable life journey and what he has learned about resilience.

Martin McKenna brings us a story of inspiring courage and remarkable real-life resilience. At 13, Martin left his home in Garryowen, Ireland and spent three years living on the streets, with a loyal pack of stray dogs for company. Martin developed an instinct for survival and a unique understanding of canine behaviour. Martin came to be highly regarded as a ‘dog-whisperer’ and eventually found worldwide recognition and success as the Dreadlocked Dog Man. Martin’s memoir, the boy who talked with dogs, tells the incredible story of his life growing up in Ireland. In our interview, Martin discusses his childhood, his current life and what he has learned about resilience.

Martin, right from the hospital delivery room yours is quite an extraordinary story. Can you tell us a little about being born an identical triplet in a family with eight kids?

Well, they were leaving me behind in the womb. They didn’t know I was there, so I was kicking mammy’s stomach out in the delivery room. And after giving birth to Andrew and John she told the doctor’s “I have terrible pains in my stomach” and then Marty got born – 2 pounds, nothing. The doctor said “that one probably won’t live but Mrs Faul, you have lovely twins.” But I had other ideas. I was the runt. I’d already fought a battle in the womb. I was fighting Andrew and John for food. I lost the first couple of rounds, because I came out pretty underweight but that wouldn’t hold me back.

Your mother came from Germany and she ended up on the West Coast of Ireland with her hands very full. What would she do to create a little calm in this turbulent space?

Can you imagine a woman who was under high stress? She’d been through the Second World War. Her head isn’t perfectly right about it yet. She’s thrown in to this society. She’s now got triplets. One of them won’t feed. One of them won’t sleep. One of them cries all the time – it’s the runt. And the reaction in anyone would be “I can’t cope, I can’t cope with this extra one,” but my mammy would put on this classical music to bring some calm, the same as I do for dogs now.

As an identical triplet, you were inevitably the subject of comparison. How difficult was that for you?
I was always trying to keep up with Andy and John. It’s hard when you’re an identical triplet because everyone thinks you’re clones and the same standard. But Andy and John fed well and ate from the breast, but I didn’t. They became very social boys, but I was dragging behind because I couldn’t really talk and I think I was kind of shy. I was always the shadow; the runt in the triplets. My father he said “you were the runt. No one expected you to live, so we kicked you to the side.”

Growing up at 5, 6 and 7 Andy and John were getting ahead. Andrew and John found the reading and writing pretty easy, but I couldn’t. I’m dyslexic and the words move around all the time and I think I had the attention span of about 3 seconds – what they call ADHD. They would always be saying to Andrew and John “well done boys, very good work” but to me it was “you can’t help it, you’re stupid.” I was raging inside because I’m not stupid at all, so what did I do? I created my own play, with no writing down anything. I taught my brothers the lines, went to Oireachtas na Gaeilge (an arts festival of Irish culture), performed it and won the Munster Championship. The two teachers who used me for sport over the years decided they would put the whole dampener on it and on me. “Oh, he just fluked that. He’s stupid. I bet you his brothers did it and put him in on it.”

Throughout your life your humour has helped you to maintain your resilience. How important was humour for you as a child?
When I was very young I learned that if they were laughing, they weren’t flogging me. When my old fella was in a bad mood I could smell it. If his finger is tapping on his knee the wrong way, or there’s no Guinness or whiskey tonight or he’s half hungover, he’s dangerous to be around now. Watch it! But if you wanted to indemnify that you would tell him a funny joke, tell him a funny story.

At 13 you left home. As a young lad on the streets of Garryowen you were often hungry, wet and bitterly cold. You came to adopt six dogs, who were all in a very similar state. Can you tell us a little about these dogs and the lessons they taught you?

They were just scared like me. They weren’t wild dogs. They all had homes but people just got rid of them for any old reason. Admittedly Blacky was aggressive. A Newfoundland, he was a pretty full-on, hard to handle dog, but the rest of them were just ordinary dogs. They collectively taught me one thing. When I would get depressed or feel suicidal the dogs would get very wary of me and stop trying to communicate with me. They wouldn’t physically come near me and if I’d grab one of them they would nip at me and they would give me this fierce snarl. And I thought, “whoa I’ve gone to the slaughterhouse every night for you and this is the response?” Of course, I thought Martin was being attacked, but Martin was really the culprit here. And I thought “BOTHER YOU and BOTHER THIS BLOODY SADNESS because now I am ANGRY.” But they preferred angry to sad. And then I started to laugh. You could visibly see them. They looked at me like I was a stupid human who finally got it.

So, having the dogs so attuned to your emotional state meant you couldn’t hide your emotions? If you wanted their attention you truly had to let go of all that sadness?
Sometimes I think, no I won’t manifest it, but I really do feel depressed today and I will just do everything outwardly to show that I am dealing with it, but really I am not. And the dogs will look at me and say “what do you think we are, stupid? We can smell the chemicals in your mouth. There’s a full-on depression and you’re a very bad actor.”

One of the key things you learnt from dogs, is that they live in the moment. How has the lesson of living in the moment served you and helped you let go of the past?

Animals look at us and go “how come you don’t experience the moment? Is that why you invent music and TV and that? Because you are so bored? Because you never really live in the moment? You’re after the next thing before you even understand what the moment is.” And you know what? They’re right. We’re so after the next thing, or the bad or good that preceded it, that the moment doesn’t really matter anymore.

When you are confident about the moment, that you did the best you could, your duty is to let that moment go. If you keep that moment, you’re trapping it, you’re trapping it against its will and you’re using it to make yourself ill.

You spent three years living rough, away from your family. One of the things which kept you from returning was a feeling that your family were better off without you. Where did you get this idea?

I remember the night when I saw them all inside having the cake and having the tea. I went up to the window and my first reaction was “oh, they’re having cake and cream. They’re all sitting out civilised. The fire is on and the telly is on and no one is arguing.” I thought to myself, hang on a minute, they’re laughing, they’re smiling, there’s no one saying “quick, check the bread for tomorrow or Martin will eat it” or “quick, get my purse or Martin will scrape the money out of it.” You could see the relaxed nature in their faces. When I looked at it I thought, “is it not right that your mother sits in there relaxed? Is it not right that your father sits in there, not at the pub but at home, with everyone else sitting down? Is that supposed to teach me that my hyperactivity does damage?”

Despite your very difficult circumstances, you always imagined a better life. How did that positive outlook serve you?

The point when I was a child freezing cold in the van – you know what January’s like in Ireland? And I’m huddled up in that van and I’m freezing, I’m starving and I’ve gone totally insane and I’m wanting to be back in the womb. That’s what the rocking motion is, I want to be back in the womb. This isn’t working out, but then resilience kicks in and one of the dogs butts me. He says “we won’t have any of that depressing stuff around here. It’s too cold and you’ll fall down and you’ll use too many calories and we don’t have any food.” So I then start to believe that one day I am going to make it out of here, and I’m going to make it where the sun shines, and I’m going to have people who like me and I’m going to get on and I’m not going to be stupid… and lo and behold, it happened!

While at school and at home you often fell ill at ease, one place you always felt comfortable was playing hurling. Through some very difficult times what did it mean to have a place where you felt accepted, accomplished and able to connect with others?

It was just awesome! It was amazing! All those people I played with! Remember, we weren’t the only people who were doing it tough. There were a lot of families doing it tough and we had a common bond in a sense. St Patricks was a very poor team, as opposed to the team up the road. They were middle class people; they didn’t want for food. Paddy and Jack would put on a pig’s head stew for us, so we’d come training. We’d be all starving because we wouldn’t have any food.

The men who ran that club, there was resilience on their part. They said “how do we get these guys from knives to hurleys?” because that’s what we would have been using on the streets. And they used the food and the fun of the whole thing. We gave them a little gift back when we won the minor hurling championship in Munster.

You have come a long way from those days on the streets of Garryowen. You now live in Australia in a warm, sunny place, with a warm, loving family and a pack of rescue dogs for company. Despite not learning to read at school you have now published a number of books and grown a large worldwide fanbase. You write poetry, you play music, create art and live a life that many others would greatly admire. How has the support of others helped you get to this place?

I’d like to acknowledge the people who gave me this resilience. My wife and my children, who are the most wonderful people, who work with me in difficult circumstances and nurtured that creativity inside of me; admonished me and put me in my place when I started to get too uppity about it and ultimately told me that I had it in me – and that if it was in me, it must come out.

They taught me so much about myself, about that part that I didn’t fulfil yet; not alone the creativity but also the stalwartness, the interest and the humility.

We know the most resilient people are those who are good at reaching out for support. It sounds like you’ve been good at doing this consistently in your life. But you also realise that it is not a one-way street and make it a practice to offer support to others.

This is how I teach. I teach openness. We are humans, let us open to each other, please. Slamming doors only breaks faces. We feel each other’s empathy. We feel each other’s energy. We know how to bring someone’s energy back up.

In writing the boy who talked to dogs, you had to revisit a lot of painful events. How do you deal with some of these difficult memories?

After writing the memoir I started to get a lot of these things back again. I said to myself “are you in danger as a 4-year-old again? Are you 13 and on the streets again? No, I’ll never be that again,” so I just let them go. I am me and I’m never stepping out of my own body into another body, so I had better come to terms with the one that I have. The tools that dogs gave me through the years were unbelievable – how to cope with, compartmentalise, understand and if needs be, lay to rest memories. I am so god damn proud of me at that age, to be able to cope. And I am proud to have had those dogs. And I am proud that Major and Rex were my dogs. And I love my brothers. And I love my dad. And I love my mum. They are all energies around me and all they are saying is “GO MARTIN, GO! The one you least expected is making it!”

For you, what is the key to coping with these past traumas and depression?

It’s about breaking the circuit. It’s an interesting thing. Can we get addicted to giving our energy to sadness and trauma and pain? Because they will gladly accept it. They have no means of living by themselves. They can only live through us. When we feed them, oh my God, they are addicts!

I consider it a game, like I do with the dogs. It’s points. How many points did I win today? Did I do something interesting today? Did I try to chase the blues away today? Well I’m winning. Put a big mark up – Marty: twelve, Depression: nothing, Fear: nothing. We give you nothing. We don’t give you oxygen. We don’t give you blood. We don’t give you energy.

You’ve got to get up and fight! You’ve got to use your humour and resilience. And once you get up and use your optimism, humour and resilience in the face of fear and despair and depression, my God, they just disappear! I’ve watched them run under crawly spaces in the door – they couldn’t get away fast enough!

We know creativity can play a role in helping people work through trauma and interact with painful memories in a different way. How have all your creative endeavours helped you?

Poetry can be very applicable in trauma. I’ll give you an example. I get a phone call. I haven’t talked to my dad in about 30 years at this point. It’s my dad on the phone and he can barely talk. He says to me “Martin, I’m dying.” And I think, you’re dying for the last fifty years, but he says “No Martin, I’m dying, as soon as I finished talking to you, they are going to pull the plug.” And then I seriously stopped and think, “oh my God, I’ve never come home to see you.” And that was his main question “why did you never come home to see me?” And then my sister came on the line and then she says “he has to go, they are pulling the plug right now.” And then they pull the plug and I hear, “beeeeep” and I thought, “he’s dead.” And then this poem came into my head.

Phoneline, hanging on words you don’t want to hear
As the receiver falls, you struggle to keep your feet
And in that moment, between death heard and recorded
his life flashed before me
And if I was there at that very moment, watching him let go
Surreal experience, then reality kicked in
I was going home for more than thirty years, I told myself
One more time, to see if it was all real
Ask questions of him, but he closed the lid
And so, to earth and clay it belongs
No reason to go home now

That’s really powerful Martin.

I smile at that, because I think you’re not such a dumb Paddy after all!

Lastly Martin, I’d like to ask, with all the knowledge and wisdom that you have cultivated over the years, if you could go back and speak with your 13-year-old self, what advice would you give him?

I don’t know if I would give him advice. I’d just say “I MADE IT! I MADE IT! The sun is really warm and there’s water and fishes and dingoes up the hill! And we eat MANGOES Martin, from outside the back door! And guess what Martin? I can go and put a hole it that loaf of bread anytime I want and no one is going to say anything.”

To my mother if I could go back and say “Mammy, you’re an angel. Without you we would have been nothing and with everything I do I hopefully honour you now.”

Martin, I want to thank you for being so candid and so generous in sharing your story, your poetry and your wisdom about resilience. It’s been a pleasure.

Thank you, I hope it helps someone. To mums out there I would just finally like to say, you may have a child who has gone wayward and doesn’t know their path away yet, but have a little faith. I am one of those and look how I turned out. You never know.

10 valuable lessons from the life of Martin McKenna

1. Just like a dog, learn to live in the moment

2. Cultivate a positive outlook, even when experiencing difficult times

3. Make time for the people and things you love

4. Learn to let go of unhelpful thoughts and emotions

5. Creativity can be helpful in coming to terms with past traumas

6. A sense of humour can be of great value in difficult times

7. Regularly practise gratitude for all the good things in your life

8. Spend time with animals and in nature

9. Don’t be afraid to reach out for support and to offer it to others

10. Bravely pursue your goals and don’t be limited by people’s opinions