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THE BIG INTERVIEW: Kildare photographer Adrian Melia on his life and battle with cancer

In advance of the 'Question of Sport' fundraiser to fund his cancer treatment, the late Adrian Melia, who passed away on Monday, November 13, talked about his life, career and love of photography

THE BIG INTERVIEW: Kildare photographer Adrian Melia on his life and battle with cancer

Adrian Melia. Photo: Tony Keane

There wasn’t a big plan behind Adrian Melia’s photographic career. He did receive a camera as a Christmas gift when he was 12 but he thought it a stupid present.

He talks of “falling into” the trade and then developing a passion and becoming the consummate professional he is.

The Kildare photographer is renowned for his sports work and ability to capture the thrills of a game, the thunder on the turf and the energy and emotion of athletes as they compete for the prize. He too, is in pursuit from the sidelines. Camera poised and lying flat to capture the best angle, Adrian is focused and using his professional instinct to zone in on pitch action. His clicks on the shutter release enable us to share that visual, and the vitality.

READ MORE: It's time to give back to Kildare sporting great Adrian Melia

He had a similar accidental start with ‘Toastmasters’ and just recently took a ‘Travelling Toastie of the Year’ award at the UK and Ireland Toastmasters International District 71 conference in Manchester.

He never planned on getting cancer either. But the determination that has driven an action-packed life of photography, talking and travel, is now courageously focused on staying alive. A colon cancer diagnosis two years ago has advanced, but Adrian is not dwelling on the what if’s, but the what next. He has identified two top medical centres that offer new treatment regimes, and throughout Kildare people are rallying by raising funds to ensure Adrian can get this medical help abroad.

On Thursday, June 29, major stars of sport will gather for a special night in Kilashee House Hotel at 8pm. It will be an Evening of Sport, magic and music with great sports people speaking and joining a panel. Kildare GAA Manager, Dr Cian O’Neill, Ted Walsh, Johnny Murtagh, Glen Ryan and Anthony Rainbow are among the line-up. International illusionist Pat Fallon will astound and Newbridge Musical Society will bring their special magic and entertain.

Tickets for this very special night organised by the Friends of Adrian Melia Cancer Benefit are available from and premium tickets cost €50 with standard tickets at €30. If you can’t attend the Kilashee event then you can still go to the website and donate a contribution to support Adrian’s fight against cancer.

There probably isn’t an athlete in Kildare, or Ireland for that matter, that Adrian hasn’t photographed. From GAA stars of the future at Cumann na mBunscol to international rugby players have all been captured in his lens. The amazing response of sportspeople to participate in the Kilashee event extends to horse racing, boxing, camogie, volleyball and community games.

Proud bogman

Adrian grew up in Coolree, Robertstown, and describes himself as a “bogman and proud”. “I cannot stand the smell of perfume but I like the smell of shite.” Always the straight talker, Adrian’s first photographs reflected with his eye the honesty that he verbalises.

“I just started taking pictures of people with Guinness down their beard; things that were different and capturing life and its oddities rather than the posed photograph. I didn’t think it could be a career.”

His little village, from the mid-60’s, was a Summer mecca for visitors with the Robertstown Festa capturing the spotlight in a celebration of tradition and pageantry. For a decade the Festa welcomed presidents, Taoisigh, government ministers from Ireland and the UK, and singer Val Doonican was among those who dropped by.

“I could never understand why people would come there. We didn’t realise how much was there.”

His vivid memory is of water-skiing taking place along the length of the canal in the village, pulled by galloping horses from the tow paths. He watched but never participated although later martial arts would become a major part of his adult life.

He wanted to go, along with his friends, to the ‘tech’ in Naas but the primary school principal suggested the CBS “because he isn’t good with his hands”. Adrian laughs at the irony and says he later became a masseur. On leaving school he didn’t know what to do. “I was good at accountancy but I didn’t want to spent my life in an office.”

He started work in Donnelly Mirrors, Naas. The American owned factory was one of Kildare’s leading industries and it produced car mirrors for Japan and elsewhere. Adrian took up photography again as a hobby and joined Newbridge Camera Club. In this pre-digital age it was the dark room, chemical baths and patience that led to the image.

“Let him,” said Jack

It was quite by accident that he took his first professional photograph. He had nothing else to do one Sunday and his cousin Bernadette suggested they go to a replay junior final between Robertstown and Rheban. He wanted to take a team photograph, but was prevented from going on the pitch. Then he heard a voice from behind saying: “Let him”. That was Jack Wall, the former TD and Kildare GAA Chairman, and his nod of approval to take a team photograph that day in 1989, was life-changing . Adrian stayed on the sidelines and kept clicking.

“I was amazed some of the photographs were in focus and the Leader printed them and I was delighted with it.”

The next week he was at a match in Clane and “I was on a roll and I enjoyed it”. His initial photographic work was in West Wicklow, an area Kildare photographers didn’t cover. His first game to officially photograph was Dunlavin against Baltinglass and Adrian was now a part-time photographer.

The following year he was photographing Baltinglass in the All-Ireland club final in Croke Park. That game led to victory for the Wicklow team and a GAA press pass for Adrian. Jack Boothman, the late GAA President, helped secure the golden ticket and, now, he was entitled to photograph all games in the hallowed ground.

“Even though I didn’t have a GAA background I just liked doing it.”

Fifty-seven year-old Adrian effortlessly brings out his Toastmaster eloquence and drama and tells of his infamous playing on a CBS team when his goal attempt depended on the keen eye of a Christian Brother. Adrian knew it was a goal, despite there being no net.

“I knew what he was thinking. There is no way lazy useless Melia could score at that angle and the goal was denied.”

He then became an expert at ‘hide and sneak’ - hiding when a game was on and sneaking home to Robertstown on the early bus. The reluctant footballer was later to take up the martial arts of Wado Ryu and Mugendo and became a third level black belt. Adrian liked the individual nature of the sport he participated in between 1978 and 1995 and also competed internationally. He is proud of his skill and could do a block split without warming up.

“I wasn’t the world’s greatest fighter. I didn’t have the killer instinct. I was more interested in the skill and the flamboyance. I could bring up my leg and hit 10 times without dropping my foot.”

Unfortunately a serious car accident near Rathcoole ended his martial arts career. His arm required surgery and a plate was inserted. The accident was instrumental too in his becoming a full-time photographer and developing his career as one of Ireland’s premier sports photographer. There are many stand out sporting photographic achievements in Adrian’s catalogue of work. He recalls his personal pride at Eric Donovan taking his first Irish elite title in 2004. The Athy professional boxer will be among the special guests at the Kilashee night. Adrian says he is always the photographer and the camera is never put down, no matter what the celebration. He describes it as tunnel vision and says he has often watched the TV replay of a game late at night to see the play.

Talking the talk

Adrian’s public speaking skills have flourished through Toastmasters. A friend, Eileen Loakman, had been encouraging him to go along for years but he resisted. He spoke in tribute at his father, Paddy’s funeral, in 2010, and that led to his joining the Kildare branch and relishing the challenges of bringing spontaneity, humour and intensity to pre-ordained, or on the spot topics. “There is formality but it is also very relaxed. It is great craic.”

Sport demands an exceptional commitment from photographers. It involves weekend work throughout the year, inclement weather, a keen eye for action and long post match hours meeting newspaper deadlines. When Adrian talks about photographing games it is as if these challenges are bonuses. He loves the seasonality of each sport, dresses for the weather and doesn’t regard it as tough. “I just get on with it. You can spend too much time analysing things.”

Tadhg Murtagh from Kildare town pictured 'flying high' at the HSE National Community Games finals in 2013 - one of the many amazing sporting images captured by Adrian Melia

Cancer diagnosis

When he talks about his cancer Adrian uses the same words. You don’t analyse. You get on with it. He first noticed bowel problems when in London in January 2015, saw a doctor and was referred for a scan. That Easter he was in Borneo photographing the world of Kildare sculptor Derek A Fitzsimons (DAF).

“I wanted to film him. He is living with stage four cancer. A couple of years ago I did a self-directing film in The London Film School.”

The bleeding problems continued. When he returned home Adrian learned an uncle had died from bowel cancer. He still hadn’t an appointment for his scan and the bleeding was getting worse. He was taking photographs to show the extent of the problem and to show proof of how urgent it was. Desperate, he received financial support from others to have the scan carried out privately in Clane Hospital. But, three days before this appointment, he received a hospital cancellation.

“That got me into the public system. Once you get in it is very good.”

Colon cancer was the diagnosis and Adrian said he had no emotional response and there still isn’t any.

“You might say I am in denial, but I cannot be in denial for two and a half years. I am aware I think differently from other people but, in this case, I think it is an asset.”

One thing he did, on learning of the diagnosis, was self-film his reaction in the privacy of his home. He has never watched it.

Surgery followed 12 months ago and so has chemotherapy. Adrian may have had many the lucky break in capturing an illusive photographic moment, but his cancer hasn’t been kind. It has advanced to his liver where the tumour is wrapped around the veins. There is the added complication of a double mutation. He says a liver transplant isn’t an option and targeted chemotherapy has had to be stopped and he is now undergoing systemic chemotherapy.

Overseas treatment

He is being treated by conventional medicine but he has trained as a holistic dietician and has a belief in alternative medicine.

“Holistic hasn’t cured me, but it has largely improved my quality of life. I seem to work best with a combination.”

Adrian says he wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for his holistic oncologist. His input, Adrian believes, means he is still able to work as a photographer.

Adrian’s advancing illness and complications have posed significant challenges and he has been told it could now be too dangerous for surgery. “It doesn’t make me angry. What is the point?”

He is a fighter and is researching other treatment options overseas and has found hospitals in the UK and Germany that give him serious hope.

“It is just a matter of where and what. It is going to cost phenomenal money. Time is of the essence.”

Overseas is imminent and these discussions involve his Irish consultants. Adrian is greatly heartened by the overwhelming support he is receiving throughout Kildare and elsewhere.

“I am very blessed in that, from day one in my mind, I never went negative and that is great. I grew up in the bog and like many people my own age I am pig-headed and stubborn.” He knows the fragility of people he has shared oncology wards with, but also says they are people who want to fight for life.

“You just get on with it. If you spent time analysing, look at the energy you are wasting.”

He is greatly moved by the “astonishing and incredible generosity of people” and the goodwill he is being shown. “I have discovered just how good people are,” and says he now ensures he passes on kindness to others.

“I am not going to go and be grateful for my cancer because I am f**k ing not. But it does make you appreciate the good things in life and it is very humbling.”

READ ALSO: Adrian Melia, well-known Kildare sports photographer, passes away after cancer battle

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