As soon as I was old enough, I started going to gigs – I’ve always been into music. In fact, the night before my accident in 2005, I’d been to an Oasis gig and sprained my ankle. I was 17, on a family holiday in Spain, and when we arrived at the hotel at 10pm, my foot was all swollen.
I got talking to a group of people my age and we went to a nightclub. Then we went to sit by a swimming pool and someone asked if I wanted to go skinny dipping. I jumped up and took my clothes off, but it was dark and I couldn’t see the pool’s dimensions. I dived into the shallow end, banging my head and instantly damaging my spinal cord. It felt like air deflating out of a balloon. I couldn’t move my arms and everything went white.
The people I’d just met jumped in and saved me from drowning, but I became a C5 incomplete quadriplegic, which means I have no feeling or movement from the chest down. I spent nine months in the National Rehabilitation hospital near my home in Dublin, and told myself to get on with things, that this was the new normal and it wasn’t going to change.
Walking as a kid and being in a wheelchair as an adult, I’ve seen life from two points of view. I’m lucky that my family would do anything for me, and my friends would carry me up and down stairs if needed, but accessibility for bars and nightclubs is shocking.
I go to lots of gigs in my wheelchair – I love singing along and interacting with people. As a kid, I was in the choir, though nowadays it’s just karaoke: I do a great version of Coldplay’s A Sky Full of Stars. They’re one of my favourite bands. After my auntie died in 2017, my family got tickets for their gig at Dublin’s Croke Park that July. We thought it would be an amazing way to remember her together.
Near the end of the show, Coldplay released large bouncy balls into the crowd and these two well-built lads fell over me trying to catch one. They apologised and picked me up, holding me up in my wheelchair above the audience to give me a better view of the stage.
On stage, Chris Martin handed me a harmonica. He sang and looked at me when he wanted me to play it
They started moving forward and suddenly a spotlight came on me. The crowd parted like the Red Sea. I raised my arm in the air. Eighteen months earlier, I wouldn’t have been able to do that – I’d had a tendon transfer, which helped me get back some muscle that I lost in my arm. I was the first person in Ireland to have that operation. I’d got into fitness and became a personal trainer. I train people with similar injuries as myself. I want to show that people in wheelchairs can do as much, or more, than an able-bodied person.
After a few minutes, we were by the smaller stage in the middle of the crowd. The security guards were screaming for me to get down. Chris Martin, however, did the opposite, telling me to come up. He helped lift me over the barrier, a pure gentleman.
Chris asked me a couple of questions on stage – my name, what I did, where I was from. Then a mic was put in front of me and he handed me a harmonica. I don’t play, but he said he’d look down when he wanted me to blow on it. He made up a song on the spot: “We’re in Dublin with Rob, he’s a PT,” stuff like that. It was short but sweet.
After he sang a few words, I blew into the harmonica. I’d had a couple of drinks, which helped. In that moment, my adrenaline was so high. It really was like staring out at a sky full of stars, I wasn’t thinking there were 80,000 people looking back at me.
Chris then had to run back to the main stage, but he gave me the harmonica, and when I opened it later, there was €50 in it. After the gig, I was playing it all the way up O’Connell Street into town. Everyone was getting the craic out and asking if I was the lad who crowdsurfed.
The story went worldwide – my friend in New Zealand even saw me on the news there. I know some musicians who have been gigging all their lives, and they can’t believe I played in front of more people than they have in their whole career.
Even without the crowdsurfing, it was one of the best gigs I’ve been to. Next summer, Coldplay are coming back to Dublin for four nights. Sadly this time I couldn’t get a ticket.
• As told to Andy McGrath
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