ARLINGTON, Virginia — For two months, Finnbarr O’Reilly tried to push past the tingling pain that would shoot through his body at random times and in the middle of the night.
A decade’s worth of toe tapping, high kicks and jumps had taught the teenage Irish dancer endurance.
But when O’Reilly traveled to Killarney for the prestigious All-Ireland Irish Dance Competition in 2018, the pain grew so intense he couldn’t participate. An MRI confirmed the worst: Ewings Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer.
Fourteen rounds of chemo and one year later, O’Reilly is training to compete this April among some of the finest dancers in the world during the World Irish Dancing Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina.
“The whole time, it didn’t really feel like I had cancer,” said O’Reilly, 17, a student of the Boyle School of Irish Dance. “Just because I was so set on what was going to come after, I didn’t really dwell on it in the moment. I was just thinking about what comes after cancer. I always had my eyes ahead.”
Focusing on dance came naturally — he’d done it all his life. Ten of the 14 O’Reilly children have taken Irish dance classes with the Boyle School. In 2011, the family made headlines when five siblings competed at the World Irish Dancing Championships in Dublin.
Finn O’Reilly, too young at that point to participate, went on to dance at six world championships, twice placing among the top eight before his diagnosis.
His Catholic faith — passed down to him by his parents, Christendom College graduates Frank and Angelique O’Reilly — also was a source of strength.
“My relationship might have gotten a little stronger with God, because when he challenges you, that’s an easy way to get close to him,” O’Reilly told the Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington.
Ellen Boyle Gibbons, his teacher, knew O’Reilly before he ever put on a pair of dancing shoes. In recent years, she’s traveled with him to competitions across the U.S., Canada and all over Ireland and England.
The diagnosis was “really devastating to the school,” said Gibbons, who co-owns the school with her sister, Alannah Boyle Sweeney. Students wore T-shirts that read, “This one’s for Finn. #inFINNcible.”
Last March, Gibbons and Sweeney invited the entire school to show their support with a performance by the Alexandria waterfront. With just a weekend’s notice, more than 200 students showed up.
“Some of them were crying,” said Sweeney. “At the time, we didn’t know if he would walk again.”
Amid the treatment, O’Reilly continued his homeschool studies and began taking classes at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown. On the way to dance classes at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas, the O’Reilly family continued to pray the rosary together.
“Even during the radiation, during the chemo, he would come into class and be such a strong example of work that it was hard for the boys with a blister or sore toe to complain,” said Gibbons. “He had no hair. He had very few red blood cells to give him the energy to get up and work. He would work as hard as he could for a few minutes and then sit down, catch his breath. It was just an inspiration. God is so good. He’s back at it now.”
In November, doctors declared O’Reilly cancer-free. More good news came when the Irish dance commission in Dublin granted a rare exception to allow him to dance at the world championship this year, basing the qualification on his 2017 medal.
If chemo hadn’t worked, “he could have had his leg amputated,” said Sweeney. “And now he’s competing in the most elite part of the sport.”
– – –
Stachyra Lopez is social media coordinator at the Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington.