BORN and bred in Enniskillen, Leo Gormley has many happy memories of growing up in Fermanagh. His childhood was spent on Market Street in the 60s, an era when no one felt the need to put the snib across the front door and when people looked out for their neighbours.

Now aged 59 and living across the water in County Durham, a husband and father of three with a successful career under his belt, he can look back on a very fulfilled life. But at the tender age of 14, after an accident in a clockmaker�s shop on Water Street left him with a permanent disfigurement, a young Leo could never have imagined his later achievements would be possible.

And it is only recently that he has fully grasped the remarkable journey he has been on. His participation in a Channel 4 documentary, �Beauty and the Beast: The Ugly Side of Prejudice�, looking into people�s perceptions of disfigurement, helped him revisit issues from his past which, for so long he had buried away.

�It has been quite cathartic in that sense,� he says, �Looking back at the things that you did and how you got through it. Now when I look back at it all I can see that it is a much richer journey.� Leo had been working for Benny Maguire in his shop beside Townhall when his life took a dramatic turn.

�Benny was teaching me how to repair clocks and I was thoroughly enjoying it,� Leo recalls, �But one day I was cleaning a clock with a can of petrol and it just ignited in front of me. �We were very lucky to get out alive. I had to crawl along the floor to get out.� Leo suffered third degree burns to his hands, face and legs, but has no memory of feeling any pain that day.

�I remember looking at my hands and thinking �this doesn�t look right� -- there was charcoal sticking off the end of where my fingers should have been, but it still didn�t register with me that I should be panicking or in pain.

�I remember looking down at a guy who was beating my leg and wondering what on earth he was doing. It turns out my jeans were actually on fire.

�Benny survived too but he was in a bit of a state. He was looking at his livelihood going up in smoke. He was a very good jeweller and watch maker, but he was looking at his hands wondering would he ever fix another watch again.

�I woke up three to four days later in hospital and still felt no pain -- although they were giving me pain killers and morphine at that stage -- it was only a week later when I was taken off the drip that I started to feel pain. The bandages came off and I knew I was in bother and that this was going to be painful.� It wasn�t long before the harsh reality of what lay ahead for Leo hit home.

�I came out of hospital feeling quite optimistic, thinking that one day, after surgery, I would look perfectly alright. But when driving home from Belfast my brother-in-law stopped at a filling station and the attendant came out to fill the tank on my side.

�I looked out of the back window to find him staring at me open mouthed and not paying any attention to what he was doing. My brother-in-law had probably only asked him to fill it with £5 to £10 of petrol but he was so busy looking at me that he filled it right to the top. That�s really when I started to realise this was going to be difficult.� Leo says he fell into a deep sense of self pity as he struggled to come to terms with his new appearance.

�It was very difficult at first. At 14 your hormones are just kicking in and you are starting to get an interest in girls. Going back to school was one of the toughest things I had to contend with at the time.

�Everyone was trying their damndest not to stare at me. It was only later on that I found out the head master told everyone if they did stare they would be reported.

�But you still had guys who were particularly nasty, and at the time it did me no good. I never got into a fight but twice I got to the point of wanting to grab someone. I did actually on one occasion, but I was dragged away by a friend who was more sensible.� Leo found solace in family life.

�My brother adapted this approach of �I�m not going to treat you any different�. I remember on one occasion we were having an argument. He basically told me �you�re being an idiot�. You are wallowing in your own self pity and if you continue you�re going to end up in this house for the rest of your days�. I had told him he didn�t know what it was like for me and he just gave me a shove on the shoulder and told me to pull myself together. That particular moment did a lot for me.� It was this very support network which helped Leo to eventually lift his head high again when out in public.

�For a long time I would hold my neck right down, like a turtle, so people couldn�t see me. But ultimately what you have to do is stand up straight and say �to hell with it�. I was 18 or 19 when I really got that confidence back.� His �thick-skinned� attitude gave him the confidence to �up sticks� and leave for Bradford with a friend at the age of 19. And he has never looked back since.

With time he learned to live with his disfigurement, opting only for surgery when it is absolutely necessary.

�I have had about 115 to 120 procedures but I gave up on the surgery years ago. I only go back when something is uncomfortable, for example skin cracks. My fingers tend to hurt a lot in the bad weather so I have to get grafts.� His confidence levels are now a world away from that of his 14-year-old self.

�I thought at one point I would never get married, never have a girlfriend even. I didn�t even see me driving a car because my right hand was so badly disfigured I didn�t want anyone to see it. I would always walk around with my hand in my pocket and use my left hand for everything. To me my right hand was a symbol of just how bad I looked.� Now Leo is channelling his own experiences into counselling others through the charity Changing Faces.

�We give talks to health care professionals, burns units, occupational therapists and coach and counsel people and their families. We realise that the families suffer too. That only occurred to me late on in life. My dad died 11 months before my accident and I am one of six siblings. My mother was spending her time running up and down to Belfast for me, and my sisters were looking after the house whilst my brother was trying to bring in a wage.

�The counselling is very rewarding for me. I didn�t have that when I was 14 -- I had nobody to compare notes with. I was just making it up as I went along. I used to pray that it would go away and when I would wake up I would see it was still there. I know what it�s like to wake up in the morning with your head stuck to the pillow from your scars weeping over night, I know what it�s like to feel lost. And to be able to help anybody get through that period of isolation means a lot to me.�