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When disability was ignored

County View
Recalling a time when disability was ignored

County View
John Healy


THERE is a whole generation, or even two, which knows little about the origins of wonderful Western Care, and of just how bad things were 40 years ago when disability was ignored, untreated, and never spoken of.
If they had happened to tune into the RTÉ Radio documentary ‘Heaven’s Special Children’, they would have learned plenty of the past which we are all trying to forget. The programme was based on a true story written by Pearl Finnegan, a nurse in Galway at the time, and a first-hand witness of the events described.
The story is of a young mother kneeling in front of the matron of a west of Ireland hospital in the 1960s, and pleading with her not to make her take home her seven-year-old, profoundly disabled son. For seven years this woman had not slept a single night, had had no day’s peace or any support from her husband or anyone else.
The only relief she got was when her son was admitted to Portiuncula Hospital a few weeks earlier. But now, she says, if she is to take the child home, she will commit suicide. Eventually the matron finds a place for the child, Jimmy, in St Bridget’s Psychiatric Hospital in Ballinasloe. Two years later, Jimmy was dead; a year later, his mother was dead.
Jimmy’s story was not an isolated one. All over Ireland it was not unusual for children like him to be hidden away in a darkened room for years and years, concealed from everybody except the doctor and the public health nurse.
It is like something from the Dark Ages, but in reality all of that was only 40 years ago. Were it not for the courage and determination of Johnny Mee, Michael J Egan and Tom Fallon, who knows for how long the disabled would have been locked away in dark rooms, their very existence denied, their future bleak and hopeless.
When the group known as the Mayo Association of Parents and Friends of Mentally Handicapped Children was formed, there were no state facilities, no back-up, no support whatsoever. The state attitude to such children mirrored the private one; they did not exist.
‘Heaven’s Special Children’ was a timely reminder, lest we became too complacent, of just how awful things used to be. Maybe a visit to the RTÉ website, where the programme can be accessed, would rekindle our gratitude to those who took up the challenge.

A child looks through atoilet roll tube telescope
FLASHBACK Service users from Carrowbeg Enterprises performing in ‘The Loveboat Mystery’ at St Angela’s National School in Castlebar. The Western Care Association, of which Carrowbeg Enterprises is part, helped to transform the lives of people with disability. Pic: Keith Heneghan/Phocus


MAKING NEW ALLIANCES
STRANGE indeed are the alliances emerging from the shifting political landscape of Northern Ireland.
Leading DUP spokesman Jeffrey Donaldson, understudy to Ian Paisley (and, up to now, arch bigot in the eyes of many) was a panellist on Questions and Answers on RTÉ last week.
It was in general a harmonious performance and there was little of the smouldering hostility of earlier times when the chasm between unionist, republican and all things Irish was deeper than deep.
But it was when the questions moved on to socio-religious issues that Donaldson showed himself to be a man of no compromise when it comes to Christian beliefs. Asked about the current controversy in the UK (where Catholic and Protestant adoption agencies have been told they must bend to the will of the government and allow the adoption of children by same-sex couples), he pulled no punches.
“I am totally opposed to the notion that children should be placed with same-sex couples,” he said. “It is my belief that the proper place to bring up children is within a conventional family unit headed by a mother and father.
“That is my personal belief; that is my faith belief, and that is my political belief,” he went on, before remarking that the Christian faiths had been too docile and too accommodating when their values were being undermined by secular legislation.
It was a performance which put Jeffrey Donaldson back in the mainstream of traditional values. The RTÉ switchboard was flooded with calls in support of his lively defence of the right of Christian churches to live by their own beliefs.
So perhaps the twain is about to meet after all. Perhaps the DUP zealot is about to learn that he has more in common with southern Catholics than he ever thought to be the case. And perhaps another wall is crumbling as the permafrost starts to melt.

TOM MITCHELL HEADS PRESS COUNCIL
THAT Mayo connection with the world of media has been strengthened even further with the announcement that Professor Tom Mitchell is to head the new Press Council of Ireland.
A native of Belcarra and a former Mayo Person of the Year, Tom Mitchell made history in 1991 when he became the first Catholic to be appointed Provost of Trinity College.
It was a huge distinction for the Mayo native and came in the wake of Dr Mitchell’s distinguished academic career in Ireland and at Cornell University in the USA.
For the past two years, Tom Mitchell has chaired the Press Industry Steering Committee, a body formed in order to agree a model for an independent Press Council. With that task now complete, and the Press Council ready to move into action, Tom Mitchell has been appointed chairman of the new body. Among his first duties will be the selection of six other independent members of the Council, and the nomination of six members by the industry itself.
Academic he may be, but Tom Mitchell still retains the practical nature which comes from his farming background, and which will stand him in good stead in his new post. He sees the Press Council as performing a crucial role, on the one hand protecting the idea of press freedom, but on the other providing access for the ordinary citizens to a press complaints mechanism that is free and fair.
His many friends across the county, to which Dr Mitchell is a credit, will wish him well in the challenge he has taken on.
While Belcarra have justifable pride in their native son, Mayo and the county as a whole can also take pride in his many and varied achievements.

CALLEARY PUTS ON THE PRESSURE
FIANNA Fáil continues to send out its clearest signals of the intent to fight Enda Kenny to the wire in his own backyard with a succession of Ministerial visits to Mayo.
Mary Coughlan’s high-profile tour of the constituency garnered all the hoped-for media coverage, but the Agriculture Minister is just one in the procession of visits.
The Fianna Fáil focus is firmly on Ballina hopeful Dara Calleary, who is seen as the obvious choice to quell the yearnings of the town for its own home-based TD. Calleary has not been letting any grass grow under his feet, with a high-profile Dublin launch last week at the Davenport Hotel, just one more string to his bow.
The fundraising lunch was attended by the great and the good of the Ballina-Dublin axis, with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern himself in attendance to remind the capacity gathering of just what an excellent choice he considers Calleary to be.
Add in an upcoming business breakfast in Ballina with the Minister for Finance, again in support of Calleary, and you begin to see why, if the new man fails to make the finishing line in May, it certainly won’t be the fault of Fianna Fáil headquarters.

FAIRTRADE COMES OF AGE
THERE will be valid cause for celebration at Hotel Westport this Thursday night when Castlebar and Westport are formally launched as official Fairtrade towns.
The Fairtrade campaign has been operational for the past number of years, and this week’s ceremony will be a matter of some satisfaction to town councillors Keith Martin (Westport) and Brendan Henaghan (current Mayor of Castlebar). Both have been very active in the promotion of Fairtrade, from what were small beginnings, and the declaration that the two towns have reached Fairtrade status is a boost to all involved.
The Fairtrade designation is confirmation of the acceptance by the wider community that extreme exploitation of producers in third world countries cannot be condoned. The Fairtrade mark which is affixed to products guarantees better wages, better working conditions, and a better return for their investment for thousands of third world producers.
When consumers take the time to seek out Fairtrade products, they are delivering a powerful message to multinational companies which normally put profit first and producers second.

THE SHOWBANDS AND THE MUSEUM
IF there’s one thing to be said of the people who run the Museum of Country Life in Turlough it is that they know their business, and they know what it is that has made us what we are.
Next month will see the opening of an exhibition which really goes to the heart of what Irish rural social life centred on back in the 1960s and 1970s. ‘Hucklebuck Time’ is billed as a celebration of the generation that danced their way into history, and taps into the experience of the thousands of people who followed the showbands all over the country in the golden era of 40 years ago.
It will chronicle Irish music culture from the big band orchestras of the 1950s through to the big showbands which dominated the Irish dance-halls of later years.
Memorabilia, photographs, talks and performances will tell the story of the showbands in an exhibition which will run until May and which will attract thousands of fans who still look back with nostalgia on the showband days.

SEÁN JOINS NUJ HALL OF FAME
SEÁN Staunton, a man well known in this parish, joined an elite group of newspapermen at a ceremony in Westport last week.
The former editor of The Mayo News was conferred with honorary life membership of the National Union of Journalists, a distinction which is as rare as it was well deserved, and which was warmly applauded by his colleagues in attendance.
NUJ President Chris Morley did the honours and was loud in his praise of Seán’s contribution to journalism over so many years and, in particular, his loyalty to the union.
He now becomes part of an illustrious Mayo triumvirate which he shares with Liam Lyons and Seán Rice, which in turn reflects the key role played by the west of Ireland branch in the affairs of the NUJ over the years.