SHORES TO SHORES Michael Gallagher overlooking Keem Bay on Achill Island, where he finishes a length-and-breadth-of-Ireland cycle challenge in memory of his niece, Tilly Gallagher.
Achill native Michael Gallagher to cycle the length and breadth of Ireland in memory of his niece, Tilly
In May 2018, Achill native Michael Darren Gallagher travelled to Australia to visit his brother Ciarán and meet his newly born niece, Tilly Gallagher, for the first time. Born a few weeks previously on February 23, 2018, Tilly was gravely ill and did not have long to live, but in the short time they spent together, Michael was struck by her courage.
“I was only there for a week, but the one thing I took out of that visit was that she fought to the bitter end. You could see that in her. She fought and fought until everything stopped. Her personality shone through that way,” he told The Mayo News.
Tilly was born with Down’s syndrome, and like many with her condition, she had a hole in her heart and needed an operation. However, when she was only ten week’s old, Tilly caught a respiratory infection. She was not strong enough to battle against it, and she passed away on June 30.
“I went out there for a week just to offer whatever support I could. It was not easy for Ciarán and Barbara, whose two older children were only three and 18 months at the time. It had a huge impact on them, knowing they could not do any more,” he recalled.
“I visited Tilly in the hospital and held her. The virus meant she had very little movement, but it was amazing watching her. When she was lying down she would be following Ciarán around when he was moving.
The head would follow him around the room, it was amazing.”
Pitch to pedals
An engineer with Leitrim County Council, Michael, originally from Dookinella on Achill Island, now lives in Leitrim village with his wife Patricia and two daughters, Nicole and Micaela. A former Mayo minor footballer, sport has always played an important part in his life, and he played football until he was 40 with Leitrim Gaels.
His playing days came to an end when he was forced to have a knee operation. As luck would have it, the Leitrim Cycling Club is based in the village, and he joined to help in the recuperation of his bad knee.
“It took a while to get in on it but I got a bike on the Bike to Work Scheme, and once I got set up and started cycling it took off from there.”
Now aged 49, Michael is the chairman of the Leitrim Cycling Club. Having previously taken part in charity cycles, he recently felt he would like to do something to honour his niece.
“I was saying to Ciarán I’d like to do a charity cycle in memory of Tilly, and he said that would be great. I thought about what I would do. I always wanted to cycle the length and breadth of Ireland, so this will be the best way to do it.”
Cycling the length and breadth of the island consists of 620km from Mizen Head, on Ireland’s most southerly tip to Malin Head in Co Donegal, and from Dublin to Keem Bay on Achill Island another 320km in the opposite direction.
The plan is to begin on June 14 in Mizen Head and take three days to cycle to Malin Head before being transported to Dublin and finishing in Achill on June 18.
“You still have to be determined in cycling, especially for these types of cycling... determined and stubborn,” he joked.
The Mayo News caught up with Michael in his home parish after he had completed more than 600km of cycling over three days around Achill and west Mayo to help him prepare for the challenge ahead.
His muscles were sore, but he was feeling good and confident that he had the miles in the legs to take him on the mammoth challenge ahead.
“Over the winter I was on the turbo trainer a lot getting focused, and when the weather started to turn good I was out every day. From March onwards I have been out every day on the weekend, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
“I don’t have a training schedule other than to put in the miles on the bike, there is no easy way around it. I have been doing 400 to 500 km a week.
“I am feeling fit and when you are fit you feel good. I am sore now but it is amazing how the body will recover when you are looking after it. This morning I was sore and I didn’t want to go out but then you get going and get into a rhythm and improve as the cycle goes on.
“I feel good and I think I have enough in my legs to get me around, but you never know what can happen. I am finishing in Keem and want to have the kick to climb the hill into Keem… I don’t want to let anyone see me walking,” he laughed.
Before his knee operation, Michael had never dreamt of cycling. Now he wishes he had started while he was still playing football.
“Going cycling never ended my head before the operation. To tell you the truth, I should have gone cycling before I had the knee operation. I reckon I might have been able to put the operation off if I had.
“I was always into fitness when I was younger and always pushing myself trying to get the last bit out of myself. There is a competitive streak to cycling which I had from football and that has been coming back to me.
“I never thought I would enjoy it as much. I enjoy going out in groups and having chats with people. The stronger you get and fitter you get you are able to have the craic and it’s no longer a struggle. You nearly prefer to do that than go out on a Saturday night – I never thought I’d say it, but maybe that’s old age!”
While researching what causes to support, Michael read about the story of Swinford man Mairt Campbell, who left his home to the Mayo branch of Down’s Syndrome Ireland West.
It was Mairt’s final wish for the house to be used to provide the necessary support to advance the outcomes of people with Down’s syndrome. Inspired by Mairt’s story, Michael contacted the Mayo branch and was informed that the charity was looking to develop a sensory room along with a special-needs playground in the garden of the house.
“Mairt and what he did is a brilliant story, and I want to get on board with it. I was involved in a sensory room we put in a library in Leitrim, and I have seen the benefits of it,” he explained.
With the support of Down’s Syndrome Ireland West, Michael started to plan the logistics of the event, as well as putting in the miles to get himself in shape. The support teams will be a family consisting of his cousins, Finaun and Darragh Gallagher, as well as his sister, Marie, and his two daughters. He is also hoping that some cyclists will join him along part of the journey.
The aim is to raise €20,000 for the completion of the sensory room, which will be named in memory of Tilly.
“I suppose now there will be something out of this for other people similar to Tilly and help to develop them. Tilly never got that chance, but there are people who can have a chance and we want them to develop and reach their potential. No matter what level you are at, everyone should have the chance to reach their full potential.”
Michael says the cycle itself is also a tribute to Tilly. And he knows that when his legs are sore and aching, she will be with him, encouraging him to fight on until the end.
For more information on Tilly’s Cycle 2021, visit the social media platforms on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. To support Tilly’s Cycle, visit the GoFundMe website and search for ‘Tilly’s Cycle in Aid of Down Syndrome Ireland West’.