Historian Catherine Corless, the Irish Coast Guard, crew of Rescue 116, rugby referee Joy Neville and campaigner Vera Twomey were among those honoured at tonight’s Rehab People of the Year Awards.
The ceremony was presented by Gráinne Seoige and Aidan Power, and broadcast live on RTÉ One. The Galway Senior Hurlers, human rights campaigner Ifrah Ahmed, homeless advocate Fr Peter McVerry, and the community of Ballaghaderreen were also honoured.
Colette Byrne, from Laois, was recognised for establishing an online support community for widows following the tragic death of her husband in a road traffic accident, while the community of Erris in Mayo was honoured for its help and support in the search for Rescue 116 crew members.
The deserving winners were celebrated at a black-tie event in the Mansion House, Dublin. An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, jockey AP McCoy, activist Sabina Higgins, and rock band Aslan also walked the red carpet to honour Ireland’s heroes.
The country’s favourite architect Dermot Bannon, news anchors Caitriona Perry and Keelin Shanley, publisher Norah Casey, best-selling author Cathy Kelly, rugby pundit Brent Pope, and Mrs Brown Boys’ star Eilish O’Carroll also joined the winners.
The prestigious ceremony is a special opportunity for the Irish public to honour and celebrate those extraordinary people who have shown courage, bravery, commitment and determination.
People of the Year Award Winners:
Catherine Corless has called for a full exhumation of the remains of hundreds of babies on the site of the former Tuam mother and baby home, after being honoured at the People of the Year Awards.
As a result of her research into the home, run by the Sisters of Bon Secours, the remains of hundreds of babies were discovered.
Presented with her award by Human Rights Commissioner Emily Logan, Catherine was recognised for her passionate advocacy on behalf of survivors and their families and for her persistence and dedication, without which the scandal would never have been exposed and the truth revealed.
Following Catherine’s extensive research, the Government established a commission in 2015 to investigate the conditions and mortality rates at 14 former mother and baby homes, including Tuam.
In March 2017, the investigation of the Tuam site confirmed that a “significant” number of children’s remains had been found in underground chambers in a former sewage area.
Catherine Corless received a standing ovation as she accepted her #peopleoftheyear award for her tireless work exposing the scandal of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home. pic.twitter.com/I9MJhENDo9— RTÉ One (@RTEOne) April 15, 2018
Catherine said: “There are some suggestions to memorialise the site, but I think that is disrespectful and unacceptable. A full exhumation is now needed. We need to remove the remains of these innocent children – it is no place for them – and give them a respectful burial. It would be part of the healing process for all of the families involved. The only thing stopping a full exhumation is money, and that is not good enough.”
Irish Coast Guard, crew of Rescue 116, Caitríona Lucas and the community of Erris were also honoured. Broadcaster Bryan Dobson presented the award in recognition of the heroic work of the men and women of the Irish Coast Guard who risk their lives to assist maritime and coastal communities, while the people of Erris were recognised for their contribution to the search for the missing crew.
On March 14, 2017, Coast Guard helicopter Rescue 116 disappeared off the north coast of Mayo. The aircraft had been providing communications support for an offshore medical assistance operation. On board were Capt Dara Fitzpatrick, Capt Mark Duffy and winch team Paul Ormsby and Ciarán Smith.
Hundreds of volunteers, fishermen, and colleagues supported the emergency services in combing the area for the missing crew, going above and beyond in a bid to recover the lost heroes.
The bodies of Dara Fitzpatrick and Mark Duffy were recovered in the subsequent searches. However, tragically and despite intensive efforts, the bodies of Ciarán Smith and Paul Ormsby have yet to be recovered.
Just six months previously, the Irish Coast Guard community had suffered another devastating loss with the passing of their brave colleague, volunteer member Caitríona Lucas, who had been participating in a search operation off the coast of Kilkee, Co. Clare.
Irish Coast Guard Search and Rescue Operations Manager, Gerard O’Flynn, said: “Going above and beyond is the norm for members of the Coast Guard service.
The fact that these men and women often put their own lives in danger to carry out their duties makes the search and rescue crews such a remarkable group of people. Our colleagues will always be sadly missed and we remain deeply saddened by the depth of this tragedy.
“I would like to pay tribute to the community of Erris who left no stone unturned in supporting one of the most extensive search and investigation operations ever conducted in the area. We are humbled to receive this award which honours the bravery of all of our colleagues and pray that their bereaved families will take courage from this recognition.”
Fr Peter McVerry believes being honoured with a second People of the Year Award in 13 years shows the lack of progress being made on the issue in Ireland.
The advocate has been at the coalface of homelessness in Ireland since the 1970s. His award, in recognition for a lifetime of dedication to the homeless and for his unrelenting efforts to shine a light on the plight of some of our most vulnerable, was presented by Aslan’s Christy Dignam.
'The biggest category now of homeless people is the 0-4 age group' Peter McVerry speaks about homelessness as he is honoured at he #peopleoftheyear Awards. pic.twitter.com/oLsO6oyXzy— RTÉ One (@RTEOne) April 15, 2018
Fr McVerry was previously recognised with a People of the Year Award in 2005 for his inspiring work.
Fr McVerry said: “I am honoured to accept this award, but I am also quite sad. Honoured because I accept it on behalf of countless people who are working at the coalface of homelessness, seeking neither recognition nor acknowledgement.
"And sad, because I accepted the same award in 2005 for our work helping people who face homelessness and here, 13 years later, in 2018, I am being offered the same award, for the same reason. It shows the lack of progress being made on this issue as a country, and the growing demand for homelessness services.”
Vera Twomey believes the Government now needs to legislate and put a framework in place for the prescribing of medicinal cannabis to ensure that other families do not have to go through the same ordeal as her.
Vera made the plea after being presented with the award by Olympic medallist Rob Heffernan. Vera and her daughter Ava Barry (8) rose to national prominence during a two-and-a-half-year national campaign to secure medicinal cannabis to treat Ava’s condition called Dravet Syndrome, which causes severe, dangerous and frequent seizures, sometimes up to 500 a month.
Following a persistent campaign, Vera’s lobbying efforts finally bore fruit with Ava being issued with a special license to allow her access to medicinal cannabis in Ireland.
Vera said: “It is very hard to watch other parents and families suffering in similar circumstances to ours. I know there are hundreds of people suffering in Ireland who could potentially benefit from medicinal cannabis. The Government now needs to legislate and put a framework in place on this important issue, to ensure that other families do not have to go through the same ordeal.
"They need to consider and listen to the wealth of knowledge from professionals both in Ireland, and across the world, on this issue. Ava has received the benefit of medicinal cannabis, prescribed and overseen by consultants, which has improved her health dramatically. It is now time that people throughout Ireland also have the same option, in a therapeutic and professional environment.”
Joy Neville says that all young sportswomen should be able to dream and achieve, as jockey AP McCoy presented her with a Sports Person of the Year Award for her inspirational achievements in breaking down barriers, and for her service, commitment, and leadership to the world of rugby.
Limerick woman Joy, who has represented Ireland and Munster during a stellar playing career, was recently named World Rugby Referee of the Year for 2017. She has won 70 caps in the back row for Ireland and went on to captain her country for a number of years.
Joy Neville thanked her family for their support and dedicated the award to women in sports.
Rugby veteran @JoyNevilleRef has been a mould breaker all her life. Wearing #8 for @IrishRugby she won a #grandslam and capped 70 times. She continues to excel as a referee and break down barriers. #peopleoftheyear pic.twitter.com/woJy5ZAS3H— People of the Year (@peopleawards) April 15, 2018
She added: “My family, particularly my wife Simona, have shown unconditional support throughout my entire career. Without them, I don’t think I would be accepting this award. I want to dedicate this award to all the young sportswomen in Ireland, and beyond, so that they too can dream and achieve.”
At Munster, Joy helped the province to win six inter-provincial championships and later led the Ireland team to a Grand Slam victory in 2013.
She then went on to be one of rugby’s most accomplished referees, becoming the first female referee to officiate in a European match in 2016, followed by the Women’s Rugby World Cup Final in Dublin last August, and then taking to the field to become the first ever woman to referee a men’s international match in October.
Ifrah Ahmed was presented with the International Person of the Year Award by Sabina Higgins. A dual Irish-Somalian citizen, the human rights campaigner scooped the gong for leading an ongoing international campaign against female genital mutilation (FGM).
Ifrah campaigned to outlaw the act in Ireland in 2012, has gone on to advise ministers and has shared the stage with some of the world’s biggest leaders. #peopleoftheyear pic.twitter.com/tOATb9sAq4— People of the Year (@peopleawards) April 15, 2018
In 2006, Ifrah was forced to flee the war in Somalia to Dublin where she would begin a new life in exile. She quickly found her calling in social activism and, in 2008, founded the United Youth of Ireland, an organisation that helps young people from migrant communities in their artistic, creative and business endeavours.
Ifrah accepted an invitation in 2014 of the then President of Somalia to return to her home country to scope the potential for a national FGM eradication plan and female gender empowerment programmes.
During that time, Ifrah undertook a wide range of activities, including raising awareness around violence against women and girls, and establishing empowerment programmes.
The community of Ballaghaderreen was honoured for its inspirational altruism and community spirit, with author Cathy Kelly presenting the Community of the Year Award.
The Roscommon community was recognised for doing Ireland proud by extending a true Céad Míle Fáilte to a group of Syrian refugees.
Astronaut @Cmdr_Hadfield has a special message about a world without borders as we celebrate the Community of Ballaghaderreen. #peopleoftheyear pic.twitter.com/B3EQJRZLBI— RTÉ One (@RTEOne) April 15, 2018
Last February it was announced that Ballaghaderreen would become home to 240 refugees. The town’s arrivals were mostly young families fleeing war-torn Aleppo and young men from Damascus who had left behind their immediate families in Syria.
Many people in the community welcomed their Syrian friends into their homes, sharing food and friendship, the most basic of human kindness.
As many of the refugees were young children, a call-out yielded a massive donation of toys and a beautiful playroom was created at the emergency centre. Life for the refugees was also made a little easier by various sporting and fun activities, cultural and social outings, and various other trips organised by local volunteers.
Volunteer Theresa Geever explains: “Throughout the last year as our two communities have gotten to know each other better, there have been many positive shared experiences and moments.
"As time has moved on, friendships and bonds have been formed, personal stories have unfolded – stories of despair, broken lives and families torn apart, but stories too of a truly incredible determination to leave behind war-torn homes and start a new life.
"Having the Syrians stay in our town has been, and still is, an opportunity to reflect on how fortunate we are to live in a peaceful place, a place that we can share together.”
The Galway Senior Hurling Team was awarded the Sports Person of the Year Award by sports broadcaster Michael Lyster and Tony Keady’s daughter, Shannon Keady, for lifting the Liam McCarthy Cup for the first time in more than 29 years.
Galway had suffered heartache defeat in six All-Ireland finals during their 29-year drought, but their day of reckoning came last September when they gave an accomplished and controlled performance against Waterford.
Over 29 years of history was turned on its head last summer when @Galway_GAA Senior Hurling team lifted the @officialgaa Liam McCarthy Cup #peopleoftheyear— People of the Year (@peopleawards) April 15, 2018
In a moment that brought together a community, over 25,000 people gathered at Pearse Stadium in Salthill to welcome home the Tribesmen, while more than 10,000 people came together in Ballinasloe to start the celebrations.
Manager Micheál Donoghue added: “We are honoured and humbled to accept this award. We are overwhelmed with the reaction everywhere to what we achieved in 2017 and we are happy that this had such a positive and uplifting impact on so many people, especially Galway people at home and abroad.”
Colette Byrne was presented with the Everyday Hero Award by RTÉ Radio One broadcasters Sean O’Rourke and Evelyn O’Rourke for selflessly founding an online community – widow.ie – following the tragic death of her husband, Peter.
The website has supported hundreds of people in similar circumstances through their most difficult and darkest time. Peter’s life was tragically cut short when he was killed in a traffic accident in August 2008, leaving behind a three-year-old daughter, Kate (now 12).
After joining www.widow.ie, people soon discover they are not alone. They learn of others who are going through a similar loss and can share experiences and offer, or receive, mutual support.
For Colette Byrne, the driving force behind the website was the need to have specific support addressing the needs of people in Ireland:
“From the start I realised how horrible widowhood is. Before Peter’s death, I was ignorant to the many difficulties faced by being widowed. It was only when, in the depths of grief, and after discovering an American widow support website, did I realise the benefit of an online support forum,” said Colette.
Harry (13) and Molly Flynn (10) were presented with the Young Person of the Year Award by An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, for saving their sister’s life on many occasions.
Their sister Isabelle (6), was born with cerebral palsy and apnoea which means she can suddenly stop breathing at any stage during the day or night. Isabelle’s condition worsens when she is sick or has a cold, which means it could happen 20 times a day.
Both Harry and Molly have been junior members of the ‘T Bears’ of the Irish Red Cross Waterford City branch since they were five-years-old. The skills they have developed means that they have been life-savers to Isabelle on hundreds of occasions during her short life so far, including giving CPR while playing on a bouncy castle and even in a supermarket trolley while out grocery shopping.
.@brendanMrsBrown from @MrsBrownsBoys had a special message for Harry and Molly, winners of the Young Person of the Year Award. #peopleoftheyear pic.twitter.com/q7hfOE80Bu— RTÉ One (@RTEOne) April 15, 2018
While the family are hopeful that Isabelle may at some point grow out of her apnoea, she can rest assured that until that day comes she has two inspirational heroes ready to save her life when she needs them most.
Mo Flynn, Rehab Group Chief Executive, organisers of the Awards, said: “We have services throughout Ireland that support thousands of people with disabilities.
"Every day our teams in communities across the country meet people who are also doing great work, but they do not seek the limelight or get the recognition they deserve. The Awards serve to highlight all that is good about Ireland and honours those whose courage, resolve and bravery is boundless.”