Visually impaired group take a walk on the blind side of Cork's paths

Members of the Visually Impaired Walking Group.

The Visually Impaired Walking Group make great strides as they pound Cork paths, writes Dan MacCarthy

HILLWALKING is a boom leisure activity in Ireland. New guide books appear every few months while there is no shortage of shops selling hiking gear and maps. Domestic hiking clubs seem to appear overnight and are located in nearly every big town. It is an activity that appeals to young and old, male and female and… abled and disabled.

In Cork, the Visually Impaired Walking Group under the auspices of the National Council for the Blind meets on the second Saturday of every month. While not taking on mountain challenges (yet) the walkers and guides explore many of the flatter routes in and around Cork city.

The walks include beach walks at Garretstown, wooded walks at Killeagh, and urban walks such as the River Lee walk into the city by the old distillery at the North Mall. The group has a programme of around 20 walks that are rotated year by year and regularly do recces for new walks.

The original impetus for a vision impaired walking group came mainly from Niamh Connolly and Anne Maria Hennessy, at the National Council for the Blind Cork office in 2008 in partnership with the Cork Sports Partnership. Paul Dromey, with Derry Walsh, and Pat Walsh were the first walk organisers.

Emer McCarthy from Innishannon is herself visually impaired and is an assistant to the walks’ co-ordinator. She takes great pleasure in announcing the next club walk each week. She has been in the club for four years.

Eimear’s favourite walk is the Garretstown beach walk in the summertime. Holding down a job in Rehab in Cork City and dividing her week between there and Innishannon sees her look forward to each month’s walk. Eimear also takes part in the group’s weekly swim.

“It’s brilliant to get out. The social side of the walks is fantastic. The guides are really brilliant and we have a great gathering,” she says.

Alan MacNamidhe, 48 from Navan, Co Meath, is a former walks’ co-ordinator having served three years at the helm. He says it’s a great way to meet people.

“When I came to Cork first I didn’t know anybody so it was a platform for me to get to know other people. I was a stranger but it has expanded my social scene. It’s a social event and it’s a great motivator — just because you lost your sight doesn’t mean you can’t walk,” he says.

Apart from the walking, Alan takes part in a weekly swim with the group. “I got involved with swimming with the group too at Bishopstown Lesiureworld and we go once a week. There are usually five or six of us and it’s another very healthy activity,” he says.

Other opportunities to get involved with community activities occasionally present themselves, says Alan.

“One of our guides recently suggested a clean-up of the Tramore River walk which links the Kinsale Road to Togher. We took 18 bags of rubbish, an old bicycle, pram, scooter and other bits of metal and plastic bottles out of the river and surrounding areas. So it’s great to get involved in these activities and to give back something to the community,” he says.

“The walk I love and hate at the same time is the Scilly walk in Kinsale. It’s a love/hate relationship because the hills are hard but the achievement in doing it is fantastic. Then we go back to the pub for some food and craic. I get more benefit from that than from any other walk. I like a challenge.”

Alan recently returned from the May Fest of Vision Sports Ireland in Dublin with club secretary Hilary Doonan where they addressed the audience on the activities of the Cork group. President Michael D Higgins opened the forum. The council wanted to hear the perspective of the walkers and the guides with a view to developing the walks further. While there, they heard of plans to develop visually impaired tennis.

THE guides bring one visually impaired walker on each walk. Martin Hazell is a guide and has lived in Ireland, England, and Oman and walked and trekked in these and other parts of the world. He lives in Carrigaline. He has been with the Cork Visually Impaired Group for about 10 years, even though he doesn’t know why. All he’s prepared to admit to is that, if he does contribute anything, he gets much more back than he might give.

Margaret Desmond from Bandon has been in the group for six years and is a regular guide along with her sisters. What does she get out of it?

“I love going on the walks. The group is so positive and upbeat. Sometimes I might feel tired before going along and I ask myself ‘why did I sign up for this’ but after a great cheery welcome and a lovely walk you come back on a high,” she says.

“What we regard as huge hurdles the visually impaired walkers just get on with it and make the very best of the situation. The make you appreciate your own sight.

“If they’re blind from birth rather than have lost their sight over the years you can help by trying to bring back memories and sounds are great for that. So when we walk by rivers the sounds of the river and birds make it come to life for the visually impaired walkers.”

An upcoming event will see the group don their lifejackets for a tour around Cork harbour - proof of their motivation to move beyond a single activity. New guides and walkers are always welcome, says walks co-ordinator Pat Walsh.

For more information see ncbi.ie; visionsports.ie; corksports.ie


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