Paralympians take centre stage at Farmleigh

It’s official — even our leaders can only dream of the adulation now being afforded to Ireland’s Paralympic athletes.

As Taoiseach Enda Kenny and other cabinet members welcomed the successful Paralympians to a sun-dappled Farmleigh House yesterday for a special celebration of their 16 medals at the London Games, hundreds of students from nearby Mount Sackville formed first a guard of honour and then a cheering chorus of approval for the team.

As the politicians posed for pictures with the likes of double gold medallists Michael McKillop, Mark Rohan and Jason Smyth, one pupil was overheard asking: “Who’s the guy in the Labour Party again?”

That would be Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, but there was no confusion over who the real stars were at yesterday’s event. Sprinter Smyth and gold medal-winning swimmer Bethany Firth were swamped by blue uniforms. Camera phones clicked, students reached out to touch the medals and pose with their owners. Even Sports Minister Leo Varadkar got in on the act, weighing up Catherine Walsh’s silver and bronze medals won in tandem cycling.

Pride was evident at every turn. Marie Ryan, mother of rower Shane, from Ballybricken in Co Limerick, watched as he took his place among his fellow competitors.

“It has had huge benefits for our son,” Marie said of the Games experience. “It has done a lot for the sport having such a good haul of medals.”

Yet the issues of funding were never far away. Both the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste said funding levels would be retained so the athletes can target the Rio Games with confidence.

But Marie recalled how in the week many of the medals were secured, Health Minister James Reilly had announced cuts affecting personal assistants which were then ditched in a U-turn.

Mr Kenny spoke of “parity” between the athletes in the Olympics and their compatriots in the Paralympics. Mr Varadkar spoke of the money spent being “well worth it”, but the athletes themselves are already looking ahead as well as back.

Corkwoman Orla Barry won a bronze in the discus and while at first she was disappointed, her medal has now taken on a new glow.

“It can never be taken off me now I have it,” she said, surrounded by family members. “I think it will appreciate in value when you get older.”

She recalled the friendship and craic among the team in London, and believes she has a great chance of gold in four years’ time.

It’s the same for Michael McKillop, in many ways the star of the Games. As he listed the events he has attended you could only praise his stamina. “I just see them as achievements I was working towards,” he said of his golds in the Men’s 800m and 1,500m finals.

“It’s the start of another four-year cycle.”

He mentioned the huge legacy of these Games and hopes for 20 medals in Rio while the Taoiseach said of the team: “You have raised our hearts and raised our spirits.”

They have certainly burned their way into the national consciousness. The denizens of Leinster House might have a way to go yet to match them.

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