A week of odd and different highlights. How often, after all, can you say you started your week with Jedward, almost met royalty, took part in an international literary festival and ended up by applauding as your wife was elected president?
While you were reading this column last Tuesday, I was on my way to Kildare Place National School in Rathmines. It’s a beautiful little school in the heart of Dublin and they had agreed to allow us to use the venue to launch a collaboration between Barnardos and Londis.
It’s an exciting venture, now in its second year, that encourages children and young people all over the country to write stories about their communities. “Write up my street” it’s called, and Londis gather all the best stories into a beautifully produced book. It’s both a fundraiser and an awareness-raiser.
But even the best ideas need a bit of publicity to get them going, and on this particular morning two young men called John and Edward Grimes had agreed to help us launch the project in the school. When the kids had gathered in the hall, I introduced the two boys. And then all hell broke loose.
I have to admit it. I hadn’t been a fan of Jedward. But since the moment they bounded on stage last Tuesday morning, I am hooked. They were fantastic. They made an instant connection with the children in the hall and I have never seen such rapport between celebrities and an audience. They sang, they did acrobatics, they whipped up the kids’ enthusiasm — and all the time they never lost sight of why they were there, which was to promote the writing competition.
They were only supposed to stay a few minutes, but I reckon they gave those children the best part of an hour — a memory that will last a lifetime. They were open, honest and genuinely charming. And they had more energy than any two unpronounceable volcanoes in Iceland. I have to say they deserve all the celebrity they have, and long may it last.
I had to tear myself away from the Londis event to go down to Naas because I had agreed to speak at the annual conference of the Riding for the Disabled Association. RDAI is a voluntary organisation — over the years it has provided meaning and purpose to hundreds of lives by teaching people with disabilities the skills associated with horse-riding. Over the years I’ve had several dealings with the association and it’s always a pleasure because they are typical of those brilliant people you meet throughout Ireland who give time and energy to difficult and demanding — but intensely fulfilling — work.
But I was looking forward to a particular treat last Tuesday because I was to share the stage with the great Willie John McBride, a genuine sporting legend and hero, and also, of all people, the Princess Royal, Princess Anne.
The princess is president of RDA in Britain, and she had agreed to come to Naas because for the first time the two associations in the island, north and south, were meeting together as one conference (She may also, I suspect, have had plans for Punchestown later in the afternoon).
Alas, the princess, as one of the speakers said, was “volcanically challenged” and had to send a message of goodwill instead of an actual appearance.
The upside was that we got to see more of Willie John McBride, one of the great motivators of our time. Modern rugby has medical teams and high technology. In McBride’s day they had elastoplast and holy water. And, he admitted, even as a Northern Protestant the holy water never did him any harm.
On Friday morning I travelled down to Gorey to help launch Barnardos’ Teen Parent programme there. There are 11 teen parent programmes all over the country, and Barnardos runs a number of them, in partnership with the local community and with the HSE.
It’s one of those under-reported projects that achieves remarkable results, helping girls (and frequently their partners) to stay in education and training despite having a baby at a very young age. It enables independence and, perhaps above all, it encourages girls to discover that having a baby, challenging and difficult as it can be, is not the end of their lives. Projects like this work because of the quality of the people who work in them and it’s always an honour to be able to spend a bit of time with them and to see the commitment they bring to the work.
But I had to make a mad dash to Galway to take part in the Cúirt Literary Festival (sounds very posh, doesn’t it?). Olivia O’Leary, Joe O’Connor and yours truly were reading some of our favourite Drivetime diaries in a programme brilliantly presented by Mary Wilson and recorded for later transmission.
Watch out for it — though it may be immodest to say so, it should make an hour of riveting radio. Joe and Olivia were funny, touching and wise — I certainly found them hard acts to follow. For me, though, the highlight of the week was still to come. On Saturday my wife Frieda was elected president of Inclusion Ireland, the national body that represents people with an intellectual disability all over the country. Frieda has been an active member of Inclusion Ireland for a long time and now she is taking on one of the biggest challenges of her life.
For nearly 50 years (in fact their golden jubilee is next year) Inclusion Ireland (which used to be known as NAMHI) has fought to keep the needs and rights of people with an intellectual disability on the agenda. They have been to the forefront in the demand for better services and higher standards, and over the years have been hugely instrumental in changing public policy and attitudes.
OVER that half century, people with an intellectual disability have stopped being regarded as worthy of charity and have gradually come to be recognised as citizens, with an equal right to fulfil their potential. That change has been hard fought, by people like Deirdre Carroll, the CEO of Inclusion Ireland, and her talented (but very small) team.
I suspect Inclusion Ireland may be about to face another challenge in the next couple of years as the recession continues to pile pressure on the public finances. Already policymakers and politicians are saying they can’t afford to implement enforceable standards and inspections because there are still some places where people with an intellectual disability live in intolerable conditions — and it would cost money to put that right.
So Frieda, and the rest of the team at Inclusion Ireland, are going to face another battle to improve standards where they have to be improved and to keep them at their present level where they’re pretty good. They are determined to celebrate the 50th anniversary by showing real progress on rights and services. I’m guessing the policymakers and politicians had better watch out because Inclusion Ireland won’t be taking no for an answer.