FORGET Paschal Donohoe. There’s much more important news about Toby, says Fergus Finlay.
You’ll have to read on a bit to find out more about Toby, or Toby Eric to give him his full name — but it will be worth it.
It is one of those weeks where you’re supposed to write about the budget, of course. But to be honest (and I suspect I’m not alone in this), I’ve found it really hard to get excited about it. You’re going to be reading endless reams of commentary before and after, and I’m guessing at the end of it all that no-one is going to feel any wiser or better off.
We’re going to have a white sliced pan budget. The thing about a white sliced pan is that it never really offends anyone. Even if we don’t approve of factory-made bread, we all have our favourite way of eating it. Toasted or plain, slathered with butter or smeared with jam, used as a sandwich to encase a banana or a couple of sausages. There’s so many things we can do with a sliced pan that we’re never going to be too upset when we see it coming home in the shopping.
And that’s Paschal Donohoe’s job this week. Offend no one. Don’t put anything in — or take anything away — that people will still remember with annoyance on election day.
Anyway, to come back, in a roundabout way, to Toby (I really like that name).
You may know that I retired from Barnardos this week, after 13 years as the CEO of an organisation that has meant an awful lot to me. Throughout the week, and in the lead up to it, I had hugely conflicting emotions.
I’m really proud of everything Barnardos has achieved, and I’m thrilled that Suzanne Connolly, Barnardos director of services, has been appointed as the organisation’s new CEO. There are few people in Ireland who know as much or care as much about vulnerable children and the supports they need, and her impact on the standards of Barnardos’ work will be immense.
But at the same time, I’m homesick. Barnardos is an amazing organisation, that does endlessly brilliant work. I’ve made a lot of friends there over the years and among the people we work with, and it’s been really hard to turn my back on that. It feels like setting out on a journey away from your family and all the comforts of home.
The upside for me was that I was going to be able to spend a bit more time working with other people. And especially with the people in Lakers.
Lakers is in Bray. It’s a club for people — young people and adults — with an intellectual disability. But it’s actually much more than a club. For its 400 members, and their families, it’s both a home from home and a lifeline.
It was started 30 years ago by a small number of families — because there was little or nothing for their young people to do. It has grown in that time to be an essential provider of the kind of day services that people with an intellectual disability need. They make friends in Lakers. They get fitter. They learn crafts, do drama, take up music. They learn to travel independently, and to cook. They enjoy dancing and boxercise and taking part in a wide range of Special Olympic activities.
Over the years, the people involved in Lakers developed a premises and a small fleet of buses. The premises isn’t great — the members deserve an awful lot better — but the combination of a building and four buses enabled the tiny staff to ensure that everyone had choices in their lives.
Because it’s such a great and unique club — and because my daughter Mandy is a loyal member and my missus has been heavily involved — I was honoured to be asked, a year ago, to become chairman of the club. And I was really looking forward to putting a bit of my retirement time into helping to develop it the way it needs to be developed.
And then, the day after I retired from Barnardos, a fire took hold in half of the Lakers building. Because it happened in the middle of the night no one was hurt, but the scene of devastation when we arrived the following morning was genuinely shocking. We had lost all of the buses that are essential to our work and most of the rooms where on-site activities are carried out.
Because Lakers is hugely under-funded, despite its priceless work and ethos, it depends hugely on voluntary effort and local fundraising. My immediate reaction when I saw the damage was one of despair. How can we possibly get Lakers back, was all I could think.
But I reckoned without the decency of people. We have been inundated with offers of help, of transport, equipment, premises and money. The fire happened on Thursday night, and by Saturday we had formulated a plan to put some of our services back in action quickly. And we will rebuild Lakers, that is already clear, because the community has asserted itself.
One of the first people on the scene was our local TD, Simon Harris, and we will work with him to secure the future that Lakers’ members deserve. But all of us in the organisation have been overwhelmed by the determination of the town of Bray to help us. All over the country, the families of people with an intellectual disability know (better than most) what a place like Lakers means, and they have been offering to help from every county in Ireland.
In short order, my despair was replaced by optimism. Maybe, just maybe, we could rebuild this priceless asset.
And then on Sunday, as we were picking through the rubble, a message arrived from my daughter Emma. Toby was born on Sunday morning, her second son, Carl’s younger brother, and our fifth grandchild. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t take after me — which is another way of saying that he is already, at a couple of days old, an exceptionally handsome young man. He’s in bouncing health, as is Emma, and we couldn’t be more proud or more excited.
SO I hope you’ll forgive me if the budget doesn’t matter. I’ve been on an emotional roller-coaster of my own this past week, and far from retiring, I won’t be taking any time off until we get Lakers up and running again, hopefully in a venue where we can really build a better future for all our members.
(Of course, when I say I won’t be taking any time off, I will have to ensure that my grandchildren grow up to run the country. If they take after their mothers, that’s not in any doubt.)
Finally, I can’t end this column without mentioning another Emma. As I was celebrating the birth of my daughter’s new son, the news reported the death of Emma Mhic Mhathúna. I don’t know what to say. She had an unquenchable spirit and indomitable courage. Those attributes of hers meant that in her dying months, she made an enormous difference to her country. Everyone in Ireland will mourn her loss.
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