NEVER in her wildest dreams did Eileen Cogan ever imagine that her son Niall would be able to go off on a group holiday without her.
Not alone did the 31-year-old make the trip with the Munster Great Escapes Arch Club, but he had the time of his life.
The aim of the Club is to provide supported holidays and social activities for adults with a mild learning disability and/or mental health needs.
Members range in age from 18 to 72 and the not-for-profit social and friendship club is financed by membership fees, donations and fundraising activities.
Eileen, from Donoughmore, was thrilled that her son, who is non-verbal had a great time in Spain, and was always on hand to help other members who depend on a walker to get around. On the dance floor, Niall was the quickest to pick up the steps for all the Spanish dance moves!
“Niall is a treasure, everyone loves him”, says Catriona Campbell, from East Cork, who together with Hillary O’Donoghue, from the Bandon area, founded the Munster Great Escapes Arch Club back in 2012.
Between them, the two women have 60 years’ experience in the area of disability.
The Club is unique in Ireland as its members come from a range of services including Brothers of Charity, Cope Foundation, St. incent’s, Daughters of Charity, and An Cuan, as well as from the wider community.
“We are aware that our members are vulnerable and we have all the safeguards in place but we try to keep it as natural as possible,” Catriona adds.
“We want people to be out and about, having their pints, going to matches or sing songs, without having to have a form for this or a form for that.”
Hillary says: “For our members to be able to order a drink at the bar means a huge amount to them.”
That’s the reason Marian Lynch, from Gardiner’s Hill asked her daughter, Sarah, to get her a glass of wine at the Club’s recent get together in the Bishopstown Bar.
“Up to the age of 19, Sarah wouldn’t go out without me,” says Marian. “She joined the Great Escapes Arch Club and took off. Now Sarah goes on every trip the Club organise, it’s a complete transformation.”
Sarah is a fine photographer and has taken some great group photos on the various trips. Hillary’s husband, Albert, who volunteers with the Club, is another keen photographer and took the pictures on this page at the recent get-together,
When I asked Sarah what was her favourite thing about the trips away, she replied: “Getting away from the mother!”
Joking aside, it’s clear that there is a very close bond between mother and daughter.
Marian admits, however, that it is a break for her too, when Sarah heads off. She knows that her daughter will be safe and happy.
Sarah’s safety is always uppermost in Marian’s mind.
“It’s a disadvantage that Sarah looks so capable,” she says. “She is well able to manage on the buses but you’re always afraid of who she might meet.
“She is so innocent in her own way. But I think the more Sarah and other people with a learning disability are out there, the more they become aware of the dangers.”
Rosemary Connolly, of Glanmire, also believes that her daughter’s hidden disability makes her quite vulnerable. That’s why she couldn’t wait to get Kim’s name down on the list when the Munster Great Escapes Club started up.
“People who are intellectually challenged want to be out and about like the rest of us. They have a right to go out for a meal or a drink. The volunteers with the Club are great, that’s why I feel safe when Kim is away,” says Rosemary.
Kim says: “I can’t wait to go on the trip to Trabolgan Holiday Village in April. I’ll have fun, and I’ll chill out. I’m going to Spain in October. I have it all paid for already.
“I love making new friends. I was sweet 33 last Monday, I’m pushing on”, adds Kim, who is great pals with Sarah.
Another Club member who loves going on the trips is 63-year-old Grainne McGrath of Bandon. She was diagnosed with depression in 1997, but is managing well now thanks to the support of her sister, Mary Rose, and the Brothers of Charity in Bandon.
“I just need a bit of guidance to help me along,” says Grainne. “I find the Club excellent. It’s great to meet new people on different wavelengths to yourself.”
John Rose, from East Cork, is a fundraiser and volunteer with the Club. Over the past 40 years he has advocated for a man, Tom, who now lives independently with some supports.
“One of the things that Tom missed was going on a foreign holiday or away for a weekend. Now he goes off on the trips with the Club and has loads of friends”, John points out.
“For some members, the highlight of the holiday is having their own hotel room, their own tea and coffee making facilities and their own TV,” says John.
“The members all help each other out and Catriona and Hillary are very good at working out who needs what supports.”
During the get-together, one of the members gave Hillary a spontaneous bear hug. “Thanks for everything you do for me,” she said shyly.
“You’re a miracle worker,” one mother told Catriona as she headed home.
For more information contact:
Chairperson: Catriona Campbell, Tel. 086 356 5539;
Secretary: Hillary O’Donoghue, Tel. 087 628 3837;