My wife, my hero — her legacy lives on

Yvonne Gilmartin lost her long fight with cancer last year, but the legacy left by her and husband Barry lives on, and this weekend her ashes will be scattered in her beloved West Cork, says CHRIS DUNNE
My wife, my hero — her legacy lives on
Yvonne and Barry Gilmartin.

THE love story began at Friar’s Walk in Cork city, when Barry Gilmartin answered a knock on the door by his future wife, Yvonne O’Driscoll.

“I opened the front door and there she was, our new housemate with the £200 deposit,” recalls Barry.

“Straight away I just loved the glint in those brown eyes."

That was September, 1997, and eventually he and Yvonne, from Skibbereen, would start dating and marry, in 2005.

When they learned they were expecting a child, they were overjoyed, but Yvonne was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 20 weeks pregnant with their son, Max.

The couple went on to become parents but, devastatingly, Yvonne faced an almost continuous battle with the cancer until, eventually, she passed away just over a year ago, on June 19, 2017.

It is a tragic story in many ways, but Barry is proud to have known and loved Yvonne for so long — and proud too of the work they did together to help other people with cancer.

In 2010, the couple founded the Brighter Future Ball to raise funds for the Cancer Clinical Research Trust and in total have raised an astounding €400,000 for research into the disease.

This weekend would have been Yvonne’s birthday and her ashes are being brought home — to the place she loves best: West Cork.

******

Barry looks back fondly on those early days of his courtship with Yvonne.

“It was love at first sight for slow learners. I was in total awe of Yvonne and remained so,” he says.

“This shy West Cork girl, who was going 24/7, fuelled by mushroom soup and pasta. I thought she was right up there in the madness spectrum.

“She had an incredible ‘dirty’ laugh. I couldn’t believe she liked me, but she did.

“We became a couple on Easter Monday, 1998, marrying in Castle Leslie on December 17, 2005, and we had so much fun together in 19 years.

“I’ve searched the house, but I still haven’t found her superhero potion or cape!” says Barry with a smile.

As she fought cancer, Yvonne had a human spirit that carried a bright torch beaming hope. And she had the West Cork O’Driscoll trait; fierce determination.

“After each setback, she came back fighting — she had many, including a mastectomy two weeks after Max was born,” says Barry. “She would just bounce back with renewed enthusiasm.

“The cancer was to return on eight occasions, including in her hip, sacrum, lungs and brain.

“It led to a hip replacement, two femur fractures, a femur replacement, a hip dislocation, a couple of pulmonary embolisms and a few bouts of pneumonia.

“Throw in hundreds of hospitals trips and stays for chemotherapy, scans, etc, and a record-breaking ability to endure some pretty strong treatments, and you get some idea of how I realised I married a hero.”

During her treatment, Yvonne and Barry wanted to give something back to help the fight against cancer, and the idea for the Brighter Future Ball was born.

“She even inspired some of us to do a few triathlons, so other people could make some memories,” adds Barry.

The 2018 ball earlier this year in Dublin, hosted as a celebration of Yvonne by Barry, along with Yvonne’s oncologist Professor John Crown, raised €115,035 all of which will go directly towards cancer research.

******

Yvonne with son Max.
Yvonne with son Max.

The birth of their son, Max, was a treasured moment for the couple. But it was an incredibly difficult time.

“Max made it at 38 weeks, in August, 2007, with a bald, devoted mum and an awestruck dad,” says Barry. “Two weeks later Yvonne had a mastectomy and a slew of tests that had so far been put off.

“She underwent radiotherapy and continued on the wonder drug, Herceptin.

“Yvonne was so thankful for cancer research as Herceptin had given her time with Max she never thought she’d have.”

Ironically, Barry says Yvonne “was never good with hospitals, doctors, or dentists,” and was “squeamish personified — she was petrified.”

But she didn’t shy away from comforting others in spite of her fears.

“I remember driving home that first day as Yvonne felt so sorry for a teenager who was getting treatment.

“While waiting for Yvonne, a former patient had sat down next to me, put her arm around me and she told me everything would be OK.

“I knew then that we were both in a very special club, despite never having applied for membership.”

Yvonne loved being part of another club, making up a precious threesome with her husband and their son.

“She never let her illness tie her down,” says Barry. “She adored being mum to Max and filling our home with laughter.”

The rules of cancer never dictated Yvonne’s life.

“She loved to travel and organising our family holidays every year,” says Barry. “She loved being with family friends, and returning to her home town of Skibbereen, always giggling and seeking fun.

“Concerts were her thing, and she was overjoyed when she got her tickets to Coldplay in concert in Croke Park for her 42nd birthday.

“She didn’t make it to the concert. She died three weeks before it.”

Yvonne, positive and upbeat, sought hope around every corner, when often disappointment stared her in the face.

Max was never disappointed. Yvonne was always mum.

“Her femur had snapped in two the day before Max started school,” says Barry. “She wanted to be just like a normal mum, and she went on the bumper cars on a fair-day outing with neighbours. She collided and ended up in hospital.

“Even though she had pneumonia then as well, she wasn’t going to miss Max’s big day.”

Yvonne had many courageous strings to her bow, apart from superhero and supermum, winning a distinction in 2016 when she completed an Interior Design Course.

“We spotted our dream West Cork home, Doon, on a walk near Lough Hyne, a couple of kilometres from Skibbereen,” says Barry.

“We loved spending weekends in that magical part of the country. Lough Hyne and Toe Head were our favourite places where we brought Max.

“Yvonne took a picture of the house and in April, 2017, it was ours. It was a labour of love. She never slept there even though it was her special project.”

She did something else though.

Barry smiles. “She wanted to paint the ceilings grey. Imagine, grey! And do you know something? It actually worked!”

Yvonne’s warmth and positivity worked wonders.

“I really remember her positivity, the bounce-back ability, the empathy, and of course the laughs,” says Barry.

“She would light up a room when she came into it. She never wanted to be seen as the poor girl who had eight cancer diagnoses, two leg breaks, a femur replacement, a hip replacement, pulmonary embolisms and a few bad bouts of pneumonia, not realising that she was in fact, extraordinary.”

Barry is pretty extraordinary too.

“Yvonne always said it was tougher on me,” he says. But I was the wuss, the big softie. She was pure steel.”

Barry wanted to have super-powers too.

“I wanted to reach in and pull the cancer out. It was crap. Being there for her was the next best thing. It was always going to be tough. Our friends and neighbours were always there for us too.”

Yvonne, the girl with that glint in her eye, superwoman extraordinaire, fought to the bitter end.

“She never gave up,” says Barry. “She fought to the end, which was another reason to love her. She did it for us.

“She thought she wasn’t special; but she was. Her mood was always buoyant. She made friends with all the nurses and she always looked out for those around her.”

Death didn’t figure anywhere in Yvonne’s armoury of super-woman strength.

“Believe it or not, we never really talked about death,” says Barry. “It is an obvious topic to discuss but it can consume your positivity, so we left it be.

“We just ploughed on, me and everyone else being dragged along by the relentlessly upbeat woman we were so proud of.”

This weekend, Yvonne is coming back to Doon, the place she loved so well.

“We are bringing Yvonne’s ashes back to West Cork for her birthday on July 8 and a ceremony will be held the next day,” says Barry.

“The house is completed now. Max has a double bunk bed in his room. He sleeps up top.”

The pair will always remember their very own superhero.

“At home in Lucan, we have a memory box with twinkling lights. We often chuck in words that remind us of Yvonne. It was a good idea. Max thought so too.

“She always knew we’d be OK,” says Barry. “Raising Max was so important to her. She did her job well. The best job. He’s a tough kid.”

Doon won’t ring now with Yvonne’s uncontrollable laughter, but her shining presence is palpable there. Her indelible quirky stamp around the house will be infinite.

“She loved this part of the world,” says Barry. “We were lucky to have what we had.”

Yvonne lived life smiling and laughing, always looking out for those around her.

A brilliant heroic mum, she never recognised her inspiration. She leaves a proud legacy.


FACT FILE

The Cancer Clinical Research Trust is a registered charity which supports cancer research programmes which is based throughout many leading institutions in Dublin.

The primary focus of work is ‘translational research’, research that spans the laboratory and the clinic.

Worldwide clinical laboratory partnership has resulted in revolutionary new treatments for many types of cancer.

Yvonne Gilmartin was responsible for the first Brighter Future Ball and worked very hard for CCRT.

Email: fundraising@ccrt.ie

“She would light up a room when she came into it. She never wanted to be seen as the poor girl who had eight cancer diagnoses, two leg breaks, a femur replacement, a hip replacement, pulmonary embolisms and a few bad bouts of pneumonia, not realising that she was in fact, extraordinary.”

More in this section

Sponsored Content

Add Echolive.ie to your home screen - easy access to Cork news, views, sport and more