Farewell to Toni... my Lourdes friend who was an inspiration

Farewell to Toni... my Lourdes friend who was an inspiration

Toni Noonan (second left) at Lourdes in 2012, with her daughter Pam, and friends Collette Collins (left) and Ann O’Callaghan (right)

I WAS in Mallow on Monday night last to say goodbye to a dear friend.

You might ask, when I say ‘dear friend’, it must be someone I knew most of my life. No, I’d say about ten or eleven years ago I first met this person.

In life, one meets hundreds, nay, thousands of people. There are people that are eminently forgettable — seemingly laden down by the weight of the world and with several chips on both shoulders. They’d leave such a negative impression on you that you’d walk across the street to avoid them in the future.

Then there are people who are the very opposite, oh, how they spark off everyone they meet with infectious positivity, no matter what heavy burden they might be bearing. Toni Noonan was one such person.

I met her for the first time in 2007 or 2008 in France, in Lourdes to be precise, and of all the women I ever met she was one of the nicest and friendliest and above all so caring.

Twenty nine years ago, Toni went to Lourdes with her daughter Pam and she never missed a year since. In that old ballad of the Cowboy West Red River Valley there’s a line ‘We will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile’ — that line was surely written about Toni and I never fully realised how much she meant to so many until last Monday night.

From all parts of Cork, and from Waterford too, they came to Mallow to bid farewell to a special lady. In the darkening evening we flanked Toni on her journey down St James’ Avenue, along by the Park, over the bridge and up to the Church of the Resurrection.

I’ve two siblings on Pilgrimage this week in Lourdes and on the Camino in Spain. As we went on our little pilgrimage last Monday night, I thought of the path of St James to Compostela as we trod the street dedicated to him, and of Lourdes of course.

Toni fell in love with the Shrine in the South of France nearly 30 years ago — and it was some love affair. People who’ve never been to Lourdes often ask me ‘How can there be so much happiness and fun in the midst of pain and suffering?’ The answer is that people like Toni Noonan make Lourdes a special place.

There’s a snippet of a hymn which came to me this week about ‘service to others cheerfully giving’ and that’s the kernel of the place under the Pyrenees.

Someone said to me the other night: “Whatever about cures, meeting people like Toni would make anyone better.”

I suppose some people have the great gift of warmth and friendship and, with her big beaming smile, Toni had it in spades.

Born in Ballyclough, Toni loved her game of cards but in essence she was devoted to nota woman whohing, only her two families.

Yes, Dermot and their children were always her number one and herself and Dermot were like peas in a pod, devoted to each other.

Toni’s other family was that indefinable but widespread ‘Lourdes family’. During her nearly three decades of going there, one can only imagine how many lives she touched in a positive way.

Working in the kitchen in the Hospital in Lourdes, Toni was never in bad form — she had a perpetual smile and a word of encouragement for everyone, young and old.

Fr Donal Roberts mentioned on Monday night the huge number who came from far and wide. He wasn’t surprised though because Toni was a friend and companion to so many. Not alone did she give herself in a huge way to Lourdes, but she also played a huge part in the MS association in north-east Cork.

For many years, Dermot went with Toni to Lourdes — then her own children and grandchildren too followed her example. People slot into different tasks there — the word ‘No’ is not used there, so for years Dermot and his friend Paddy have been the wheelchair ‘mechanics’ ensuring safe transport for all who need it.

Toni was an integral part of the kitchen hospitality team where kind words are as essential as good food. She loved Lourdes and all of us who travel regularly loved her.

I often met her and Dermot, maybe late down at the Grotto or on the street up to the bridge and they were never too busy to stop — just for a chat, that’s what friends are for after all.

Her health declined in recent times but wild horses wouldn’t have kept her from going to Lourdes in June. With the last few years she was the recipient of the love and care that she had dispensed to others all her life.

As a helper and handmaiden, she lived the true meaning of what a Christian should be and her family were a true blessing to her when she required help. She loved trips to Ardmore and Garryvoe, and most of all the company of friends — and she had many.

Her legacy, of course, is the generations coming after her. How true is that saying ‘The life and death of everyone has it’s influence on others’.

Toni lived life to the full and an integral part of her life was reaching out to help others in their hours of need and frailty. We will all miss her but our loss pales into insignificance in comparison to that of the Noonan and Cotter families.

Our tears and handshakes are just an outward expression of gratitude to a woman who made us smile and laugh — thanks for that Toni. Her memory will live on but not alone her memory but the good work she did will continue to bear fruit into the future.

Ah yes, Toni Noonan’s motto for life was ‘If I can help somebody along the way then my living will not be in vain’ and it wasn’t.

You can shed tears that I have gone,

or you can smile that I have lived.

You can close your eyes and pray that

I’ll come back, or you can open your eyes

And see all that I have left.

Your heart can be empty because

you can’t see me, or can be full of the

love we shared.

You can turn your back on tomorrow

because of yesterday.

You can remember me and only that

I’ve gone,

Or you can cherish my memory

and let it live on.

You can try to close your mind,

be empty and turn your back,

or you can do what I’d want;

laugh, open your eyes, love and go on.

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