Monday, September 25, 2017

How a stage play with a cast of actors with intellectual disabilities made it to the silver screen.

Len Collin directing Kieran Coppinger
  • Sanctuary was a successful stage play with actors with disabilities
  • The story was about people with disabilities and relationships
  • There was a plan to make it into a film
  • Filming the story had lots of challenges and needed a lot of planning
  • Actors with disabilities don’t get the same opportunities as other actors
  • The play and film played a large part in changing an old-fashioned law.

I have great admiration for actors. I started my career as a thespian and know how tough and demanding it is to learn lines, remember blocking and handle props, without lapsing in concentration, losing your accent or dropping your character. Actors have to face a lot of rejection and disappointment; they have to handle adversity with a smile, and often they have to hold down jobs outside of the profession whilst they are resting. In my own time as a professional actor I cleaned toilets, worked in a dye factory, delivered Tupperware, laboured on building sites, I even stuffed envelopes for a charity organisation. Those cold calls you have from people selling insurance, double glazing or doing surveys, are probably actors between jobs. If you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to be unemployed for any length of time, you have most probably stood next to a would-be actor in the queue. It’s a profession with far more downs than ups, and most actors know that the glam and glitz of Hollywood is a dream beyond their reach.

So why do they persist? Why do they put themselves through torture just for the chance of being somebody else up on the stage for two hours a night? Or for the fleeting few seconds they may be allotted on a film set? It’s because they love what they do. It’s because in that moment when the audience laughs, applauds, or cries… they are acknowledging you, your talent and even your very existence. Little wonder then that marginalised individuals, such as persons with intellectual disabilities, might find a sense of worth and achievement through the performing arts.

I first encountered the actors from Blue Teapot Theatre Company in 2011, when they auditioned me for a screenwriting commission as part of an Arts and Disability Ireland scheme. Perhaps using the word “audition” is a little strong, but that’s what it felt like. I was impressed by the confidence of the actors; this was not acting as therapy, this was not something to do in their spare time, this was an ensemble cast of professional actors who happened to have intellectual disabilities. This attitude is integral to artistic director Petal Pilley’s vision. “They’re professionals. Pure and simple.”  Initially I was only hired to write the short film script for the cast, but Petal asked if I would like to direct the performed reading of the script planned for Culture night at Druid Theatre. This was how I really got to know the actors well and what they were capable of. When Culture night came around we had a full house. Kieran was very chilled, Charlene very chatty, Frank nervous with Paul calming him down, it felt like any green room backstage I had ever been in. The only difference was the choice of pre-performance meal – Pizza. The performed reading was a huge success, I worked with the actors on stage, helping orchestrate the performances a little like a conductor. It was an amazing experience that I will never forget.

A year later I saw the cast perform in Sanctuary, at Blue Teapot’s studio theatre in Munster Avenue. Even though I knew the cast well, I was blown away by their performances, and charmed by the wit and intelligence of Christian O’Reilly’s script. However mostly I was appalled and angry about Section 5 of the Criminal Law Act (1993).  I was not familiar with this law, which effectively makes it illegal for two people with intellectual disabilities to have sex unless they are married.

In the pub afterwards I proposed that Sanctuary should be a film, that this world had not been portrayed on the silver screen before, and that people needed to be made aware of the absurdity of the unjust law at the heart of it. I was impressed by the story, but also struck by the fact that the actors were very openly prompted on stage. The reason for the prompts was mostly to do with the gales of laughter that would interrupt the actor’s flow. On stage, an actor like Patrick Becker could turn this prompting into part of the performance – it became a contract between the audience and the actors, and added to the charm and involvement. Of course, on film we stop and start all the time and I had been working with the actors on camera technique, so it wasn’t a massive leap to make. Getting the film financed and made however would be another battle.

The issue, if you are an actor who happens to have Down’s syndrome or autism, is that there is very little space for you on screen. A role which may suit an actor with an intellectual disability, such as the character of Josey in Garage (Abrahamson 2007) or Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man (Levinson 1988), is usually taken by an actor who does not have a disability. This is known as “Cripping Up” and is often compared to actors “Blacking Up” in the past. It’s a phenomenon that anyone working in disability arts is well aware of, and thankfully is less prevalent in theatre due to the sterling work of companies like Blue Teapot in Ireland and Mind The Gap in the UK (to name but two). The situation in film and TV however, is that the sighting of any actors with disabilities is as rare as hen’s teeth. We needed a producer who was as passionate and tenacious as we were, we found her in Edwina Forkin of Zanzibar films. Thankfully, the Irish Film Board/Bord Scannán na hÉireann, the BAI (Broadcasting Authority Ireland) and RTE backed our proposal, and in 2015 the cameras started rolling.

Up to this point everything was in theory only. The actors at Blue Teapot have a routine, a person with Down’s syndrome or autism is reliant upon routine… and the routine in place was a three-day week with five hours per working day interspersed with regular breaks. During performances, this five-hour working day would be shifted to accommodate evening performances. However, filming days are long, at least eleven-hour days on set with travelling, hair, make-up and wardrobe not included. So in reality fourteen-hour days, six days a week. Would the actors be able to manage such long hours? Would the nerves of working in front of a film crew of twenty plus people get to them? The lights? The sets? The long waits in between set-ups as lights and camera are moved? There were many imponderables.

The first scene we shot was Kieran’s character Larry changing from his work clothes into his going out clothes. We were on Location in Supermac’s on Cross Street. Kieran was clearly nervous, even though he said he was fine, I could tell that he was just a little edgy. The crew were all new to me and Kieran, there was tension on set for sure… and that was about to get worse. As the cameras started to roll the action was simple enough. Kieran had to unbutton his shirt. Kieran has big hands, with chunky fingers, this is often a characteristic of Down’s syndrome, and he was having trouble with the buttons, he was taking an age to get one button undone. The tension was building on set, how long was this shoot going to take? Here we were on Roll 1 Slate 1 Shot 1 Take 1 with hundreds of takes to come over the thirty day shoot, and time was passing very slowly. My instinct was to keep going; I had faith in Kieran, and I knew that the crew also needed to know what they were dealing with – then the button popped out of the hole of the shirt, one undone… a slight relaxation in the crew… but then Kieran’s fingers moved to the second button and tension doubled. Kieran then showed why he is a professional actor and justified my absolute faith in him, he improvised, he realised that the buttons were taking too long, he sensed the tension and he came up with the solution, he pulled the shirt over his head – He solved the problem and the crew fell in love with him from that very moment.

Over the course of the thirty days filming there were many moments that challenged us, and the actors were always equal to it. Yes, the days were long, but we scheduled the actors so that each individual worked no more than five days in any one week. We tried to engineer the days so that the hours were more manageable… but still the actors coped with those odd days that were fourteen hours long. They rose to every challenge they were given. Acting on film is much more technical than theatre acting as movements have to be precise and remembered. What hand did you have your cap in? Where exactly did you put down that phone? Notes can come from Director, Continuity, DoP, Camera Op, Sound, Props, Hair, Make-up, Wardrobe… There is a lot of information to digest between takes. At the start I would have all of this information filtered through me, but soon it was obvious that the actors were more than capable of absorbing all the instructions themselves. Occasionally something would be forgotten, or a line would cause issues… if you watch the film carefully you can spot a few of these moments… look out for “Sexy traffickers” or “The missing phone” – but overall the actors exceeded expectations.  The UK Department of Health partly describe Intellectual Disability / Learning Disability as – “A significantly reduced ability to understand new or complex information, to learn new skills” In my opinion the making of Sanctuary has blown this definition out of the water. It is of course far more about reduced access, and less opportunities. It is the industry that needs to change, not the actors. We need more films like Sanctuary and greater representation on screen. We need to see an end to actors “Cripping Up” in the hope of garnering awards. Sanctuary has authentic performances from talented actors who deserve a platform.

Oh and what about Section 5 of the Criminal Law Act (1993)? Well thanks to the sterling work of Inclusion Ireland, and other activists… and the fact that Sanctuary highlighted the issue… that law is no more. There is still a fight ahead of us to change people’s attitudes – it takes time to challenge ignorance, but we are getting there.

Author Bio

Len Collin directed ‘Sanctuary’, his first feature film, for which he has won Best Director at Newport Beach Film Festival and Best First Feature at the Galway Film Fleadh.

In 2010 Len wrote, produced and directed the award winning online drama ‘Covies’, which won an Allianz Business to Arts Award for creativity. His short film ‘Bound’ (2014) has been seen around the world in Ireland, America, Germany and the UK. 

Len is best known as a screenwriter, and has written for a plethora of television series over the years. He has been responsible for over fifty episodes of the ‘The Bill’ was lead writer on ‘Ultimate Force’, ‘London’s Burning’ and ‘Holby City’. Len has written a number of episodes for ‘Soldier, Soldier’, ‘Casualty’ ‘Thief Takers’,’Eastenders’. ‘The Clinic’ and ‘The Chief’.

Len’s theatre plays include ‘Box’, ‘Terrible Beauty’ and ‘Soprano’s Last Supper’ [adaption of the Vegas show for Tivoli Theatre Dublin]

Len has also starred in many TV shows and films including ‘A Touch of Frost’, ‘Dot the I’, ‘An Exchange of Fire’ ‘Call Red’ and ‘High Heels and Low Lives’.

Len is also an educator and currently lectures in Screenwriting and Film Production at Northumbria University. He is in the middle of a PhD entitled The Representation of Intellectual Disability in Film and Television.

For Diarmuid O’Leary, performing is a key to feeling independent. He tells us all about a visit to tinsel town…

  • Travelling and seeing new things can promote confidence and independence
  • Visiting Hollywood was a dream come true for Diarmuid
  • The trip of a lifetime took in film sets, a tour of actors’ homes and Hollywood Boulevard.

I like to travel and I have been to lots of different places around the world. I have travelled to France, Italy, Spain, England, Wales, Australia and New Zealand my family. I also went to Greece in 2011, where I represented Ireland in Men’s Basketball at the World Special Olympic Games. We won a bronze medal. That was a really good trip, one of my favourites! I love going to London too, I’ve been there loads of times and visited theatres at the West End once with my friends at Cada Performing Arts. I like travelling a lot, I like flying and listening to my music and seeing new places and getting to know new people.

When I was growing up, I was always interested in films and DVDs. I like knowing all the actors and the roles they play. I know about directors and I enjoy writing my own scripts. I like horror films and supernatural stuff but I will watch anything. I have always wanted to see Hollywood to see all the cool stuff you see in the movies. In August I went with my Dad, Mum and sister for 12 days. When my parents told me we were going Dad showed me the tickets. I was so excited, I couldn’t believe it. It was a dream come true.

Diarmuid O'Leary at the Hollywood Sign)Diarmuid O’Leary at the Hollywood Sign

I really enjoyed our trip to Hollywood. The Hollywood sign is massive and it was good to see it in real life. I have a photo of the sign as the screensaver on my phone for a few years! We went to see some of the actors’ houses in Hollywood and Beverly Hills. We saw the street where Cameron Diaz grew up. We saw some of the stars on the ground in the Hollywood walk of fame. I saw Alec Baldwin and Jason Bateman.

When we were walking along, we saw a real live film set. The street was all closed off. There were lots of cars from the 90’s parked by the footpath and a New York Police car. We talked to the crew and they told us they were filming American Crime Story – Season 2: The Versace Murder. It was so cool to see.

Diarmuid O'Leary on a Hollywood Set)Diarmuid O’Leary on a Hollywood Set

We went to visit Universal Studios. My favourite part was the special effects show. They set a man on fire for 19 seconds. They had an astronaut flying. We all laughed and clapped. I loved Harry Potter World too. I tasted butter beer and it was nice. I bought the Elder Wand, Professor Dumbledore’s wand and a Gryffindor tie. We did the studio tour too, it was terrifying we saw sets from Jaws, Jurassic Park, King Kong, Fast and Furious and Earthquake. Jaws jumped up at me and I screamed. The Fast and the Furious bit was my favourite.

Hollywood was really brilliant. I am so glad we went. I would recommend it to everyone!

Author Bio

Diarmuid O’ Leary is 28 years old and lives in Cork with his family. He has 2 brothers and a sister. Diarmuid’s passion is film and performing arts, and he is very involved in Suisha Inclusive Arts in Cork and Cada Performing Arts stage school. There he acts and dances, puts on plays and productions. Some of the participants have disabilities and some of them do not. According to Diarmuid, “When we work together we are all the same. Disability doesn’t matter. Performing makes me feel confident and independent and I really enjoy it a lot.”

a horse
  • Interaction with horses is recognised globally as a powerful and experiential tool that quickly breaks down barriers and changes behavioural patterns.
  • It’s a fun, interactive and highly-effective way to work on specific issues, experiences or challenges.
  • Eileen Bennett tells how horses connect people to their true value and full potential in a unique and powerful way.

Including one or more horses as part of a treatment team may seem very 21st century, but the concept has been around for a very long time. In the 5th century BC, Hippocrates, the ‘father of medicine’ spoke of the horse as a healer, and throughout history we find many references to the physical and emotional benefits of having horses in your life.

Therapeutic horse-riding has been around since the mid-19th century and is now widely accepted as a valuable means of providing a range of physical and other advantages. For example, a walking horse transfers 110 multidimensional swinging movements to the rider every minute, which naturally increases core strength, body control and balance.

However, the ways in which horses can enhance our lives is not limited to sitting on their backs. Equine-assisted Learning (EAL) is a ground-based method of utilising horses as a catalyst for positive change. It is a powerful and fun way to nurture life skills, and develop social and emotional core competencies. The aim is to promote self-awareness and development through specific interactions, activities and games with horses, under the guidance of a trained Equine-Assisted Learning facilitator.

another horseFor the EAGALA model of Equine-Assisted Learning, the treatment team always includes a Mental Health Professional, an Equine Specialist and one or more horses. EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) is a non-profit professional organisation with over 4,500 members in 50 countries. EAGALA sets the standard of professional excellence in how horses and people work together to improve the quality of life and mental health of individuals, families and groups worldwide.

Horses are particularly suited to EAL work because they are prey animals; hard-wired for millennia to tune in to anything that could pose a threat. Their very survival depended on knowing whether that predator in the bushes was sleeping or eyeing them up for lunch.

Because of this, horses live only in the present moment. What happened 5 minutes ago or what might happen tomorrow is never in their consciousness. So, when you are with a horse, the horse is not seeing a person with a disability, or a child with a problem. The horse is just seeing – and reacting to – a person.

Horses are mostly non-verbal. They communicate with each other by means of a highly sophisticated language of subtle body movements. The flick of an ear or the swish of a tail is sending a message to the rest of the herd. Most of us are unaware of the messages we are sending out through our bodies, but the horses are reading them loud and clear! Horses reveal their thoughts and feelings with their body language and behaviour. They do not ask, demand, or expect anything from us. They simply want to feel safe, comfortable, and to get along.

EAL sessions can be run for individuals or groups. A typical individual session lasts an hour, and a group session is 90 minutes. Sessions are always tailored to the needs of the participants, so no two will ever be the same.

EALThe very nature of a horse means that EAL work is a perfect fit for improving the social and emotional core competencies of Self-awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationships skills and Responsible decision-making. The horses respond to each individual in the present moment, just as they are.

Equine-Assisted Learning (EAL) is a unique way of enabling people to learn a wide range of skills through interaction with horses on the ground. It works on many levels and can be adapted to meet the needs of an individual or group. When a person can understand and be understood by a large animal, communication with people becomes easier and more rewarding, and the horse becomes a tool for emotional growth and learning.

In collaboration with other professionals (e.g. Physiotherapist, O.T. or S.L.T) EAL sessions can also be adapted to help with Literacy and Numeracy, social or verbal skills, Executive Functioning and much more.

Interacting with horses is a rewarding experience that can help develop a sense of responsibility, feelings of love and nurturing, and better coping strategies.

Author Bio

09 - Eileen BennettEileen Bennett is co-founder and CEO of Horses Connect Enterprises, a social firm based in Galway designing and deliver equine-assisted programs.

As well as an experienced horse-person and coach, she is also qualified as a Therapeutic Horse-riding Coach, Equine-assisted Learning Facilitator and an EAGALA certified Equine Specialist. She holds qualifications in Mindfulness, Leadership and e-Business and helps run the Horses Connect Special Olympics Equestrian Club.

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Con Lucey of CoAction West Cork is an avid road-bowling enthusiast, and gives us a flavour of this fast-paced and exciting sport that is peculiar to parts of Ireland.

  • Road Bowling is a rural sport where people throw bowls along roads.
  • Coaction is situated right where they hold the bowling games.  There is lots of fun to be had.

Road bowling is an Irish sport, in which competitors attempt to take the fewest throws to propel a metal ball along a predetermined course of country roads. The sport is mainly played in the Counties of Armagh and Cork, although there are other small strongholds in Mayo (Aughagower) & parts of Louth.

CoAction West Cork is situated right in the middle of Road bowling territory and are the founding members of the first Unlimited Road bowling club in Ireland back in 2002 which was quickly joined by the Borders bowling club (Monaghan, Armagh) and members from Mayo and Mid Cork.

Bol Chumann Na-hÉireann helped organize the 1st All-Ireland Unlimited Road Bowling Championships which are now held annually in either Bantry, Westport or Armagh/Monaghan.

Every September a team of Competitors & supporters from CoAction attend the event. Even though it is a sporting event, there are also opportunities for ‘relaxing & pampering’ for the lads and other leisure activities.  The delegation checks into a ‘fancy’ hotel for the week of the Championships and enjoys all that the Hotel has to offer in the way of food, drink, luxury, swimming pool & sauna, steam room, bar music etc.

The lads who are on the committee help to plan the trip from the beginning, and this would involve research on the ‘places of interest’ and local amenities and obviously the best shopping locations. Local cafés & pubs are frequented in the evening time and short walks organised (for instance, in the foothills of Croagh Patrick, or a stroll through Monaghan town).

It is a great opportunity to meet up with friends from other clubs and also to meet new people.

The week away, although expensive, is looked forward to for months beforehand and you are assured that everybody who attends have fun and crack and good humour throughout.

Author Bio

Con Lucey works in CoAction West Cork.

Veronica Crosbie and Ana Wardell review a striking theatre experience at the Axis Theatre, Ballymun, involving service users from St. Michael’s House, Dublin.

The play centres around a young lady and her struggle from darkness into light. Lost in a depression she battles many demons and is helped by teachers along the way. A play not to be missed!

Poignant, beautiful, lyrical: these are words that come to mind when recalling Love | Loss | Life, an ensemble piece which ran in early November at the Axis Theatre, Ballymun, Dublin, starring users of St Michael’s House Service Dublin, and directed by Nicola Kealy of Rhythm Room, whose mission is making theatre accessible to all.

The play opens in darkness, tuning the audience into the frequency of the set piece by having us listen to a series of voices aging in range from very young to old, musing whimsically on the meaning of the titular three words. These thoughts become embodied once the lights go up, to reveal a scene in a restaurant with a young broken-hearted woman (Sandy O’Gorman on the night in question) coming to terms with loss, and being comforted by a waitress (Norah Chawke), who begins to narrate the story of The girl with the broken heart (illustrated graphically by Jane Lee’s artwork). The narrator’s voice then switches to Kealy, who draws us gently into the fable, which, in archetypal fashion, begins a journey of discovery. This is no ordinary story, however, as we embark, together with the characters, on a voyage through the main vein (vena cava) towards the heart. Our senses are beguiled en route by trippy, psychedelic artwork projected onto a backdrop screen (courtesy of Mike Winkelmann) and plaintive and playful music by a quartet of musicians on saxophone, guitars and percussion (Mischa Langemeijer, Lee Frayne, Terence Tau and Alexis Nealon).

The girl is lost in a deep, dark depression, which grounds her, literally, as we see her pinioned and flailing on the floor. However, in time she is slowly drawn out by a light, which leads her down a tunnel towards discovery, and ultimately transformation, aided on the way by five Heart Keepers, characters that challenge and galvanise her into action. The first one, Warrior Man (John Mahon), emboldens her by teaching her how to fight, helping her thus to win back the first piece of her broken heart. However, she soon succumbs to the darkness again, aided and abetted by The Platelets, clad ominously in giant white coveralls, clogging and blocking the life force. Her mother (Sandra Healy, a memorable Juliet for the same company four years ago, who is also assistant director here) comes to the rescue, reminding her of her unconditional love, and reassuring her that she is on the right road. Next, she meets, in turn, a joker (Aidan Gouldsbury) and a dancer (Andrew Murphy), who teach her to laugh at herself and help her regain her composure and passion. The final character, the Lover (Alan McHugh), woos her gently, restoring her confidence and belief in herself; and we see them move together towards a happy ending as her heart is fully restored to itself-

What we witness here as the story unfolds is a case of capability expansion as Kealy expertly, and with care, draws out the talents of her diverse cast, supporting them as they embody the characters and thus embolden themselves. In Frontiers of Justice, Martha Nussbaum writes that care is one of the hallmarks of a decently just society and that capabilities are ways of realizing a life with human dignity. This entails the ability to form affiliations and provide stimulus for senses, imagination and thought. The support and camaraderie between the ensemble cast on stage is evidence of this heartfelt care-work, evoked in particular through subtle hand gestures, smiles and bodily integrity.

Love, Loss, Life plans to tour nationwide in 2016. Miss it at your peril.

Nussbaum, M. C. 2006. Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership, Cambridge, Mass: The Belknap Press.

Author Bio

Dr. Veronica Crosbie is Lecturer in the School of Applied Language and Intercultural Studies, Dublin City University. Her research interests include the capabilities approach, intercultural dialogue, cosmopolitan citizenship education and migration studies. She is co-convener of the Human Development and Capability Association (HDCA) Education thematic group and vice-chair of the International Association of Language and Intercultural Communication (IALIC).

Ana Wardell, a student attending Mount Temple Comprehensive School, Dublin, is the assistant writer for this piece. She is interested in art, imagination and geography. She is a member of Green Schools and Amnesty International. She has studied drama in the past with Dublin Amateur Dramatic Association (DADA) and is currently reading Romeo and Juliet for the Junior Certificate examinations.

Deirdre Spain, a person with a learning disability tells how technology has helped change her life in many ways.

Deirdre-Spain at desk
Technology has changed my life and has helped educate me a long time after I have left school. I started off with a TV in my bedroom but then I got a laptop in 2003 and nowa smartphone and tablet. These items helped me to learn how to read and write and keep my interest up in what is happening in the world.

My first experience of technology was when I got a TV for my bedroom.  Of course my family’s TV was in the sitting room, but this was my own to look at whatever I wanted.  My parents were against this as I might be lonely in my bedroom and spend too much time on my own.  Like many of my friends, I love watching soaps such as Fair City, Home and Away, and Neighbours.  These are my favourites.

I was given a present of a laptop computer in 2003.  At first I was afraid of it as I am not very good at spelling, and I found it hard to look up sites which interested me.  Lots of times I went into dodgy sites, and I had to ask for help from my sister.  She made sure by getting security insurance for my computer.

I then attended literacy classes where I learned how read, write and to use a dictionary.  I don’t think I would have bothered with this course, if it wasn’t for my interest in using my computer to follow up on what was happening in my favourite TV programmes and finding the latest news on pop stars, like Take That and at that time, Westlife.

I now have moved on with my use of Technology and media with my smartphone and iPad tablet,  which goes everywhere with me.  Like many of my friends in the day centre I attend, I don’t go out much at night so I suppose my iPad is my friend.

While I know it is sad to say that my iPad has become my friend, and yes know I have friends in the day centre I attend, but like myself I know many of them don’t go out much at night and if they do it is with their families.  Talking to other people with Intellectual disability, they all think this is a real problem with them.  They say that the TV is their only company.

So what has Technology done for me? I now can read and write.  I know what is happening in the world.  I love listening to plays on BBC Radio 4 which has helped me at my drama classes.  I now play and download most of my music on “Spotify” which is great and also saves me money.  I keep up my interest in what is happening in the world by watching “What The Papers Say” each night.  If there is something in the news I am interested in I will look it up on my iPad.  I am also on Facebook.  I haven’t got many friends yet but I know I have to be careful.  As for my family holidays, I really annoy my parents by using my iPad to make sure the hotel suits me as well as them before they are book the holidays.

So as you can see technology has helped change my life, but I hope to continue to learn more and more about how to use technology to make my life more interesting.

Author Bio

Deirdre Spain attends St Michael’s House Employment Centre at OMNI Shopping Centre in Santry, Dublin. She has worked at Jury’s Inn, Christchurch, Dublin for 17 years, takes part in Special Olympics playing badminton and swimming, and has in the past made presentations as a self-advocate in many countries.

Brian Manning interviews John Byrne about his extensive travelling around the world.

John Byrne Train
John Byrne talks about his travelling all around the world. He focuses on his amazing trip on the Trans-Siberian train from St. Petersburg in Russia to Beijing in China. He encourages other service users to get out there in the world and take a look.

How many holidays have you gone on?

I’ve lost count, I tend to remember the big ones.

Do you travel by yourself or do you go with other people?

I go mostly on my own, like if I go around Europe I’d tend to go on my own.

Where is the most exotic place you’ve visited?

Well, Romania, Georgia, Armenia, Bulgaria and that, I was in Albania and all them places.

Do you ever go on holidays with people?

I went a few times down the country (in Ireland) with assistance, to give a dig out, give them a hand. And sometimes I go on holiday with my brother.

How do you find travelling on your own? Is it dangerous? Is it lonely?

No, not really, you get used to it. Well, maybe a bit, back in the ’90’s, when I started going to

these strange countries but when you get to know them first-hand you get a feel for where you are going.

If you get to a far-away country like Kazakhstan how do you book a room and how do you understand people?

It’s very hard when you get into places like Kyrgyzstan/Kazakhstan because English isn’t spoken very much. They might ask you do you speak Russian but I don’t speak Russian. Russian is like a second language in all those countries around there. But you get by. I know someone in Kazakhstan and I went to visit them.

How often do you like to get away?

A few times a year if I can but it depends on funds. I don’t drink or smoke, you know, I like to save my money for travel.

john byrne 2

Your passport must have a lot of stamps in it!

It does, and visas too. After you pass Romania and those countries you need a visa for Russia, Mongolia, China and the like. I have a lady called Hannah in Dublin who helps me get visas. She works in Visa First in Stephen’s Green, Dublin.

 Have you been through any border crossings?

I crossed a few. From Kyrgyzstan into Kazakhstan. It was ok. Sometimes there are armed guards. The problem is that Kyrgyzstan is so poor and Kazakhstan’s one of the richest places out that way so a lot of people want to go there.

 People reading this might imagine these places to be very dangerous.

Anywhere at all can be dangerous. Sure, Dublin City at night time can be dangerous.

You went on a big trip recently?

Yes, in 2013. Myself and my brother we flew from Dublin to Helsinki, Finland. We stayed there 2 nights and had a gander around the city.

Then we took a high speed train to St. Petersburg, where we met up with a group of tourists and checked out the canals and lakes by boat. It was the Summertime, so it was bright till about 11 o’clock. This year when they put the hour back (for daylight savings time) they decided not to change it anymore.

After 2 days in St. Petersburg we took the train to a place called Vladimir, and then on to Suzdal, and from there to Moscow. We stayed there for 2 nights and visited the Kremlin and the undergrounds. Then we took the Eastbound train to Irkutsk, which lasted about 3 days. When we got there, we went to a small local village and the man who organised the trip, his name was Eugene, showed us local life, local cooking. There was rock-climbing but my brother and I decided not to chance it so we went for nice walks in the forests.

The local people were so nice so we decided to go into the local community hall where there were discos. The kids were in there, there were no adults, the kids were very good, they played their music and all. Next we travelled back in to Irkutsk, which is beside a big lake that is so big you think you are looking at the sea!

Next, we took a train to Mongolia, to a city called Ulaan Bataar, the capital city. A nice place was the Buddhist temple in the city. Years ago, all the people in Mongolia used to live in tents called ‘yurts’ so we went to a camp to see people living like this.

yurtsIt was a really beautiful place with lovely scenery and more home-cooking again! We went back to Ulaan Bataar and were fed up eating strange food. Luckily enough a few weeks beforehand a KFC had opened up in the city! So we said we would go to KFC for a change.

Next up was a train to Beijing which took over a day. The views were amazing and we passed through the desert. At the Chinese border the train stopped and we had our passports checked. Next thing we know the wheels had to be changed on the train because the tracks or the wheels are different. So, off we went and we arrived into Beijing into one of the busiest stations you could ever see! After we got to our hotel we went for a look around. I said to my brother, “there’s a McDonald’s! I’m goin’ there.” Because I’m a little fussy with what I eat. I’m afraid I might get sick. I have that on my mind. But I tell you what I lived on…..Chinese noodles. They were nice and I bought my own tea and that.

great wall of china

The group we were with were nice. We went to see the Great Wall of China which was amazing and as we were walking down we met 2 people from County Kildare. Even though you are so far away you will always meet someone from Ireland. My brother and I went by ourselves to see Tiananmen Square because we like to see as much as possible.

Next we flew to Abu Dhabi and then home.

Do you have any plans for the future?

Yes, this year I’m just going to stay local. I’m going to Georgia in a few weeks’ time. Then just going to do an Inter-Rail in September. I’m going to Romania for a week at the end of July.

I’m going over by bus and coming home by flight. The bus goes from Belfast and travels all the way by land to Romania.

I hope to go to Australia by myself again next year. I’d like to travel from Melbourne to Darwin and see Ayers Rock. I’ll look at prices in the next few weeks. I can pay the flights off a little bit each week.

Next year I also want to travel starting off in Rosslare to Fishguard, Fishguard to London, London to Brussels, Brussels through Austria, Hungary and Romania, spend 2 days in Romania, from there go into Moldova, Ukraine and into Russia. I’d like to travel by myself, not with a group – on to Irkutsk, then Ulaan Bataar in Mongolia, then down to Beijing. Then I want to extend my trip down to Vietnam and into Cambodia and into Thailand. From Thailand I want to go down into Malaysia and then into Singapore. Then I want to take a flight to India for a few days to see what it’s like. Then on to Abu Dhabi and then Dublin.

That’s my plan for 2016, Please God.


Would you encourage other service-users to travel?

Well, I would but not everyone has the same spirit as me. It’s not for everybody.

Do you think your travels have changed you?

Well, you see different countries and the way they look at life, their lifestyles. Some of the healthiest people you could meet.

Cormac Cahill of Inclusion Ireland shows us a little of what can be achieved in purpose-built, accessible accommodation for people with physical disabilities.

Accessible facilities 1
Muscular Dystrophy Ireland (MDI) have a ‘Home from Home’ apartment in Dublin. It is available for short-term stays for people with a physical disability and their friends and family members.

Muscular Dystrophy Ireland (MDI) is a voluntary organisation that provides information and support to people in Ireland with muscular dystrophy and allied neuromuscular conditions, and their families, through a range of support services.

The MDI ‘Home from Home’ apartment is located in a new purpose-built, fully accessible self-contained building in Dublin. It is available for short-term stays for people with a physical disability and their friends and family members.

The apartment consists of four bedrooms, a kitchen and a lounge area and can accommodate groups of one to six people.

Guests are asked to make a voluntary contribution of €25 per room, per night to stay in the apartment.

Accessible facilities 2

The apartment is equipped with aids and appliances, including ceiling and standing hoists, shower chairs, grab rails, an intercom system, emergency call buttons, emergency evacuation chairs, an adjustable kitchen counter and air mattresses.

Three of the four bedrooms in the apartment are fully accessible and contain Hi-Lo electric profile beds and ceiling tracking hoists.

Each of the bedrooms has its own bathroom, all of which are also equipped with a ceiling track hoist. The bathroom and shower can be accessed directly by use of the inter-connecting ceiling track hoists between the bedroom and bathroom. All visitors to the apartment are advised to bring their own slings.

Please note that the twixie clip slings do not work on the hoist system. The fourth bedroom contains a standard single bed and is primarily used by personal assistants and family members.

The kitchen is equipped with an adjustable motorised work top which enables the work surface height to be adapted to a suitable level for all users. It contains all modern appliances and laundry facilities.

Availability throughout the year varies, but the MDI is more than happy to accommodate anyone with a disability and their friend and family members when they can.

The ‘home from home’ has been used by people going to concerts, international visitors, as accommodation during or awaiting a hospital appointments and by people who wish get experience of Independent Living.

MDI provides information about how to use equipment within the apartment and other necessary information to help you to make the most of your stay.

MDI also provide you with information about services available in the local community, places to visit in Dublin and details about local public transport and other ways to get around Dublin.

Accessible facilities 3

To book the apartment please contact MDI on (01) 6236414 (from 9.00am-5.00pm) or email

Further details about the apartment and MDI can be found on

For more information, please follow this link:

Author Bio

Cormac Cahill, Communications & Information Officer

Inclusion Ireland, Unit C 2, The Steelworks, Foley Street, Dublin 1

Office: 01-8559891  Mobile: 086 837 3394  Fax:  01-8559904

Mei Lin Yap’s latest column details her ambitions for the Open European Swimming Championships in November, her greatest inspirations, and what motivates her drive for success.

Mei Lin Yap’s latest column. She talks about her love of swimming and tells us where she gets her inspiration from. Her family and her Mother are very supportive of her. She knows it will take a lot of hard work to be a champion swimmer but she is determined.

My ambition is to become a champion in swimming. I haven’t competed in a few years now so I am just coming back to the swimming again. This ambition is the motivation that I need to keep me driven to achieve this goal; I know this is a really big goal, but I am prepared to put in the hard work to achieve it. At the moment I am trying to find balance between my training, my working life and my personal life.

The Irish Down Syndrome Sporting Organisation had their National Swimming Championships in Derry, in Northern Ireland in May 2015. I won a gold medal in the women’s 50 meter butterfly and a silver medal in the 200 m freestyle. This competition is a qualifier for a place on the Irish team going to compete in Loano, Liguria, Italy in November in the Open European Swimming Championships. I have qualified for a place on the Irish Team, to compete and to represent my country. I am really excited. I now need to train even harder, because the standard is really high. So, over the coming five months I will be training really hard. It is a great opportunity to travel and to meet new people and make new friends.

“EVERY JOURNEY BEGINS WITH A SINGLE STEP”, said Maya Angelou. I have started on my journey to compete in Italy and through this page I will take you with me every step of the way. I am going to share it all with you in these columns – every step that I take, everything that I face, the challenges and difficulties, the successes and failures. My success in Derry has inspired me to push and challenge myself to train even harder to prepare for the competition in Italy. I believe that if you work hard, you can achieve anything that you want. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have”.

Where Do You Get Your Inspiration?

My family are my inspiration. They are strong individuals, successful, determined, kind, and well educated. They have supported me and encouraged me over the years to be the best I can be. My brother and sister are two people I admire. I would like to have what they have – to work, live independently, to be in relationship, to be able to get married, to have an active social life. I try to stay involved and create opportunities to meet people by keeping up my hobbies and interests, and developing my working life.

The most important person in my life is my mother; she is the number one person that I can share just about everything with. She is the one that helps me, provides for me, supports me, encourages me. She is also a very hard-working, strong woman and she is always there for me through everything. She is my mother, my friend, my soul mate, she means a lot to me.

I am also inspired by the music that I listen to; it makes me feel good about myself and helps me feel connected. I like to listen to popular, well-known artists but I also listen to little-known artists in different genres of music. Like most young people, I love to connect with people, that is why I love being on social media like twitter and facebook – it helps me engage with the world.

I know I have a lot of hard work ahead if I want to achieve my goals and hopefully I will have the motivation to train hard. I will let you know next time how I am progressing.

Until then keep following your dreams and remember what Walt Disney said:

“All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them”.

Author Bio

Mei Lin Yap lives in Dublin, and is a Reception Greeting Co-ordinator. She was formerly Rollout Support Officer/Ambassador for the Certificate in Contemporary Living at The National Institute for Intellectual Disability, Trinity College Dublin. Her passions include Special Olympics and inclusion for everyone.

On 29th September 2014 Irish Distillers, under the leadership of Denis O’Reilly of Difference Days, arrived at Rosanna Gardens to undertake a garden transformation. Difference Days was founded in 2009 to facilitate corporate socially responsible events, whereby staff from organisations experience an ‘alternative day out’ and give their labour for one day to benefit others - basically a team-building day with a difference! The Sunbeam Times spoke with Denis to ask how the process works and what the experience was like…

Difference Days team
  • Irish Distillers gave up a day of regular work to team up with Sunbeam House Services.
  • The goal was to get the 2 staff teams together and build a large garden in Ashford for the Sunbeam service-users.
  • The project was organised by Difference Days.

How did it come about that you undertook a garden renovation project at Rosanna?

Having done two previous Difference Days in Sunbeam House – one at Killarney Road, Bray (deck, football pitch and gym), and the other in Ballyraine, Arklow (woodland trail), both with staff from – I contacted John Hannigan and Bernard Fitzsimons to see if we could help with other requirements, as I had to find a suitable project for Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard who wanted to do a Difference Day with 250 of their staff.  Once I have a requirement I go and find a project – I knew how well we had worked with Bernard and all at Sunbeam before, so I knew we could work well together again.

What was the next step?

Bernard introduced me to the guys at Rosanna and showed me the overgrown rear space, and immediately I could see that it could be transformed and make Rosanna an even better place for the men and women that live there. I then got some feedback from Seamus Murphy and Bernard on what Rosanna would like.

Our landscaper Maurice Byrne and I then inspected the site with Bernard and we started to put together the proposed design – Maurice came up with some great ideas like redirecting the stream so we could make the island/memorial garden. The idea was to have a space that could be used by all the residents at Rosanna and other Sunbeam sections.  The raised beds would allow vegetables to be grown, the exercise trail would be used for fitness, and the BBQ area for having fun!  We then priced up the costs to implement the transformation of the space, and I arranged for Rosemary Garth – Communications Director, and John Carroll – Irish Distillers, to inspect the space and meet the residents.  They just loved the plans and the guys from Rosanna.

Once the project was approved by Irish Distillers we had a meeting with Bernard and planned the timescale for the preparation work to be undertaken by Maurice and Adam Rankin from Difference Days and supported by Bernard and his team.

How much preparation was required?

Maurice and Adam did around four weeks of preparation work (with Bernard’s team assisting) so that the shape of the garden was framed, ensuring that the Irish Distillers 250 strong team could complete the garden on their Difference Day.  In addition we had all materials delivered and tools ready.

On 28th September we had a site meeting with all the Sunbeam team that were assigned to help on the Difference Day, along with our Difference Day team, so everyone knew what their tasks were for the next day.

Tell us about the day itself-…

On the day itself, 29th September, DJ Ed (a resident of Rosanna) had his music pumping.  The Sunbeam team came together to welcome the Irish Distillers team as they arrived, and there was tea and pastries for everyone. We subdivided the teams into 15 projects and off we went and built the garden in 3 hours!   It was fantastic to have all the residents of Rosanna and many other clients from Sunbeam on site to help and to meet the Irish Distillers volunteers.  The support and camaraderie from staff and clients from Sunbeam was amazing.

We managed to get everything completed in the three hours – the Irish Distillers staff worked like mad and were truly amazing.  The garden came out better than anticipated and the feedback from the Irish Distillers crew was exceptional – they just loved meeting everyone, particularly the residents from Rosanna and other centres.  Irish Distillers were so proud of what they achieved on the day and what they left behind for the guys from Rosanna.  Rosemary Garth (Communications Director from Irish Distillers) stated that some of her colleagues commented it was the best team building day they had ever done!

rosanna project


225 Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard Staff

15 projects completed.

12 ton of beach cobble placed along the bed and banks of new stream.

110 ton of hardcore.

60 ton of Ballylusk dust used for wheelchair-accessible paths.

Equivalent to 4 tennis courts of rolled lawn laid.

49 wheelbarrows, 106 shovels, 39 rakes, 14 hammers, 24 spirit levels,

12 handsaws and 200 ear protectors provided.

Garden built in 3 hours.


Project 1 – construct/plant stream bank

Project 2 – build 7 metres x 2.4 metres barrel style screen

Project 3 – build tree seat surround

Project 4 – build main roadway/circular section

Project 5 – construct exercise zone (8 zones)

Project 6 – construct picket fence 13 metres x 1.2 metres

Project 7 – build central pathway/boundary pathway

Project 8 – memorial garden (Joe Nolan)

Project 9 – construct bridge 4 metres x 1.6 metres

Project 10 – BBQ area – construct circular Ballylusk base and build equipment

Project 11 – bamboo screen 6 metre

Project 12 – old stream planting team and move to turf lawn project 3 & 13

Project 13 – construct gazebo/veg. planters/turf lawn area

Project 14 – screen/ballylusk rec. court 7 metres x 2.4 metres high

Project 15 – erect glasshouse.


It’s a beautiful garden and I like it very much and I really enjoy it – Sean Sheekey.

I want a swing in the garden – Christopher Doyle.

It’s excellent – Martin Byrne.

For Joe Nolan – Fintan Finnegan.

From the start it looked like a swamp, and now the way it is, is fantastic – Edward Byrne.

A good place to sit down on a sunny day – William Gregory.

The majority of clients would use the garden on a daily basis for exercise or even just sitting out or walking around.  Even though it’s cold at the moment, they wrap up and go out.  They are much more interested in using the garden now than they were before – Staff at Rosanna.

rosanna project 2

Bernard Fitzsimons:-

We took a garden that was very barren, and financially we could not achieve what was achieved by Difference Days.   Irish Distillers paid for everything and funded it all – Sunbeam House didn’t have to put their hand in their pocket for anything.

For two weeks before Difference Days arrived, a lot of preparation work was carried out by TÚS workers from Ballyraine, by Maurice and Adam of Difference Days, and by Rosanna staff and others.

The whole garden is called the Joe Nolan Memorial Garden, in memory of Joe Nolan who was a staff nurse at Rosanna but who sadly passed away last year.  Irish Distillers did not want any mention of themselves in the garden, as they were doing the work in the total spirit of giving back and didn’t want any undue publicity.  The local Red Cross were there in case of accidents, but thank God they weren’t required.  They donated their services free of charge.

When the work was finished, Irish Distillers provided a hot lunch via a catering company whom they had used before.  The food was amazing, and included two pig spit roasts!  Sunbeam then presented a cake to Irish Distillers.  Irish Distillers staff got back onto their buses and headed off to a conference, where I’m sure they had a chance to recover from their activities.

The TÚS workers couldn’t believe the change in the garden when they saw it after it was finished, and the garden was used that very first night for one of Sunbeam’s Rosanna staff who was celebrating a birthday.

I want to thank Denis, Adam and Maurice from Difference Days, Rosanna staff who helped out in advance (particularly the weekend beforehand), the Red Cross, Sunbeam staff and clients, and anyone who showed up and gave a hand in any way.

Bernard Fitzsimons

Author Bio

Bernard Fitzsimons is a staff member in Sunbeam House Services.


Denis O’Reilly founded Difference Days in 2009.