Home again at Tigh an Oileáin

by Mary de Paor

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In rural Ireland, disability services are, by necessity, often located at a considerable distance from their service users’ home communities. In County Kerry, for example, services have developed primarily in Killarney (St Mary of the Angels, Beaufort, and Kerry Parents and Friends) and in Tralee (St John of God Brothers). To avoid unbearably long road commutes, five- or seven-day residences have been developed alongside central day services. It works well, but—where possible, wouldn’t it be preferable to bring people back to their own community, to mature among ‘their own people’? A fanciful, unrealistic idea?

Tigh an Oileáin on Valentia Island is an impressive example of how it can be made to happen. The first issue of Frontline, in the spring of 1989, featured an interview with Mick and Rosaleen O’Connell—arguably the best-known couple on Valentia Island—and their (then) 12-year-old son Diarmuid. At the time, Diarmuid was a residential service-user at Beaufort, and later he joined the adult services of the Kerry Parents and Friends (KPFA) at Old Monastery, Killarney. Mick and Rosaleen were always closely involved in supporting KPFA, and for many years Rosaleen was a family-liaison worker, driving all over the county to visit families whose sons or daughters availed, or might later avail, of the services.

About 1998, the idea was hatched to establish a house on Valentia Island for a number of KPFA service users who came from the island or surrounding area. Miracles don’t happen overnight—without effort or, indeed, the facilitation of angels— but Kerry seems to have an abundance of both. Along with the organisational leadership of Tony Darmody and the KPFA, and the indefatigable work on-the-ground of the local committee chaired by Donal O’Donoghue, Mick and Rosaleen started fundraising and preparing the ground on Valentia Island (quite literally, because they were able to donate the site near Knightstown).
Tigh an Oileáin opened its doors in mid-2003. Rosaleen had told me about the project, on its way to completion, but because I failed miracle-class myself, it took me more than four years to get to Valentia to visit ‘the lads’ in residence! It was on the wild and wet last day of June that my son Niall and I headed down the Iveragh Peninsula along the water-sheeted roads to Cahirciveen, and over the short ferry crossing to Knightstown. We came to a halt just up the road from the village—when Niall said: ‘That must be it, Mum, it’s all on one level and there’s a minibus in front.’ He was right, as ever, but I had expected to see a bungalow, and this was more Caisleán than Tigh!

So, let me tell you about Tigh an Oileáin, where a ‘quality of life’ par excellence is enjoyed by Tony, Joe, Kevin, Diarmuid, Patrick and Alan. They have individual bedrooms, wide corridors, a music room, a games room, a sitting room and a large sun room/dining room (extension built during 2006) looking across Valentia Harbour to Beginish Island. On the other side of the house is a large workroom, filled with computers, art materials, nature-study posters and individual workstations—and evidence of projects done by the lads and their two friends (Geraldine and John James) who are day-users.

Top: Diarmuid and Alan with Ulysses and Róisín
Left: Lunchtime for Zig and Zag Below: Patrick checking the water gauge
Below right: Five Kerrymen in Rome

The two-acre grounds of Tigh an Oileáin contain a well and a power generator—sometimes necessary for their exposed Atlantic-island site. A ‘standard’ polytunnel stands next to a posher climate-controlled glasshouse and potting shed. There are two donkeys (Ulysses and Róisín) and Zig and Zag in the rabbit hutch. Successors of their original fan-tail white doves (who were eliminated by a hawk) now live in a lovely designed-for-safety dovecote.

The basic philosophy of Tigh an Oileáin is to create a local lifestyle for the residents, and this is evident in nearly everything they do. Their health is monitored by the local GP and district nurse and, like their neighbours, they have access to the non-acute hospital on the island and Cahirciveen hospital across the bay. They can walk to the shops in Knightstown. They grow flowers for the village’s Tidy Towns image, plant up baskets and boxes and provide their maintenance throughout the summer. They grow some of their own vegetables and supply plants for the KPFA garden centre in Listowel. Each morning at precisely 10-00, according to their daily rota, one of the lads retrieves the water gauge out in the garden. The water level is measured, added to their computer record, and reported to the met officers at Valentia Observatory. There’s a full schedule of jobs to be done inside and out, cleaning their own rooms (and the animal and bird cages) and helping to prepare meals. The Green Flag they’ve earned for their consistent efforts in recycling hangs on the wall outside the workroom.

Centre manager Fran Flynn (unfortunately on holiday when we visited) leads six members of staff. Maureen, whose area is lifeskills, literacy and science, showed me some of the aids she uses with individual residents. Picture boards, PECS and Widgets have eased the frustration of one lad who has very limited speech. The step-by-step approaches of TEACCH help another lad to organise his chores and make complex choices. Mike heads up the gardening and farming tasks and Julia leads their art and crafts projects—but everybody pitches in to prepare their float for the Cahirciveen St Patrick’s Day parade. One year the float was focussed on sea creatures, and this year it featured a huge butterfly, in line with their current nature study of native butterflies and moths. The lads also enjoy weekly drumming/percussion sessions with Karolien. Mary, Christine and Eileen are the other ‘mentors’ (Rosaleen’s apt term for the staff members).

When we were there, the lads looked like multiple Medallion Men—they had just returned from the Munster Special Olympics games in Cork. Locally they enjoy visiting the gym and going riding, and they have hosted joint arts and crafts sessions with local school children. Not quite so local—they visited Rome for five days in October 2006! Diarmuid and Kevin have each been to a match at their favourite English football ground (fierce rivalry between Arsenal and Liverpool, there) My son and I, more patriotic Eircom League fans, grumbled at their foreign allegiances, but maybe County Kerry has to concentrate on some other kind of football. (The lads have been up to Croke Park once or twice, and their ‘local team’ won the Munster Final the day after our visit.)

The lads at Tigh an Oileáin are well used to showing people around their demesne—they greeted the Bishop of Kerry, Bishop Bill Murphy during their first Christmas in the house, and President Mary McAleese paid them a visit in 2005. They hosted an outside broadcast of Radio Kerry, and they were even featured on RTÉ’s Nationwide. So, why did it take us so long to get there?? Well, much better late than never, and Niall and I greatly appreciated the warm welcome the islanders gave us on behalf of Frontline. (With thanks to the annual Tigh an Oileáin newsletter Lighthouse Echo, where I checked some of the above information.)

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