Lending a helping hand - 'I come back from Lourdes a much humbler person than when I go'
During National Volunteer Week, Graham Clifford reflects on 20 years of Lourdes visits and asks if it has become more than just a religious pilgrimage
It's the most frenetic Munster Final I've ever been at, and believe me, I've been at a few. Paul Galvin and Noel O'Leary would struggle to keep up with the pace. A young lad from Cahersiveen sends a medic from the Rebel County flying, there are accusations of all sorts and the referee has lost control. Red-faced adults and beaming children in their county jerseys are going hell for leather. It could be Fitzgerald's Stadium or Páirc Uí Chaoimh on a mid-July afternoon but actually it's the prairie-green fields opposite the Grotto at Lourdes on a glorious day during Easter week.
Since my late teens I've travelled as a volunteer with a charity which brings children to Lourdes every Easter. Some of the children have special needs, others come from difficult social backgrounds and there are those going through a tough time emotionally.
The 'Munster Final' tradition has developed between two of the charity's groups from Cork and Kerry. Remarkably each year the contest ends in a draw but both parties always feel they've been robbed.
The Irish arm of the charity, the Irish Pilgrimage Trust, has been on the go since 1971. In Britain, the charity is known as the HCPT and, over the years, I've been involved with both as a helper, group leader and fundraiser when the need arises.
There are years when life gets in the way and I can't go but I'm now supplying volunteers in the form of my eldest daughter Molly who has travelled as a helper for the last couple of years with a group run by my brother-in-law. I, like many others, actually met my wife Catherine there so the site of Catholic pilgrimage has had a huge bearing on my life.
But nowhere near as huge as it has had on the children and young people who make the journey from across Ireland, Britain and beyond, each Easter.
Regular groups usually have around 12 volunteer carers and 10 children and they stay in hotels throughout the southern French town. You'll find medical personnel in each group who ensure each child gets whatever medication they require during the week. Some groups will bring a priest, others decide not to.
While it probably helps to be religious, it's certainly not a requirement. On one year when I ran a group in London, the majority of the helpers were atheist and the children came from a wide range of faith backgrounds - from Hindu to Islam and more besides.
There's a religious undercurrent which you can choose to go with or side step.
Personally, my unilateral dealing with the Catholic Church ended quite some time ago and while I still believe in something, I rather dodge the middle man where possible. But during Easter week in Lourdes none of that matters.
The purpose of the trip is to show the children, many of whom will never have left their home towns or counties, a week of fun, laughter, love, compassion and joy.
"It's all about the young guests we bring," explains Denis McCarthy, chairperson of the charity's board of trustees.
"It's not easy to capture with words how special the week in Lourdes is, how it affects the lives of all those who go. It has been life-changing for so many people over the years, volunteers and children alike. When we're there everyone is equal, it doesn't matter what your condition or situation is or what you do at home. Everyone has a shared objective and that generates a superb buzz throughout the week."
He's also the CEO of the Fintech leader FEXCO but when in Lourdes, Denis puts his shoulder to the wheel. He's grown up with the charity and despite his senior role at the forefront of one of Ireland's leading financial services companies, he's dedicated to helping children smile.
"From my point of view I feel it has a massive influence in my life," he says. "I definitely come back from Lourdes a much humbler person than when I get on that outbound flight at the start of the week."
In all, six full flights departed for Lourdes this Easter as part of the Irish Pilgrimage Trusts' trip - two each from Dublin and Shannon and one from Cork and Belfast. They brought 428 children and young people as well as 660 carers. Thousands more travelled from Britain, Jamaica, Slovakia, Croatia, the USA and beyond.
Bernadette Connolly is the charity's national co-ordinator in Ireland.
"Volunteers come from every single walk of life. You name it, they're there. People from 17 to 70 give up their time and pay for their own fares and they include students, doctors, nurses, teachers, retired people and everyone in between. Some have strong faith, others have none. The one thing everyone has in common is that desire to bring joy to the others in their groups."
And throughout the year volunteers are involved in fundraising drives. The monies raised from bag-packing, athletic endeavours and bucket collections are spent on helping young people from the local area enjoy this unique week where children are also brought to the snow-capped mountains of the Pyrenees or to the stunning beaches along the coast. At home, parents and carers get a week to unwind and rest.
I recall one year we had two brothers with autism joining us on our French odyssey. As we flew towards the channel from Cork Airport, their mother returned home to spend the first night away from her boys in nearly 15 years. It would be her first lie-in, the first time she didn't have to wake in the night to check on them. She enjoyed her first couple of days away in a hotel, and she had some vital respite knowing that her sons were in good hands.
When we returned to Cork she looked 10 years younger as she wrapped her arms around her darling boys. It was tear-jerking stuff.
There are times of complete hilarity too. I recall once when a bishop visited our hotel. The holier among us greeted him in appropriate fashion but a young comedian from Cork took one look at him and called out from his wheelchair "Who parted your hair?...Moses?" - we fell around the place.
In the early years I cried for Ireland - not in front of my young friends but when the week would end and I'd be alone. Unless you work in the caring professions, that experience of giving yourself to those less fortunate can be overwhelming but very important.
Volunteering on this week undoubtedly changed me for the better and I'll forever be grateful to a former boss who signed me up in the late 90s without bothering to ask me whether I wanted to go or not.
Over the years two of the children I've helped in Lourdes have sadly passed away. I remember so clearly how one of those lit up a room with a smile that is forever encapsulated in my memory. He had severe disabilities but particularly enjoyed the sing-alongs, the fancy-dress night, the roguery of others and the chats.
This year my wife, two daughters and son made the journey to Lourdes to help with my brother-in-law's group. And even though we'd seen it all before so many times, there was something fresh and thoroughly inspiring about the reaction of first-time visitors, especially those wonderful young people whose lives can be so difficult. Some people have been helping out in Lourdes every Easter for over 50 years. It's an integral part of who and what they are.
At the end of these emotionally charged weeks I always feel that the helping goes both ways. We bring joy, love and laughter to our new young friends - and they reciprocate in spades. It should be a template for the rest of the year.
To find out more, visit irishpilgrimagetrust.com
National Volunteer Week runs until May 21. For more information, visit volunteer.ie