Sunday 18 March 2018

Holding out for a hero - the Hidden Heroes Awards

Triumph over Adversity Overall Heroes - Michelle Dempsey (left) and her daughter Neala Clohessy (right) from Limerick with son Rian (2) and daughter Fia (3 months) at the Hidden Heroes awards ceremony in Dublin. Photo: Naoise Culhane
Triumph over Adversity Overall Heroes - Michelle Dempsey (left) and her daughter Neala Clohessy (right) from Limerick with son Rian (2) and daughter Fia (3 months) at the Hidden Heroes awards ceremony in Dublin. Photo: Naoise Culhane
Jimmy Norman
Shirley Higgins
Cillian Dunne

Ahead of the Hidden Heroes Awards on September 5, which honour those who have made a significant contribution to society, their workplace, family or a sport, we hear from previous worthy winners.

Sporting Hero: Cillian Dunne

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Cillian Dunne

I am 19-years-old and live in Kilbarron in Co Tipperary. I was born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus, which means I have to use a wheelchair due to paralysis of my lower limbs. I have just completed six years at Borrisokane Community College where I sat my Leaving Cert exams in June.

My real passion in life is sport. I have been taking part in sports with the Irish Wheelchair Association since I was five. At 13 I was selected to represent Ireland for the first time in international competition at the Celtic Cup Games in Wales. I won gold in the javelin, shot putt and discus competitions. At 14 I was part of the Irish team that travelled to the World Junior Games in Dubai and again the following year to the Czech Republic. In 2012 I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and after major surgery in 2013, I had to give up my throwing career.

I had been interested in wheelchair racing for some time and decided to try it out. In 2014 I represented Ireland for the first time on the track at the International Wheelchair and Amputee World Junior Games in Stoke Mandeville, and again in 2015 in the Netherlands. This year the World Games were held in Prague and I was delighted to win silver in the 200m and 400m and bronze in the 100m.

I continue to train six days a week. I work at the gym with my trainer David Coen and my dad helps me with all my other training. I travel to Belfast and Leixlip for track training once a month. 

I hope to take up a strength and conditioning course later this year. My dream is to represent Ireland at the Paralympics in Tokyo 2020 and I’m working hard to get there.

Unsung Hero: Jimmy Norman

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Jimmy Norman

On the evening of January 22 2009, our beautiful kind-hearted daughter Aoibheann was diagnosed with cancer. She was seven years of age and as far as we were concerned, a beautiful healthy child. My wife Annemarie was the first to notice that something was not quite right, Aoibheann was displaying behavioural changes and experiencing tiredness and a pale complexion. I never thought that anything was wrong — I just thought it was growing pains. When the doctor told us it was cancer and was at stage four, we each felt that part of us had died.

Aoibheann went through a huge operation to remove a two-and-a-half kilo tumour. I spent almost one year with Aoibheann on the main St John’s children’s cancer ward in Crumlin Hospital. During this time, I observed so much hardship on the ward, the emotional and economic devastation to families was something I could not comprehend.

I decided to start a charity that would provide practical support for the parents and try to lighten up the lives of the children battling this awful disease.

I founded Aoibheann’s Pink Tie with my friend Mick Rochford. We have worked relentlessly to achieve our goal of building the national children’s cancer charity. We have built the organisation from nothing, to now helping every family that approaches us for assistance on the recommendation of social workers on Saint John’s ward in Crumlin Hospital.

We will help 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. We have brought specialised ideas from abroad to Ireland for the children, like for example the Hickman Dry Suit, which allows a child with cancer to swim (as they cannot due to a special line in their chest) and the Chemo Duck — an idea to help the children understand their treatment, and our Dream with Aoibheann pillow, that has a speaker and allows music or phone conversations be heard through it.

I hope this explains our work and lets people see how diverse we are and that we are only starting, we have many more ideas we want to share.

* See

Triumph Over Adversity Heroes: Michelle Dempsey & Neala Clohessy

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Triumph over Adversity Overall Heroes - Michelle Dempsey (left) and her daughter Neala Clohessy (right) from Limerick with son Rian (2) and daughter Fia (3 months) at the Hidden Heroes awards ceremony in Dublin. Photo: Naoise Culhane

Michelle Dempsey (left) and her daughter Neala Clohessy with son Rian (2) and daughter Fia (3 months)

My mother Michelle Dempsey was looking forward to a life of retirement when my husband was diagnosed with a terminal illness just four weeks after the birth of our son, Rian. Undaunted, mum immediately and wholeheartedly jumped in to become a second mother to my son and a rock of support to me.

She kept me sane and became my daily companion and confidante. She was the sole member of our backroom team working her magic quietly and mysteriously. 

She photographed all the milestones and kept a diary for Rian so that in his time he can read about his dad's epic fight for a beautiful life.

– By Neala Clohessy, Michelle’s daughter

For most of Neala’s pregnancy she juggled not just pregnancy issues but also dealt with a husband who had unexplainable mood swings, which were eventually diagnosed as cancer. Neala then became his carer, his advocate in the health system, his communicator when his speech was affected. In between getting their affairs in order, trips to the hospice, etc, they also made trips to the HARI clinic for assisted reproduction to continue with their plans for a sibling for Rian.

When Dermot passed away, Neala surpassed everyone’s expectations in her strength throughout and since and has welcomed little Fia into the world. I am not only proud but privileged to call her my sister. 

– By Neala’s sister Ciara

Social Inclusion Hero: Shirley Higgins

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Shirley Higgins

I started my deaf choir in 2011 with just 11 girls as part of our school mass. I never imagined where it would lead to. We have performed in places such as Dublin Castle; the Mansion House and The Helix as part of ‘Emmanuel’.

As a qualified Home Economics and Science teacher and teacher of the Deaf and Irish Sign Language (ISL), I have no background in music. I have taught in St Mary’s School for Deaf Girls for nearly 20 years.

Choir has become an integral part of our school community and my life. To walk into my school at 8.30am every morning and see the hall full of students signing to music, deaf children as young as four signing to music, watching them walk around school signing songs, is breathtaking.

It is so emotional to see them standing up in front of hundreds and sometimes thousands of people, so confident and proud of themselves and their language. They all laugh at me when my tears fill when I watch them perform. I could never have imagined this happening from our humble beginnings of 11 girls to conducting choirs of 900.

This award from Hidden Heroes has made me realise how much people appreciate what I do. I am always the person who likes to hide in the background and not be seen, I do not like people looking at me and that is why my choir is great as all the focus is on them and not me.

But this award has given me confidence in myself and what I do. I set up a new deaf choir — ‘DeafTones’ — for any deaf person to come and get involved (look us up on Facebook).

But none of this would be possible without the support of my family, friends and colleagues.

I believe we all have one life and we need to grab opportunities with both hands. As a recipient of this award I believe it is not just for me but for everyone who has come along with me on this amazing journey.

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