Tour de Munster cycle ready to help out Down Syndrome Kerry

Now in its 18th year, the Tour de Munster Cycle is ready to lend a helping hand to Down Syndrome Kerry, as well as other branches and charities. DSK stalwarts Gill and Enda O'Brien extol its many virtues

Tadhg Evans

Spread over four days, the Tour de Munster has established itself as a crucial fund-raiser for Down Syndrome Ireland and its Munster branches - with Down Syndrome Kerry, of course, being one of them.

Since its foundation earlier this millennium, the spectacular has raised some €2.5million for these and other beneficiaries, with last year's edition gathering almost €260,000. 

For a group that depends so heavily on fund-raising, it's an enormous boost, Oakpark-based Enda O'Brien and his wife, Gill, both explained to The Kerryman in recent days.

"The one thing we are always concerned about is fund-raising for the amount of services we provide, which are so vital," Gill said.  "We're providing services from the moment of birth, right up to the end. We don't get any money from the government, never have done.

"We have to fund-raise, and it's a parent-led thing. We have to employ people just to keep the show on the road. For example, we have a secretary, speech therapy, occupational therapy, and we buy in services such as specialised physio."

Involved with Down Syndrome Kerry for almost a quarter of a century, Gill and Enda themselves have a son with Down Syndrome; Hugh was born in 1994, the second of the couple's four children. It was a different time for people with Down Syndrome, they explain Hugh was able to avail of primary school education at Moyderwell, and he later attended St Ita's and St Joseph's in Tralee, an opportunity that was not always as prominent in this country.

"If you run back to where Down Syndrome Kerry was 24 years ago, the landscape was very, very different," Gill said.

"The biggest change we see at a national level is the creation of the possibility to send children with Down Syndrome to their local mainstream school. 

"I was secretary of the branch when Hugh was young, and there were people who wanted to send their children to their local schools, but there was no system in place to support at that time.

"Changes like that are important in terms of having children with Down Syndrome more visible, being able to attend school with their peers, their siblings. It makes them more visible in society, and people get a better understanding of them in the process.

"Each person with Down Syndrome, like every person, has the right to reach their potential, something Down Syndrome Kerry [DSK] believes in strongly"

If the last 25 years or so have been about change, dependence on fund-raising remains a constant for groups such as DSK. Aside from those already mentioned, to further scratch the surface of the wide range of services it provides, Down Syndrome Kerry also lists the 'Latch-On' literacy programme; cookery classes; sporting and social outings; training and advice to professionals; and involvement in the 'My Opinion, My Vote' initiative amongst its activities. It also offers its members a chance to get a taste of the working world through, for example, helping out at locations including the much-loved tea rooms at Deenach Lodge in Killarney.

Even considering all this does not aptly sum up the importance of the group. Some members have to contend with further issues such as seizures, heart problems, autism, and communication difficulties. As the couple puts it, families have lives to lead, other children to tend to - and Down Syndrome Kerry is seen as a vital resource by many parents in the county.

"It gives you a chance to meet other parents who understand what you're going through, which is very beneficial," Gill said. "As a group, we're very cohesive. The people you meet become such good friends."

"It's a money issue," Enda adds. "Paul Sheridan is the driving force behind the cycle, he's based in Cork, he puts his heart and soul into it, and he doesn't have a child with Down Syndrome himself. The people who cycle, they have to fund it all themselves. 

"It's a huge commitment for them between hotels, training, taking four days out of your annual leave. We want to make sure it's a fantastic experience for them for their effort. Without them, we wouldn't be in the happier financial situation we are in because of them."

If the precursors to this event are anything to go by, Tour de Munster looks set to be a success in Kerry once again. 

Enda explained that the recent Unsung Hero Cycle and related events raised €11,500, while also serving as a tribute to the late DSK member Emily Keohane and, of course, the legendary Antarctic explorer, Tom Crean of Annascaul - a grandfather to Enda himself. Now, it's all about the Tour de Munster.

Departing Cork tomorrow, Thursday, August 9, it runs until Sunday, August 12, and arrives into Kerry, by ferry to Tarbert, at around 2.20pm. After going through Listowel, stage two finishes at Manor West Retail Park at around 4.40pm. 

On Wednesday, it departs Tralee at 9.45am, and from there moves through Stradbally, Dingle, Castlemaine, Milltown, Aghadoe Heights, Killarney, and finishes in Kenmare, its departure point on Sunday.

Among the highlights, Gill said, is the stop on Deenach Lodge at 4pm on Saturday, offering the cyclists a chance to meet and greet those they're cycling for. With the cycle ready to capture Kerry's imagination, Gill and Enda want everyone to show, once again, the kind of spirit and generosity that continues to astound them.

"We would like to see a presence on the route," Enda said. "If you see us out with our high-vis tops and our signs, please stop and join us to wave on the cyclists."

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