‘Ireland’s biggest health challenge? Stress, at home and work’

Health Hero: Maureen Durcan runs a sanctuary for ‘people in emotional or psychological pain’

Maureen Durcan: The Sligo Cancer Support Centre now caters for the emotional needs of over 9,000 patients. Photograph: Peter Wilcock

Maureen Durcan lives in Co Sligo with her husband James. She developed cancer in 1994 and survived a long battle with the disease. Two years later, she decided to set up a cancer support group in Sligo with fellow cancer survivor Gretta Middleton.

Every week, we will honour someone deserving of the hero tag. If you would like to nominate, go to irishtimes.com/healthheroes

Sixty people turned up to the first meeting.

Gretta passed away in 2000, but Maureen (who has a son, Paul), carried on, moving the group to a bigger venue due to increasing demand.

The Sligo Cancer Support Centre now caters for the emotional needs of over 9,000 patients. As its manager, Maureen has been at the helm organising volunteers, therapists, counsellors and other facilitators to cater for those who benefit from the service.


After more than 20 years, Maureen decided to step down before Christmas to open Solas Healing Sanctuary where “people in emotional or psychological pain can find peace and healing”.

Without a doubt, she more than qualifies as a “Health Hero”.

1) What is your proudest achievement?

“I don’t feel that I have achieved anything by myself. I had a vision and a dream for Sligo Cancer Support Centre, but it was achieved through the dedication of so many people who worked to help me see it succeed. I am extremely happy that it has been such a success.”

2) What motivates you in your work and life?

“I am constantly motivated – and have been for as long as I can remember – to work towards a better quality of life for people struggling with so many issues. So often all they need is a little encouragement, hope and guidance to put them on the right path. This work began for me in the late 1970s with the St Vincent De Paul Society, continued with Sligo Cancer Support and now hopefully will continue further at Solas Healing Sanctuary.”

3) What do you do to keep mind and body healthy and well?

“I keep my mind healthy by taking time out in the evenings to read, meditate and to switch off as much as I can. Work can bring a lot of sadness because so many people are ill and suffering, so it’s important to have an antidote to that to be able to continue the work. I have always had a healthy diet (apart from a little bit of chocolate most days) and now and again I do some yoga but not enough. Exercise is my downfall, or the lack of it, and I need to improve that big time.”

4) What are the most important factors to maintain a healthy society?

"There are so many needs to create a healthy society today. The fact that so many people live on the poverty line in Ireland in 2018 is incredibly sad. They have no access to proper housing, food or even medical care. If they have health problems they have to wait far too long to have the issue seen to, by which time their condition has deteriorated. It is very difficult to be healthy and well either mentally or physically in these situations. I also think there is a huge lack of awareness around good nutrition and much more should be done in this area. I don't want to appear critical of anyone struggling to put food on the table, but the reality is that healthy homemade food costs a lot less than shop-bought convenience foods and something needs to be done to make people aware of this."

5) What needs to be done in Ireland to achieve this?

“Where does one start? Obviously, this takes more government funding, which falls far short of making any impact. The long delay for people desperately waiting for medical treatment needs to be addressed. Lack of appropriate nutrition awareness has now left us with an obesity issue, which results in endless health issues. Now is the time for the Minister for Health to address this.”

6) What do you think is the most pressing health issue in Ireland?

“I think that one of the biggest health challenges in Ireland today is the huge level of stress that people are under, in their personal lives and in the workplace. It’s a well-documented fact that this stress lowers the immune system and leaves the door open for all kinds of diseases, like cancer, heart issues, auto immune diseases and so much more. If this could be addressed appropriately hospital admissions would fall.”

7) How do you think the Minister for Health should tackle this?

“It shouldn’t be too difficult for the Health Minister, through HSE Health Promotions to provide an awareness program on the dangers of stress and the ways it can be dealt with – if that could be addressed as well as some of the issues mentioned earlier, I am convinced that we will have a much healthier society.”

8) What do you do to relax and unwind?

“I absolutely love reading, listening to relaxing CDs in candlelight and the glow of a salt lamp. I love all kinds of music but especially classical and traditional Irish. I find being in nature very healing and I am blessed to be surrounded by it where I live. Birds always seem to sing a song of hope. Spending time with my grandson brings me back into a child’s world – and there is nothing more renewing than that.”

9) What makes you laugh?

“I am inclined to be very serious. However, I am surrounded by people who are light-hearted and funny without knowing it, like my husband, my son, my grandson – hilarious, work colleagues and great friends. All of this gives me lots of laughs and keeps me in balance. I also love Marty in the mornings on Lyric FM. So many great laughs as I travel the 30 miles to work each day. Totally sets me up for the day. Simple things make me laugh.”

10) Where would you like to live other than Ireland and why?

"I absolutely love Italy but would I like to live there? I actually think I love Ireland too much. We probably get more than our fair share of rain, but our temperate climate suits me best. I especially love our community in Curry and the area we live in. We are blessed with wonderful neighbours who all look out for each other. Often in spring and early summer I walk around the house, even before the birds are awake. It's the most magical time of the day and the peace is amazing. At times like these I feel that I have been planted in a little piece of heaven and feel totally blessed. So I really wouldn't like to live anywhere else on earth."

irishtimes.com/healthheroesOpens in new window ]

Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in health, lifestyle, parenting, travel and human interest stories