First Encounters: Fiona Dennehy and Caoimhe de Barra

‘There’s so much depth to our friendship because of our shared history’

A sisterly kind of friendship: Dr Fiona Dennehy and Caoimhe de Barra. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times  A sisterly kind of friendship: Dr Fiona Dennehy and Caoimhe de Barra. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

A sisterly kind of friendship: Dr Fiona Dennehy and Caoimhe de Barra. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times A sisterly kind of friendship: Dr Fiona Dennehy and Caoimhe de Barra. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Fiona Dennehy is a GP and partner in the Cremore Clinic in Glasnevin. She works with the North Dublin General Practitioners Training Scheme, training GPs to work with vulnerable people and is the team doctor for Bohemian FC. Originally from Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, she now lives in Drumcondra with her husband and sons Daithi, 9, and Oisin, 7.

I remember going on holiday to Bettystown with our parents when I was five and Caoimhe was six – but I remember more the jam sandwiches and the cold wind and MiWadi Orange. Later, we spent our holidays in the west in her family’s cottage. It had just two bedrooms and the children all slept in the attic, in a long line. We “biggies” organised queues for toast and had concerts. We’d go down to the beach to practice – I remember singing a lot of Eurovision numbers, there’d be occasional poems, a bit of tin whistle.

I grew up in Carrickmacross and as a teenager, went to boarding school in Dublin. Caoimhe, who lived in Monkstown, had all the cool friends. She shared her whole life with me – all her friends, her family, her home, her boyfriends. She gave me a whole social life in my teens that I wouldn’t otherwise have had. I was always included, always part of the gang, and that’s massive.

We saw less of each other when we went to university – I went to UCD, Caoimhe to DCU. We each made a whole new bunch of friends, but we stayed in touch. And there were lots of stripy jumper get-togethers: a lot of people in our circle hand-knit these mad jumpers, all the colours of the rainbow. Caoimhe had one of the first and right through my finals I was still knitting one.

I don’t have Caoimhe’s pedigree on social justice but I did originally do medicine because I was going to go off to Africa to do my thing. As a student I went to Kenya as a volunteer, worked in the largest maternity hospital south of the Sahara.

When I got married, we went down to the house in Connemara for my hen. The highlight was a concert, like when we were kids – they did sketches from my life. It was brilliant, one of the best nights of my life.

I got pregnant before Caoimhe. Then she had a baby, my godson – and said, ‘I’m off to Africa’. I’ll text her and a week later I’ll get a reply saying, ‘Sorry, I couldn’t make it to your afternoon tea, I was in Somalia’.

She was away for three years in Mozambique and when she came back she had a whole other child. I did get the odd obstetric question when she was away.

Our four boys get on very well and we have play dates as Gaeilge. My kids go to Irish school in Glasnevin, Caoimhe’s to Irish school in Monkstown.

Caoimhe’s a natural leader, but very warm with it and great fun. I don’t think we’ve ever had a really good row – she did once ring me up to go on a march, and I was on the other side of the issue. But that didn’t even cause a row.

There’s so much depth to our friendship because of our shared history – it’s a sisterly kind of a thing.

Caoimhe de Barra is director of the international division of overseas development agency Trócaire, with responsibility for its work in over 20 countries. She is a keen runner and coaches under-sixes in a GAA club. Originally from Monkstown, Co Dublin, she now lives in Blackrock, Co Dublin, with her husband and sons Fionan, 8 and Ferdia, 6.

Our parents were the first of their set of friends to get married and the first to have children. Both our dads – [Arctic explorer] Paddy Barry and Mike Dennehy – were engineers. When our parents were in their 20s, they used to go off on gang holidays. Fiona and I and my brother were just brought along with the gang to west Kerry or west Cork every summer. Then there were more and more of us children.

My memories of those early years are very vague. They really kick in from when we came home from Malawi – my mum and dad, in their mid-30s, took four of us aged from nine months to seven years to live in rural Malawi. We came back the summer I turned nine and Fiona was eight. From then on, we spent more than half of our summers together. It was partly in Carrickmacross, where Fiona lived, and partly in Ballyconneely, where my parents had a tiny house that expanded to fit all of the children. There would have been four or five families there at any one time.

Fiona and I and my brothers were the biggies and then there was a trail of younger children – we had to mind them. In August, we’d have a big concert. A lot of us are still friends and quite a number of the friends I hung around with as teenagers became very good friends with those friends.

I did a marketing degree in DCU and very quickly realised that wasn’t for me. I spent a year or two finding myself, touring Europe, then did an MA in development studies in UCD. Fiona and I were in touch in our university years although didn’t see each other so much.

I joined Trócaire after I finished my master’s – I was campaigning on getting Fair Trade bananas into Europe and a lady in Trócaire asked if I could come in to give them a hand over the summer. That turned into 18 years. I was always an activist and working in Trócaire is the best job in Ireland – you get paid to be an activist for social justice. Fiona went to Kenya when she was a student to volunteer in a hospital there and I was really struck by the impact it had on her.

Fiona is the most amazing person I know, without a doubt. She’s always so much fun, and then there’s her warmth and passion and caring, I was no way surprised she became a GP. There have been moments of crisis when Fiona was the only person I was ever going to call: when someone knows you that well and where you come from, she can put you back on a steady path. She has an ability to understand what you’re going through and to give you a depth of care and attention. I always think her patients are really lucky to have her as a GP.