Local heroes: The people making a difference in communities around Ireland

We asked you to nominate someone in your life who gives back

We can all think of our own local heroes. All over the country there are people who selflessly work to help their neighbours and their communities for little to no acclaim or reward. So we put out a call for suggestions of people we might write about. As well as big heroic actions, there are countless small gestures and acts of kindness that all go to make our days brighter. Many people wrote in to tell us about kind healthcare workers, carers, supermarket staff, cafe owners and community volunteers who made their days better. For everyone mentioned here there are countless others, so treat this as just a selection and think about the local heroes in your own neighbourhoods and lives.

Sr Jo McCarthy

"I'll kill her. Patrick!" texts Sr Jo McCarthy (72) when she learns that her niece, Catriona O'Riordan, had nominated her as a local hero. O'Riordan told how Sr Jo worked for 20 years as a missionary in Peru and Ecuador before coming home to establish the Cork Migrant Centre. "She is an activist for the marginalised," she wrote. "I'm fiercely proud of her ... they don't make women like her too often."

Sr Jo agrees to the interview only to publicise the migrant centre but adds, with a laugh, "when you're writing it, blame Catriona". A farmer's daughter from west Cork, she joined the Presentation Sisters after school before eventually volunteering to work in South America. It changed her life, she says. "My whole perception of the church and my experience of God would have changed utterly. We would have been very religious in Ireland, great for sacraments and going to church, but sometimes you'd wonder if there was any effort going into developing a relationship with God. People in South America had a wonderful sense of God in their life."

She worked with community development projects in Ecuador before going to Peru where she helped victims of the Shining Path terrorist organisation. They were ruthless, she says, of the terrorists. "Any kind of community activity or grassroots development was banned. An Australian nun was shot and two Polish priests shot. I wrote home at one stage and said that if anything happened to me, I was there voluntarily, that it was my choice to be there."


What made her stay? “I don’t buy into a lot of the Catholic rules and regulations but I do have a strong faith and personal belief in God and so would the South American people. That was what I’d given my life to. When you’re there at the time, you have a relationship with people, and it makes sense in that context.”

She returned to Ireland in 2000 to help look after her mother. She established the Cork Migrant Centre in December 2006 after volunteering with asylum seekers. The centre ran English classes and helped people with immigration, healthcare and welfare issues and in 2018 it moved to Nano Nagle Place in Cork city. Dr Naomi Masheti replaced Sr Jo as director, although she's still a very active volunteer.

'When I came home, I was very struck by the negativity around migrants. They have a huge amount to contribute to the country'

They have a coffee morning every Friday and run an array of activities, courses and services. They run a parenting programme. One of their youth workers works specifically with young people of African origin who are struggling with their sense of identity. Some of the women set up a company. “Covid has been a huge challenge [but] we’re still doing really well on Zoom and I travel to the different direct provision centres to help with anything they might need. We help people find their voices.”

Sr Jo has herself been a migrant and has seen the forces that cause people to migrate. She knows the lengths people go to due to poverty and desperation and she understands their loneliness and sees how hard they work. She has seen migrants struggle to feel welcome in Irish society, often experiencing terrible racism.

"When I came home, I was very struck by the negativity around migrants," she says. "They have a huge amount to contribute to the country. When I left Ireland, I began to see how small and insular our island was. My life has been enriched beyond measure by my experiences in South America and by the people I meet every day here in Cork."
Patrick Freyne

Stephen McManus

Stephen McManus wants everyone to have access to cycling. “We mainly think of cyclists as middle-aged white guys in

Lycra cycling shorts but we want to change that perception, so more women, older adults and people with disabilities can be on bikes too,” says McManus who set up The Bike Hub.

The south Dublin-based social enterprise works with Dún Laoghaire Rathdown (DLR) County Council, the DLR Sports Partnership, and Cycling without Age, the Irish chapter of a Danish charity which gives older people the opportunity to travel on trishaws (bicycles with seats for two people at the front).

McManus is passionate about making cycling accessible to all and cites the “transformational impact” the free-to-rent adult tricycles have on people with learning disabilities, stroke survivors and wheelchair users. “People who can stand but can’t walk can use an adult electric tricycle. I have someone who comes twice a week who hadn’t exercised in 20 years.”

'It's all about the normalisation of cycling so that it's assessable to people of all ages and those with limited mobility'

The former software engineer from Brazil (Irish dad, Spanish mum) took more than a year to find the right partners for his social enterprise which he set up next to Dún Laoghaire's east pier in June 2021 with fellow-cycling enthusiast, Steve Slusarski. The two directors work with a team of 40 volunteers who "pilot" the trishaws and others who repair donated bikes for redistribution to homeless/unemployed people, refugees and students in disadvantaged communities; 100 bicycles have been redistributed since July 2021.

The directors of The Bike Hub also teach bicycle maintenance and safe cycling to transition-year students in secondary schools and other groups on request. And, they have taught four people to cycle who had never been on a bicycle before.

The aim is to scale up the model – which ran initially as a six-month pilot project and has just had its contract extended by the council – to other locations throughout Ireland. Dublin City Council and Fingal Council have already expressed interest in having Bike Hubs in their areas. "It's all about the normalisation of cycling so that it's assessable to people of all ages and those with limited mobility," says McManus, who cycles everywhere himself and uses a shared car membership scheme when he needs to get somewhere by car. "I haven't owned a car in Dublin for many years. Cars don't make sense to me in cities," he says.
Sylvia Thompson

Kevin Lawlor

When Enniscorthy-based Kevin Lawlor (63) retired from his job selling life insurance and pensions in 2015, he had some spare time on his hands so he brought his aunt to St Vincent's hospital in Dublin for her chemotherapy appointments "to do something useful". Soon after, he applied to the Irish Cancer Society to offer his services as a volunteer driver for those who struggle to get transport to attend hospital appointments. Following Garda vetting, two references and a short training session with the Irish Cancer Society in Dublin, he began taking patients from throughout Wexford to appointments in hospitals in Dublin, Waterford and Wexford as required. "I enjoy driving and it takes the pressure off patients, many of whom are elderly, to get to and from hospitals on their own by bus or by car," says Lawlor, who drives cancer patients to hospitals two to three days each week.

Most, he says, are going through a tough time and are very appreciative of the free service. The cancer charity reimburses volunteer drivers for fuel, road tolls and meals when out and about. “You might be waiting two to four hours for the patients, so you have to enjoy your own company. I usually go for a coffee and a walk, catch up on emails and read,” he says.

'People are taking more care of the area. There [was] no organised voice in Crumlin. It's enabled people to talk about issues'

The volunteer drivers continued to offer their services right through the pandemic. During lockdowns, they were issued with letters from the Irish Cancer Society, explaining their role so if stopped by the Garda, they had an explanation for travelling on almost empty roads.

"Driving in the middle of lockdowns was bizarre but it was a way for me to get out of the house. It was more stressful for patients as they were going into Covid environments in hospitals. I was concerned myself in the beginning but we were all masked-up and I sanitised the car. I had several Covid tests over the two years and I never picked it up," explains Lawlor, who is also chairman of his local soccer club and secretary of the board of Enniscorthy Credit Union.
Sylvia Thompson

Crumlin Community Cleanup

Crumlin Community Cleanup began with two locals collecting litter in the south Dublin suburb before others started joining in."It was a bit heartbreaking at the start because you'd clean the place and the next day it would be just be as bad," says Trevor Clowry, one of the first 10 volunteers. "We recognised that we needed to get more people and that's when Crumlin Community Cleanup was set up. We got on Facebook and started posting photos of bins and rubbish and what we were doing."

People were throwing away strange things in the early days, he says. "A 1979 poster of John Paul or a frozen chicken on its hind legs. There used to be lots of large items, bathtubs, sofas, but that's calmed down."

He thinks their sense of community pride is contagious. “People are taking more care of the area. There [was] no organised voice in Crumlin. It’s enabled people to talk about issues.”

What sort of things? "There's a lack of trees in Crumlin. Somebody suggested we plant trees on the road but the council said it was too narrow. We said, 'Can we plant them in people's gardens?'. So we got sponsorship from the National Lottery and Canada Life Reinsurance and we're doing a community orchard where we're planting fruit trees."

Other initiatives have emerged from the group. Bloomin' Crumlin is an attempt to foster more biodiversity. A Litter Action Group liaises monthly with the council and 40 bins were added to the area based on a survey they undertook. Crumlin has also entered the Tidy Towns competition for the first time since 1993.

"We started off with litter but it's more community development now," says Clowry. "I don't think anyone particularly wants to be picking up litter, it's just what brings us together."
Patrick Freyne

Abdul Hafiz

Abdul Hafiz has been living Tullamore since buying Café India 20 years ago. Six years ago he was giving someone a lift and as they talked he realised that lots of people in the Co Offaly town were alone on Christmas Day. So for five years Hafiz, his family and cafe staff have provided free dinner for anyone who wants to come along. This year they fed and entertained 26 people.

“For us Christmas is not a big thing. Muslims don’t celebrate it like anyone from the Christian faith. [So] we thought: why not work if you can make somebody’s life easier?”

Who comes along? “Most of the people will be the elderly, people living on their own or elderly couples. Some families with kids come as well. So we have some toys for the kids.”

What do they cook? "Turkey, soup and bread for starters, pudding for the desert. And we also have our own food, if somebody wants to go for that." He laughs. "Most people will go for traditional turkey."

The first year, he says, not many people came but those that did asked him could he do it again the following year. The numbers grew. Those that do come often ask to help out. “People have pride,” he says.

'It's quite nice actually. If you can make a difference in somebody's life for a day, it's worth it'

This year people came in two shifts to facilitate social distancing guidelines. His own business has been impacted by the pandemic, but he feels lucky to be still trading.

“Instead of always looking up at who has more money than you, it’s better to look at people who are not in as good condition. It’s giving that actually makes me happy, not taking. My area is food so that’s what I can do for people. I express myself through food. Community is everything. I make my money here. It’s nice to give something back.”

He has also met lots of new people, he says. "They know us and we know them and there's a trust element between us. If they are in town, they drop in and we have a cup of tea together and have a chat. It's an open offer. They know where we are and they know that if there's anything we can do for them, even on a normal day, we will do it. It's quite nice actually. If you can make a difference in somebody's life for a day, it's worth it."
Patrick Freyne

Breeda Bermingham

“Silence is the real enemy of menopausal women,” says Breeda Bermingham (55), the former midwife and public health nurse turned menopause coach who set up the Midlife Women Cafes as a forum for women to speak about and get information on the menopause.

When Covid hit in March 2020, Bermingham's monthly meetings in her hometown of Waterford (she also held events in Kilkenny, Dungarvan and Limerick) went online and women from all over Ireland and the UK began to join the free Zoom gatherings.

“It’s counter-cultural to bring menopause into the public domain. The [dominant] cultural narrative that there is something wrong with menopausal women has kept us silent and shamed us. There is no longer legitimacy in this story,” says Bermingham whose book, Midlife Women Rock: a menopause story for a new generation, was on the Amazon bestseller list soon after it was published in October 2021.

Bermingham is optimistic about the future for menopausal women due to the huge upsurge of public interest in the topic.

She has recently become a consultant with Deborah Garlick’s menopause in the workplace group, Henpicked.net. She is also a member of the Women’s Mental Health Network and took part in the Mental Health in Midlife webinar in September 2021. And she is actively lobbying the Government to roll out an education campaign on the menopause in 2022 as part of the Women’s Health Taskforce.

'The menopause is still inhibiting too many women to rise in the workplace. Midlife women's voices deserve to be amplified'

“The medicalisation of the menopause is only part of the story. The societal/cultural aspects are bigger stories than HRT. We can’t access the wisdom of the menopause unless we are educated about it.

“A countrywide information and education campaign on the menopause will help women in their relationships and their careers,” she says.

On a personal level, Bermingham says she has become more courageous since she began her Midlife Women Rock project, which she is setting up as a social enterprise.

Her own transformative journey began when at 49, with her four children reared, she undertook a degree in psychology at Waterford Institute of Technology. Then, she completed a master's in sociology at Maynooth University in which she did 20 in-depth interviews with women about the menopause.

"The menopause is still inhibiting too many women to rise in the workplace. Midlife women's voices deserve to be amplified. The injustices of their silence and the lifting of the taboo around the menopause is what motivates me and drives me forwards," she says.
Sylvia Thompson

Muhammad Achour

Muhammad Achour (39) grew up in the Syrian city of Aleppo where he studied architecture. He later worked as a teaching assistant at the University of Aleppo and Ittihad Private University. In 2015, he moved to Ireland to join his brother as part of the Syrian Humanitarian Admissions Programme. In many ways, he hit the ground running when he arrived, undertaking a masters in architecture at University College Dublin and getting involved in various initiatives to help refugees integrate into Irish society.

He began volunteering with Places of Sanctuary, a network of groups in towns, cities and local communities which promote a culture of welcome and inclusivity for newcomers in Ireland.

“It started with me going with my brother and his friend to the Balseskin Reception Centre [in north Dublin] to help people living there find schools and shops. Then I got involved in Universities of Sanctuary which aims to make universities a welcoming environment for migrants as well as offering scholarships to asylum seekers and refugees,” explains Achour.

Later, when he began working as a teaching assistant at Dublin City University, he organised cultural and entertainment events for Irish students to integrate with refugees studying at the university. These included an exhibition by Syrian architects during Refugee Week in 2019.

Achour's personal contacts with people living in the Mosney Accommodation Centre led to him becoming the cofacilitator of Sanctuary in Nature and Heritage, a Dublin-based group which organises outings for people in direct provision to places of natural beauty. Sanctuary in Nature was founded by former Irish Times journalist Paddy Woodworth to create opportunities for newcomers to learn about Ireland's environment while sharing stories about nature in their home countries. However, when Achour became involved, he suggested new locations such as Castletown House in Co Kildare and Ardgillan Castle, Co Dublin, where the group could explore both the natural and built heritage.

'My big hope for 2022 is to develop this idea more through more events and projects'

“We walk together, learn about nature and heritage and tell stories from our own countries and take photographs,” explains Achour. The group has benefited from free guided tours, workshops and hospitality provided by various groups so that people can socialise over lunch [albeit with more restrictions during the pandemic]. “The aim is for families to speak with Irish people so we ask volunteers to join us to have conversations about Ireland. People also bring some of their own food so we also talk about the history of food in different cultures.”

Achour says his main passion is sustainability and these gatherings encourage everyone to respect and care for the natural world and heritage that surrounds us. He also founded Places of ARcture in February 2019 to engage local communities and those in refugee camps with art and architecture. Through this social enterprise, he hopes to offer community groups and newcomers to Ireland opportunities to learn about good urban design so that they can be more actively involved with planning decisions in their neighbourhoods. "My big hope for 2022 is to develop this idea more through more events and projects," he explains.
Sylvia Thompson

Suicide Watch Limerick

Every week since May 2016, the volunteers of Suicide Watch Limerick patrol the river in their city to provide support for vulnerable people who are thinking of taking their own lives. The 2019 Central Statistics Office figures showed that the suicide rate in Limerick was the highest in the country. Yvonne Cook (52), one of the founders of the group, explains that she got involved because she lived near the river and, “I started hearing the helicopter”.

The volunteers get a lot of training including Asist (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training), first aid training and a child protection course (“You do come across children”). They have a mobile unit with a van and teams on bikes and on foot and they work closely with the coastguard and other emergency services. Cook stresses that they could not do this work without donations from the people and businesses of Limerick.

When they patrol, they greet everyone, but they approach those they observe to be more vulnerable. “With training and experience we get to know how to read people. They’re either okay or they’ll break down and tell us what’s going on in their life. One night you might not come across anybody. And then another night, you might end up having four interventions. The numbers have risen for us. Covid hasn’t helped.”

'We come across people and they haven't spoken to somebody in a week. Just saying 'hello' can put a smile on people's faces'

Some interventions are just a chat. Some end with a loved one being called. The volunteers always give them a plan to seek professional help and cards with numbers for services they might need. More difficult cases require the emergency services. Three times she has seen people get into the river (each time the person was rescued).

People often get in touch when they are feeling better. One day she was out with the group when a woman approached her. “Are you Yvonne? You saved my son a year ago. He still speaks about you and he’s doing great. He’s gone back to college. He has a girlfriend. If you hadn’t been there that night, he wouldn’t be here today.”

A lot of people, she says, just need someone to talk to. "We come across people and they haven't spoken to somebody in a week. Just saying 'hello' can put a smile on people's faces." limericksuicidewatch.ie

If you are affected by issues in this article call Pieta House 1800 247247 or text HELP to 51444; contact Aware at 1800 804848 or supportmail@aware.ie or the Samaritans at 116123 or jo@samaritans.ie. You can also text HELLO to 50808

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne is a features writer with The Irish Times

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, heritage and the environment