June 2014

by Redmond O’Hanlon

Day 1: Saturday

We arrived at Cuisle on Saturday the 5th June , on a lovely sunny day, and once again the holiday was fully booked, with an attendance of about seventy people.   We all met up for tea and sandwiches, after we had found our rooms, and had time to get unpacked.   It was good to see many old stagers from last year, and renew old acquaintances, but this year there were also several new faces, which is a good thing for everybody, as we had a wonderful opportunity to make new friends. 

Dinner on the first night was a choice of roast beef or salmon, with apple tart and fresh cream or cheesecake for dessert.   As always the members of the staff were lovely – extremely courteous and remembered us all by our first names.  

After dinner there was a live musical performance and the atmosphere in the bar was very relaxed and friendly.   Quite a few people opted to watch the World Cup matches instead, and there was a TV in a separate room for the football fans.

Our time in Cuisle is one week of bliss in the year, although of course, everybody has to return to the wide world for the remaining 51 weeks when the time has passed – and it goes so fast!   All of the voluntary carers have close up experience of ataxia, and their service is extraordinary.   All the ataxia sufferers were in great form throughout the week, because the people who organised the holiday have personal experience of the illness, and have catered for everyone’s needs.   The holiday was not just an escapist interlude.  In fact it is far more than that.   Jim O’Kelly pointed out that our getting together in this week was more important for us than Christmas or Easter celebrations. 

It fortifies the people who are fortunate enough to experience the holiday, and helps them to develop a stronger spirit (and a thicker leather skin!) to face the day to day labours and challenges for the rest of the year.   There is always a jovial and easy-going atmosphere around the place, and the decibel levels at meal times are extremely high! 

Day 2: Sunday

The day was bright and sunny, with occasional showery intervals.   There were various activities arranged  - an all day fishing event,  or else a trip in to Roscommon town for bowling or swimming.  

The fishing event was a fresh water competition, catching mainly roach and perch, and took place on the river Suck, which runs past Cuisle.   The fish were quite small, and were always returned alive to the river.   Kifca McNamee from Co. Meath was the winner with a catch of 15 fish.  

In all of the organised events, the role of the voluntary carers cannot be stressed enough, and during the social gatherings in the evening, everyone intermingled.  This is rather unique, as I know for a fact that in other organisations the carers gravitate to each other and spend their time together when they are not actually working.   However, during our vacation, there was a strong feeling engendered that there was no real difference between those who were able bodied, and those of us who were in wheelchairs.  There was a close social bond between us all, conversations were shared and ideas exchanged.  The well meaning individuals we come across in our daily lives only understand a fraction of what is going on in our heads, but for this one week of the year, each one of us is free to be himself or herself, and there is no need to put up any artificial front.  Each person is accepted just as they are.

As Roscommon is one of the worst counties in Ireland for emergency ambulance services, we were fortunate to have an ambulance crew available 24 hours per day, throughout our vacation, and their services were required on three separate occasions.  The ambulance was provided by an Irish organisation called Medicall, who operate out of Limerick City.  

As with all the organised events throughout the week, we were free to participate in whatever interested us, or just chill out on our own programme.  I myself went swimming that day, and it had been a full year since I had the opportunity to get into a pool.   A number of carers attended to all our needs, and with the buoyancy of the water, and free from the restraints of gravity, I was able to get real exercise over a few hours, which was wonderful.

On our second evening, we had a Karaoke night.  Over the week, the shows and activities were successfully run by Sean O’Hara, Annette Kelly, Barbara Flynn and Jim O’Kelly.  The time flew by, and afterwards groups of us stayed on for a chat and a drink, and ended up not hitting the sack till around 3 am, convinced it could only be about midnight !

Fortunately the night staff were still on hand to help us into bed…

Day 3: Monday

On Monday morning after breakfast there was a treasure hunt –  a fun filled event organised by Sean O’Hara in which people formed teams of two or more, and spent a pleasant morning around the grounds, trying to decipher cryptic clues which led from one place to another until the final discovery.  This year Susie O’Toole’s team were the winners.    The grounds around Cuisle are beautifully maintained, and it is very relaxing to spend time out in the open. 

In the early afternoon, prior to our annual trip to the races in Roscommon, we were treated to an impromptu matinee concert from Jim O’Kelly and Ron Cartin, singing with guitars.   Their rendition of “Only Our Rivers Run Free” deserves to go viral on the internet, and should be considered as an anthem for fundraising for the Ataxia organisation.  

The Roscommon race meeting was attended by the usual enormous crowds, so a steward very kindly took our group some way up along the rails of the course where everyone could have a clear view of all the horses.  This year I didn’t go to the races myself, but I got reports on the afternoon’s activities from those who were present, and it was most enjoyable.   The rain held off despite a rather ominous forecast, and for really avid race goers there was a return visit to the course the following day.

As well as the designated activities for each day, there were other things for the guests to do – a hairdressing service for the ladies, access to the Jacuzzi, yoga and massage.   

Dinner was delicious, as with every night, and afterwards we had more live music from a singer with an amazing repertoire, including songs by Daniel O’Donnell, Joe Dolan, Eric Clapton, Elvis Presley and many other well known names.   The dance floor was filled every evening with lots of enthusiastic revellers, both able bodied and in wheelchairs, and there was a great atmosphere of light-heartedness and fun.   In fact throughout the week I never witnessed anyone in a bad mood, and this was largely down to the carers, who were always on hand to help, and 100% non judgemental.

Day 4: Tuesday  

In the morning there was a pilgrimage to Knock, and three busloads of the guests went, provided with a packed lunch.   There were a lot of other groups there as well as ours, and it was a very uplifting experience for all concerned, with a thirty minute recital by a wonderful singer, followed by Mass and the Stations of the Cross.

Others of us went to Sligo to see the ‘Birds of Prey’ Show. There were a few hundred people there, and the sun came out which was an added bonus.   The German scientist
presenter who runs the falconry was very entertaining, and made an excellent speech, completely different to the talk he gave when we were there last year.  I personally loved the various species of owls that were on show, and there were vultures and eagles with an amazingly large wing span, flying directly above the spectators.   Beautiful to watch!   Afterwards we visited their animal centre, where we could all get up close and personal with various kinds of animals, such as Vietnamese pot- bellied  pigs, and a lovely fluffy chinchilla.   One of the trainers put a young child sitting on the back of a giant sow, and the animal went totally berserk, squealing as though it was about to be made into bacon for somebody’s breakfast!  

We got back to Cuisle in the late afternoon, and after dinner that evening we were entertained by an excellent five piece band, playing everything from Sultans of Swing to Van Morrison.  They were the liveliest entertainers of the week, and had everyone enjoying the music.   There was dancing and the customary late night chat session later.  

One of the highlights for me, which produced a spontaneous round of applause from everyone, was when one of the waitresses dropped a food plate, which smashed – that is usually what is expected of us!!!

About 14 of the male guests went into the TV room to watch the World Cup match between Germany and Brazil, and witness Brazil being hammered by Germany which was truly a once in a lifetime experience!  We were joined for this historic occasion by the only female fan, Katherina, who travels all the way from Germany each year as a voluntary carer, and who came to cheer on her team.  

Day 5: Wednesday

There was a shopping trip to Athlone organised in the morning, and those who did not wish to do this were able to go swimming in the pool in Roscommon Town.

The majority went on the shopping trip, and most of us had lunch either at the Costa Coffee Shop, or Burger King.   We were in a huge shopping complex, but nevertheless, some of our party used their free hours to take in another shopping centre as well.  It was a day long affair, and some of the shoppers used their time to purchase last minute additions to their costumes for the fancy dress party on Thursday night.  My own personal favourite was browsing in Holland and Barrett health shop, where I stocked up on over the counter health goods.  

We returned to Cuisle in time for dinner, and afterwards there was a table quiz with questions set by Jim and Kate O’Kelly.  It was very well organised and attended, and various snacks were provided free to each of the competing teams to keep their brains ticking over successfully.

Some of the avid football supporters watched a boring World Cup game between the Netherlands and Argentina, in the TV room, and I myself regret having taken this option instead of taking part in the quiz.  

Day 6: Thursday  

When breakfast was over, many people took part in the archery contest.   This time we had the opportunity to fire more arrows than last year.   Whereas before we fired only 3 each, this time we fired 8, so there was more lengthy individual enjoyment of the event.   Surprisingly, archery seems to be an ataxia friendly sport, and perhaps some of our Ataxia Ireland members who got high scores (not myself, I have to admit!) should consider entering trials to participate on the Paralympics archery team.

Even for those, like myself, who scored badly, it was a very worthwhile and enjoyable endeavour.  The winners of the event were Damien and Brid.

In the afternoon, the guests were divided into three groups, as there was a triple choice of activities.   Those who wanted to just chill out went for a massage.   The rest went into Roscommon town for either bowling or swimming.   I had a two hour long swim.   One of our members, Marie, who took to the water that day, had not been in a swimming pool for over 40 years!   With a carer / ataxia member ratio of one to one, we were completely safe, and able to fully enjoy being towed around the pool, while the carers did all the work!  

In the evening we had the highlight of the week’s holiday – the fancy dress party.   This year the theme was the 1980’s   Everyone arrived in ’80 s costume, and there was ‘80s cuisine prepared specially by the chef.   The party started at 8.00 pm, and there was live music until 11.00pm, when we moved on to the disco…

There were some outstanding outfits from both members and carers.   Some people, such as Stuart and Katherine, were wearing wigs, and were totally unrecognisable!  Cyril, Sarah and Louise, sisters from Limerick, and Kate, Susie, and Ronan were all well-deserving prize winners for their costumes, and the first prize went to Jarlath from Wexford, who also had two other brothers on the holiday.  

There was a prize giving ceremony for all the events which had taken place throughout the week, with the awards presented by our CEO, Barbara Flynn.   A wonderful atmosphere was generated, and when the disco music ended we had a sing along session afterwards, and we all sat up into the early hours of the morning, having a few drinks, and developing and strengthening the friendships we had made.

Day 7: Friday

Our last day had come and it was time to pack and get ready to return to the outside world once more.  The whole holiday was once again a great success, due to the efforts and planning put in by all the Ataxia Ireland team and volunteers.   We can’t thank you enough! 

I have no doubt that the planning for such an event must take all year, and many people play an important background role, and put in a huge amount of effort, which is greatly appreciated.  The holiday was heavily subsidised, which made it possible for members to attend, despite their straitened financial circumstances in these difficult times. 

The meals were excellent   Breakfast each morning was from 8.30 to 10.30 am, with fruit juice and cereals, and a choice of continental or full Irish, served buffet style with plenty of tea or coffee.   I only helped myself to things which I normally would not have in Dublin every day.   I took prune juice, a bowl of grapefruit segments, then an omelette with mushrooms, cheese, ham, onion and tomato, and a cup of coffee.   I didn’t go overboard by having toast with butter and marmalade as well!!   If you came down for breakfast at 9.50 you would not finish till about 10.30, and you could not then face lunch, which was served at 12.30!   I was so full from my breakfast each morning that I never availed of lunch throughout the week.   Those who did take the midday meal as well commented that at least there was no dessert served at that time!!  

Dinner was at 7.00 pm, each evening and for the first course there was always a cream soup, or a light appetiser like a salad or brochette   The main course was a serving of meat or fish with a wide selection of vegetables, followed by a choice of desserts, and tea and coffee.   Portions were enormous, but nevertheless, some took advantage of the second helpings on offer.   My two favourite items from the dessert menu were the Tiramisu and a delicious ginger ice cream. 

On our last morning we were able to fortify ourselves with a final big fry-up (fat boys’breakfast!)   Then it was time to say our last farewells and hit the road for home…

We were all gone on our way by around 1.00 pm. Feeling very sad that our time in ‘Shangri La’ was over for another year.   The only good thing I can say about that is, that as I get older, the annual vacation to Cuisle seems to come around a lot quicker!

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