Guide Dog Owner and Branch Co-Chair Tom O'Neill tells us about Balbriggan/North Co. Dublin Branch.
At sixteen I realised my eyesight was not as good as my family and friends. At 27, I fully learnt I was losing my eyesight because of a genetic condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa.
In 1980, Breege and I married and bought our home in Balbriggan. I struggled with the loss of my eyesight and sometimes used a white cane. In November 1983, I applied for a Guide Dog to Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind and in April 1985 my first Guide Dog Frank arrived. I was transformed into an independent, happy go lucky, chatty man, smiling boarding a train for Dublin or heading out with Breege and our small children for lunch at the weekend or for an evening's walk by the beach.
Many times I was asked, 'How much did you pay for that incredible dog?' and told 'You look more at peace and happier these days', which I was. Breege and I discussed how Frank had changed our lives and decided to set up the Balbriggan Branch of Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind in 1987.
Our first fundraising event was a dog walk. We started small with 10 of us on the walk. One man, Tommy Murray, who came along that day, is still involved with the Branch.
Over the past 33 years we have raised in excess of €4m. The tentacles of our fundraising have resulted in the setting up of the Tuam Branch by my sister Mary Byrne who raises about €20k annually and the foundation of the Cavan Branch by Brid McEvoy and Patricia Hannick raising up to €10k annually.
The biggest single fundraiser I was involved in raised €127k, from one tractor run in Ballinalee, Co. Longford organised by Breege's nephew, Liam Reilly and his friends. Our friend, Liz, in a small town called Bailieborough, Co. Cavan ran the Womens' Mini Marathon for us 7 years in a row. A company, Roe Oil, and the manager, Paula Roe, take in Christmas cards to their Spar Shop every year for us and she also has a counter box, all because Paula and her sister Mary met Frank my Guide Dog back in the late 80's.
In 1991, Breege's first Guide Dog, Gypsie, arrived and we socialised together becoming great friends with more local people, such as Marie and Eamonn Deegan. Dogs were our opening topic of conversation and led to lifetime friendships and solid Branch members.
We changed our Branch name to Balbriggan/North Co. Dublin in 1995 as no one was raising money in the wider local area including some of neighbouring Co. Meath.
Photo courtesy of David Brangan
From left to right:
1. Sandra Behan and Ambassador Dog Zenn
2. Anne Mulligan, Puppy Raiser with Oscar
3. Colette Brangan with Merlin. Puppy Raised by our late friend David Brangan
4. Breege O'Neill RIP and Guide Dog Unice, who is now at Rainbow bridge
5. Tom O'Neill and Guide Dog Gatsby, who is now at Rainbow bridge
6. Eva West and Guide Dog Parker, who is now 12 years young. Happy belated birthday Parker!
7. Emma Dunne and Assistance Dog Indy (who is also at Rainbow Bridge)
For us, school visits are crucial. Over the last 25 years I have visited, St Molaga's N.S. Balbriggan to talk to pupils. Some are now supporters of our Branch.
Puppy Raisers past and present are a significant part of our Branch, including our current Puppy Raiser and Co-Chair Anne Mulligan.
Retired Guide Dogs are in the area but the key to our success is seeing a Guide Dog or Assistance Dog helping their owner become more independent, safe and contented.
Life changes and people do different things, but we still fundraise and do many local school talks. 2020 has been a tough year for everyone and fundraising has been seriously curtailed but we are as determined as ever to keep up our work.
Thank you to everyone in our Balbriggan/North, Co. Dublin Branch who do so much to support us changing lives.