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Organ recipients and donors’ relatives talk of life-changing  moments as Commemorative Garden marks ten years

‘Emotional’. ‘Moving’. ‘Special’. The words echoed and re-echoed by those who attended Saturday’s tenth anniversary celebration of the Circle of Life National Organ Donor Commemorative Garden in Salthill, as they described the occasion.

Some 400 people from Ireland and further afield attended the event held in glorious sunshine, with most of those present having a direct link with organ donation.

One woman, who had travelled by train from Limerick with her granddaughter, was there in memory of her 18-year-old son who died 18 years ago following an assault.

“We donated his organs and saved five people’s lives,” she said simply.

There were stories too from people who had received such life-saving organs, donated by families in the depths of tragic bereavement.

Juliana Antonio Byrne spoke from the stage on behalf of her brother, Ernesto who received a donor heart 24 years ago, and captured the gratitude of recipients. Ernesto was in Spain on Saturday, where he’s walking 1,000km in memory of his donor. So Juliana read his words.

He explained how, in 1999, as a fit and healthy 36-year-old, he suffered heart failure which resulted in multiple organ failure. His only hope of survival was a heart transplant, which happened after several months.

Twenty-four years on, Ernesto has undertaken marathons, Ironman triathlons and taken part in transplant games in the UK and Europe.

Speaking through Juliana, he told the gathering that “my greatest achievement was to be there for my wife Kate  during her life with cancer.  For that, above everything else, I will be eternally grateful”.

That was possible “because of the generosity of my donor to whom I give thanks every day for giving me a second chance to live, and watch my beautiful daughter, Isabella, grow to be a person who her mother would be so proud of”.

Representing donor families were Cork couple Deborah and Eddie Burns with their young daughter Lottie. Eighteen years ago, when their ten-month-old son Harvey was killed in a car crash, Deborah and Eddie donated his organs. Eddie and Lottie planted a shrub to honour organ donors and their families.

The Circle of Life Garden’s anniversary celebration was held on the final day of Organ Donation Awareness Week, organised by the Irish Kidney Association (IKA).

And a leading light of that organisation, city woman Angeline Cooke who died a year ago, was remembered at the event. IKA Chairman Eddie Flood unveiled a new, carved stone seat in honour of Mrs Cooke, a kidney recipient of 29 years, who had been a founder member of the Irish Kidney Association and worked tirelessly to promote organ donation.

Consultant Brian O’Brien of Cork University Hospital who is Director of Organ Donation Transplant Ireland (ODTI), provoked laughter when he said his preparations for the celebration hadn’t factored in a local seagull which had left quite an impression on his clothing. On a more serious note, he explained how successful organ donation is a relatively new phenomenon, helped by the development of steroids and anti-rejection drugs. A consultant in Intensive Care Medicine, he also praised the generosity of families who opted to donate the organs of loved ones.

Two people who had done just that were Martina and Denis Goggin who founded the Circle of Life Garden. Their only child, Éamonn, died in July 2006 as a result of injuries sustained in a car crash. Their decision to donate his organs helped them through dark days and led to the creation of this special space ten years ago through the charity they established, the Strange Boat Donor Foundation.

Denis outlined the concept behind the garden and their intention from the beginning that it would be an inclusive, welcoming and beautiful space that would reflect the organ donation community in Ireland and across the globe.

He thanked all those who had supported them on the journey to making it a reality. Some of those people were present, including former senator Billy Lawless, and City Councillors Donal Lyons and Terry O’Flaherty and the council’s former Director of Services Ciaran Hayes. Also there was Deputy Noel Grealish and councillors Niall Murphy, Clodagh Higgins and Peter Keane as well as Mayor Eddie Hoare, who was special guest.

Present too, and also thanked, were local people who volunteer in the garden every Friday and who had it in superb condition for Saturday’s anniversary gathering.

The celebration opened and closed with music. Local choir the Baytones got proceedings underway with their rendition of Mo Ghile Mear and singer Eleanor Shanley concluded events with  the Waterboys’ song Strange Boat. The late Éamonn Goggin, who was a sound engineer, had first suggested to her that she should record that song and, by coincidence, Saturday happened to be his birthday, the day he would have been 44 years old.

The co-author of Strange Boat, Anto Thistletwaite of the Waterboys was there to hear her sing it, a suitably emotional ending to an emotional ceremony. Those present then moved to the neighbouring Galway Bay Hotel for tea, sandwiches and to share their experiences around organ donation on what was a very special day.

Pictured: Mayor of Galway, Cllr. Eddie Hoare, speaking at the tenth anniversary celebration of the Circle of Life National Organ Donor Commemorative Garden in Quincentennial Park, Salthill. Also in the photograph are Denis and Martina Goggin. Photo: Joe O’Shaughnessy

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune:

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