An open home and an open heart

Posted on: 29th June, 2017

Category: Features

Contributor: West Cork People

For the past 21 years, Michael and Elma O’Neill have opened up their home and their hearts to at least 13 children in need of foster care in West Cork.

When their own children were aged 7, 9 and 11, Michael and Elma decided to foster children in need of a home. The couple went on to adopt one of the children they fostered from the age of one, when he was nine. “He was a joy to rear,” says Elma. He’s 22 now and is a really good person; he does a lot of charity work. His sister lived with us until she was 17. She has moved to Cork but is still in touch and very much a part of our family.”

“There are ups and downs to fostering but definitely more ups than downs,” says Elma smiling. “It’s very rewarding to see children reach their full potential and lead happy and fulfilling lives.”

One piece of advice these experienced foster carers would give to anyone considering fostering is to take on children who are younger than your own.

“It’s better if your own children are influencing them and not the other way around,” says Michael.

“It is a big change to any family and I don’t think we put quite enough thought into that at the time. We didn’t appreciate how much it would impact on our kids. I’d suggest waiting until your own children are in Secondary school.”

Michael and Elma’s daughter, Cathríona, is now studying to be a Social Worker. “She recently shared with us how she felt, as a child, about having foster siblings. She said the biggest drawback was sharing her parents. She also said that it taught her how to empathise with others and made her the person she is today,” says Elma proudly.

The Irish Foster Care Association (IFCA) has offered a lot of support to the couple over the years. Child-centered and rights-based, the IFCA promotes excellence in foster care for all those involved. “I’d advise anyone new foster carers to join the IFCA,” says Elma “it’s a wonderful organisation and very supportive.”

The IFCA provides information, support and learning opportunities for all those involved in Foster care.

The organisation also promotes the development of positive change for children in alternative care and influences policy, legislation and opinion through its Advocacy work.

Catherine Bond, IFCA CEO, has worked in the area of children and family for thirty years and has extensive experience and knowledge of children in care, foster care, educational disadvantage, family support and education.

Catherine says that the challenge at the moment is that “not every child has a social care worker, even though Tusla are working to mitigate that, and also that not every foster care family has a link social worker”.

“You need all the parts of the sum to ensure it’s working well,” says Catherine. Foster carers and children need to be supported and if any issues arise they need to be dealt with in a timely way to prevent escalation. For example, if a child is out of sorts or presenting with difficult behaviour in a foster home and if respite is needed, then it should be given. However, if the foster family doesn’t have a link social worker then there is nowhere to go to request that respite. It’s absolutely crucial that children have their own social workers checking on them on a regular basis.”

“We have faced challenges,” admit Michael and Elma. “One of the children we fostered had suffered early childhood trauma and had mental health issues as a result. Unfortunately it took a while to get the help he needed. He came to us when he was three-and-a-half and we were his third foster family. From the age of eight onwards he received help from CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) but it was a case of too little too late really,” says Michael sadly. “We were told at the end of six years of treatment with CAMHS that we had a complex child on our hands!

“We only heard about early childhood trauma and its effects from an Australian child psychologist speaking at one of the IFCA conferences. We’re not experts and it’s very frustrating when you can’t get the help you need, especially when it’s for a child.”

“We have a little bit of contact with him now and still worry about him. We almost feel we failed him.”

“We have to ensure that foster carers receive support when they look for it, whether for themselves or the child in the case of speech and language therapy, mental health services and so on,” says Catherine. “If children are in care it should be a matter of fact that they are prioritised for all services and if you need help, you get it today, not in six months time.”

Michael and Elma have also done a lot of respite or short-term foster care. This is when one foster care family temporarily cares for another family’s foster children.

“There are so many highpoints to fostering that you overlook the challenges,” says Elma. “When you see a child going on to college or a good job or simply being a good and happy person, that makes it all worthwhile.”

“There are over 6000 children in the care of the State and 93 per cent of those are in foster care,” says Catherine. “The majority are doing very well and there are high levels of children in foster care moving on to third level education on completing the leaving certificate.

“On reaching 18, the majority of young people are not leaving their foster care home; they’re choosing to stay with the family. It’s very indicative of their identity and place within that family.

“There aren’t enough foster carers in Ireland,” says Catherine. We definitely need to recruit more.

“A common theme we’re seeing at the moment is around the number of children placed in foster care outside of their own communities of origin. Because children are being placed large distances away from their own community and family of origin, foster carers are spending more and more time on the road bringing children to and from access. The foster carer plays a significant role in preparing the young person for access, dealing with the anxieties felt by the child and making sure everything is ok for them, before and afterwards. The long distances foster carers are having to travel is something new and emerging.”

Catherine explains that the assessment process in becoming a foster carer can take from five to 12 months. “It is quite intensive and looks at all areas, assessing how you manage situations in your own life. These children are bringing lots of their own issues with them so you do need to be prepared for that.

“The majority of calls that the IFCA deal with are from prospective foster carers looking for more information. Any new foster carer can join the IFCA.

“Our role is very much around education and support and we play a significant role in terms of advocacy for foster care in Ireland. If we see a trend arising from the National Support helpline, we raise that with Tusla and collaboratively try to address it. We also have meetings with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and other relevant bodies significant for children in foster care.”

At a stage in their lives where they’re now ready to hang up their fostering hats, Michael and Elma are looking forward to a slightly less active life and looking back with pride at the wonderful children they have cared for.

The couple love to travel and have always taken their foster children with them on holidays. “We travelled to Norway and took two of the foster children with us. I used to find little notes in their rooms saying, ‘I can’t wait for the holidays’, says Elma smiling at the memory. Perhaps there’s more travel adventures on the cards for Michael and Elma!

IFCA support workers are available on the phone and email five days a week from 11am – 3pm (01 458 5123 /  The service is confidential, responsive, and personal. All IFCA support volunteers have completed a Certificate in Counselling and Psychotherapeutic Skills and Practice course.

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Wave to Mary! 65-year-old Mary Nolan Hickey is running around the entire coast of the Island of Ireland to raise funds & awareness for the RNLI and is currently running the roads of West Cork.

Mary is the only woman to have completed every single Dublin Marathon (all 38 of them). She’s also completed the grueling Marathon des Sables in the Sahara Desert, known as the ‘toughest foot race on earth’.

To mark her 50th year involved in Athletics Mary is taking on her biggest challenge yet (even though she thought she’d already done that when completing the Dublin Marathon when she was over six months pregnant!) She wants to raise as much money as possible for the RNLI.

Mary started her epic journey in Arklow, Co. Wicklow, on New Year’s Day. She aims to cover up to 5000 kilometers, using coastal routes, over the next five months. She hopes to get back in time to get her first pension payment in June when she turns 66.

Mary will stop off at as many RNLI stations as possible, on her once in a lifetime adventure. As far as she knows no other woman has ever taken on this challenge.

Speaking about her journey Mary said:

“I wanted to prove that age not a barrier. Coming from a coastal town I have a deep affinity with our local RNLI station & volunteers and have huge admiration for the brave men and women who risk their lives to save lives at sea”.

Mary, who’s depending on the goodwill of communities along her route for accommodation, has been astounded by the response so far. “The support has been overwhelming,” she said. “I have met the most amazing and encouraging people along the way”.

To see more about Mary’s adventures, and to pinpoint her location today, check out her Facebook page - rnlilapofthemap2018.
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20th March, 2018  ·  


This Saturday the 10th March, will see some magically curious activity as local Bandon national schools compete in a Wizarding Harry Potter Quiz. The prize will be the beautiful Bandon Banshee Perpetual Cup.

As any Harry Potter enthusiast knows, Bandon has the unique honour of having a character named after the town. The Bandon Banshee, was referred to as the nemesis of Gilderoy Lockhart in the Chamber of Secrets. The book grossed €60 million in sales and was the 7th highest earning film of all time.

Locals, looking to enhance the town for young people, saw the quiz as an ideal way promote the connection. The universally absorbing book series brings young readers on a huge adventure of magic, adversity and triumph. It is also an exploration of loyalty and friendship, good and evil – so it is not only popular way to engage young people, it is a hugely positive connection.

Zoe Tennyson, one of the organisers said they were delighted with the response from schools who ran a qualifying quiz as part of World Book Day. On Saturday Bandon Town Hall will be transformed into Hogwarts Great Hall, with proceeds going Bandon Playground Group, and to cover costs of the event.

Bandon Books will be rewarding the winning team with vouchers to each of the five members. The Bandon Banshee, or Bean-sidhe na Bandaan Perpetual Cup will be hotly contested – but which school will the Banshee go to??

If you have any questions please call Marguerite McQuaid on 087 900 9494
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8th March, 2018  ·  

Ballineen Foróige Young Engineers Exhibition 23 February 2018

The inaugural Ballineen Foróige Young Engineers Exhibition will take place in Gort Mhuire Hall in Ballineen this Friday 23rd February. As part of Engineers Week 2018, leaders and members of Ballineen Foróige Club have organised an exhibition which will showcase a diverse and exciting range of engineering projects that have been undertaken by members of the club over the last few weeks, with the aid of leaders and a number of local engineers.

With the aid of local pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, along with the support of STEAM Education, a UCC based company focused on promoting science, technology, engineering, arts, and maths subjects in primary schools, Ballineen Foróige has been engaging members and leaders in all things engineering over the last six weeks. From researching, designing, and prototyping a project based on local problems, to participating in various workshops on coding and careers in engineering, Ballineen Foróige have been extremely busy in preparation for the exhibition this coming Friday night.

On the night itself, Michael Loftus, Head of Engineering at CIT, Fintan Goold, Manager at Eli Lilly and All-Ireland Cork winning Footballer, along with Geraldine Coughlan of GCA Architects & Designers, a local business, will act as judges on the night, evaluating the different engineering projects and offering some advice to the members of the club. Also in attendance will be the CEO of Foróige Seán Campbell, along with a number of local councillors, TD’s and Senators.

Leading the team of Ballineen Foróige leaders organising the event, is Rebecca Dwyer, a bioprocess engineer at Eli Lilly. Rebecca recently became a leader in the club and says that Ballineen Foróige Young Engineer Exhibition 2018 “promises to be a fun, challenging and rewarding experience for all involved and we look forward to welcoming parents, relatives, friends and members of the public to the exhibition and film screening on the evening of Friday 23rd February.” Overall, there are twelve projects entered in the exhibition. One project, led by Cian Kennefick and Charlie Nolan, members of the starting out club, examines the possibility of installing speed ramps on the road near local primary school. Fourteen-year-old Charlie says he got involved in the project as it was something to do and it gets you thinking. Cian says the most exciting part of the project was the building of the prototypes.

Both Cian and Charlie, along with thirty other members of the club will display their projects this coming Friday 23 February in Gort Mhuire Hall in Ballineen. Doors open at 8pm and the event runs until 10pm. All are welcome to attend, and admission is free. Catering, including tea and coffee, will be provided on the night.
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20th February, 2018  ·  

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Main course

17th February, 2018  ·  

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