Sr Aquinas McNulty – a powerful advocate for inclusion in Ballina. By Brenda Quinn & Gussie McEvilly
Sister Aquinas was Ballina’s Own Mother Teresa who touched the lives of so many people in Ballina & all over the world. In 1979 she became involved with the wheelchair association in Ballina. Today, March 1st is #InternationalWheelchairDay. Disability activism has evolved since then, but Sr Aquinas contributed greatly to ensuring that wheelchair users in Ballina and beyond could access activities and participate in society on an equal level.
She took it upon herself to identify every person with a disability within the catchment area of Ballina., many of whom might rarely have left their homes before this time. She began by organising little social events to bring them together and soon discovered she had a very successful group of quiz enthusiasts. She prevailed upon everyone she knew who had a car or van to collect her clients, drop them to the venues and return them home later.
She then began to look for accommodation suitable for wheelchair users. A local family, Cowleys, donated a basic building close to the Quay area and it was then her first wheelchair hostel was founded with an “extension “in Shanaghy Heights. Thus began her campaign to fundraise and renovate the building to make it suitable and habitable and safe for all. This tiny woman knocked on every door in Ballina and far beyond to get the necessary money.
She created a social life for her clients and ensured they received all their entitlements. Trips to music venues and the pub for the odd pint and activities such as darts, card games and quizzes. She managed to buy a van and would and drive people to social events all over Mayo. Her driving left a lot to be desired but everyone always left and returned in one piece.
Meanwhile, Aquinas purchased a site on the Killala road and set about building Emmanuel House which was to provide medical and nursing care for older residents. In 1991, Aquinas was awarded the Dr. John Igoe award as person of the year which was sponsored by Irish Life under the heading Rehab.
When it became clear to Aquinas that her Wheelchair Foundation would continue without her, she turned her energy to other things.
She saw the need to work with people with AIDS. She worked first in Galway, then in Boston where AIDS was rampant and a cure had yet to be found, this intrepid nun set off across the Atlantic to care for the people who were regarded as social outcasts at the time (thankfully things have changed a lot since then). The plight of the Romanian orphans also stirred her and she spent some three years working in a Romanian orphanage caring for children in appalling conditions.
She returned to Ireland in 1994, however, her feet itched again for the Third World and when she was asked by Bishop Thomas Finnegan to join with Fr Martin Keaveny in the Killala Diocesan Mission in Brazil she was only too happy to oblige.
Aquinas left for Brazil in October 1995. Before she went, she approached the Dept. of External Affairs and asked for money to purchase a truck. When reminded by the official who met her that she had already been given money to buy a truck she swiftly replied: “That was for Romania, now I’m looking for a truck for Brazil”. When asked what kind of truck she needed she replied, “One that can be used to transport a lot of people and can be used on dirt roads.” Shortly before Christmas a substantial cheque arrived from the Department of External Affairs.
Aquinas had a great saying” Courage is doing what you are afraid to do” and courage she had a-plenty. She attempted what to others were impossible tasks with a mixture of determination and good humour. No journey was too far, no hill impossible to climb. No door would remain shut and people were carried along on her waves of enthusiasm. When she spoke of courage, it was spoken out of difficult experiences. She had an independent and creative spirit, could see what could be done, how it could be done and she knew she had the ability to do it.
Having arrived in Brazil, Aquinas spent the first few months teaching art classes, studying Portuguese and getting a better understanding of life in the Amazonian town of Colinas do Tocantins. In June of 1996 she returned to Ireland to seek funding for a crèche from Irish Aid. In August she returned with two lay missionaries. They spent four months doing an intensive language course and then she hit the ground running. She restarted her art classes much to the delight of the women and young girls in the area. She taught them how to make beautiful hand painted tea towels which they sold for extra income. Fr. Martin even brought some to New York and sold them to his friends on their behalf. The extra money was very welcome for those poor families.
She formed a Presidium of the Legion of Mary and formed a music group in the parish teaching deprived children the tin whistle and guitar. There are church musicians today who started their musical initiation with Sr. Aquinas. She successfully acquired the funds for a crèche from the Irish Government. It was completed after her death and named in her honour and over the years helped thousands of families. She was known to everyone as Irma Yvonne. She was loved by all for her many acts of kindness and her unfailing commitment to those less fortunate.
On the 28th January 1997 on the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, Aquinas along with Fr Martin went to the Diocesan Centre for a well-earned rest and break from a heavy workload. Aquinas died suddenly on the morning of the 29th January 1997. She was laid to rest in the municipal cemetery in Colinas.
Ar dheis lámh Dé go raibh a h-anam dílis.
Thanks to Brenda Quinn and Gussie McEvilly this blog post. Ballina 2023 is a year long celebration of the 300th anniversary of the formal establishment of the town. Our goal is to honour the past, celebrate the present and inspire hope for the future. Throughout the year we will remember people like Sister Aquinas who contributed significantly to our community.
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