Katie Whelan is named as Limerick Person of the Year

Aine Fitzgerald


Aine Fitzgerald

Katie Whelan is named as Limerick Person of the Year

Person of the year: Katie Whelan and below Pictures: Mike Cowhey

A STUDENT who came up with an innovative way to highlight positive mental health after losing her first cousin to suicide has been named Limerick’s Person of the Year 2015.

Katie Whelan, who hails from the Dublin Road, was just 18 when she won the support of thousands of people – and crucially Limerick City and County Council – for her project, Lisa’s Lights, which saw life-affirming messages placed on Thomond Bridge.

Katie was revealed as the Limerick Person of the Year 2015 at a gala ceremony at Limerick’s Clarion Hotel this Thursday and is one of the youngest recipients of the prestigious award.

Alan English, editor of the Limerick Leader, who is one of the judges of the Limerick Person of the Year award, said Katie’s contribution to positive mental health in Limerick, particularly among her peers, has been invaluable.

“Katie came up with a very effective way to highlight one of the biggest challenges in today’s society, mental health. Her Lisa’s Lights campaign in memory of her late cousin captured the imagination and I’m sure has given hope to many experiencing difficult times,” said Mr English.

Katie persuaded Limerick City and County Council to allow the installation of lights which bear positive life-affirming messages, on Thomond Bridge.

The teenager teamed up with Limerick company Alphaset to produce the perspex boxes which displayed the messages including ‘Add friends to your tea’, ‘Take a deep breath’ and ‘Turn that frown upside down’.

At a launch ceremony attended by Munster star Keith Earls, the Ardscoil Mhuire student said the reaction had been unbelievable.

“Everyone has been so positive and supportive. I have had a great reaction from people who saw the lights up and felt better. It really has made a difference to people,” she said.

She said when she initially put the idea to light Limerick’s bridges out in the form of a petition – which ending up getting 8,000 signatures – she did not expect such a big reaction.

“To see the way everybody reacted was so special and fantastic. To be able to promote positive mental health in such an amazing way was just wonderful,” she said.

The special guest at this year’s Limerick Person of the Year awards was one of the country’s leading businessmen, Denis Brosnan, who resides in Croom.

Mr Brosnan was honoured for his outstanding contribution towards the revival of Limerick and the Mid-West region.

“His continuing efforts as chairman of the Limerick Economic Forum ensure that the excellent progress already made is sustained long into the future,” said Mr English.

The Limerick Person of the Year awards cover a broad spectrum of accomplishments, ranging from excellence on the sporting field, to community endeavours which make a positive contribution to local society, to invaluable contributions to education and business in the Mid-West region.

Mr English said that each year the ceremony is an opportunity to recognise the exploits of people from all walks of life who have made “a fantastic contribution to Limerick city and county.

“This event is an opportunity to honour the unsung heroes of Limerick - people of courage and ability who carry out the most remarkable feats. Again this year, the 12 nominees are a shining example of what the true spirit of Limerick is all about.

“The moment when the envelope is opened is always a special one, but all 12 of the nominees can be very proud of their contributions and Limerick is very proud of them.”

The 12 monthly recipients:

January: Ballyneety Golf Club members

The successful efforts of the committee behind Ballyneety Golf Club in bringing the facility back to life as a thriving golf and community amenity were recognised with a Limerick Person of the Month award.

Originally opened in 1994 as a privately operated golf club, the 18-hole course went into liquidation in February 2011.

The following year, three men  Liam Lawlor, Donal McSweeney and Minie O’Brien came together to see what could be done to restore what was in danger of becoming a derelict facility.

They devised a plan to purchase the 183-acre site and the original team gathered around them a group of committed individuals to drive the project forward. The support of former captains and presidents, members and residents of Ballyneety village was pledged and an intensive phone, text and e-mail campaign was undertaken to grow support for the project.

An information meeting was attended by in excess of 250 persons who turned out to lend support to the venture.

Since then, membership has grown to over 600 and that original vision is well on its way to becoming a reality.

February: The parents of the late Darragh O’Brien

A couple who lost their only child Darragh, 2, from a sudden unexplained death were named the Limerick Persons of the Month after raising over €20,000 for a charity which supports suddenly bereaved parents and families.

Patrice Clarke and Donnacha O’Brien, were left heartbroken in November 2014 when their beloved toddler died unexpectedly at his home at Cooga, Doon.

An hour before he died, Patrice could hear the carefree little boy singing happily to his teddies.

“He was full of beans and tractor mad,” Patrice recalled.

To celebrate Darragh’s life and raise money for the charity, FirstLight, the couple organised a vintage tractor run and family fun day in Doon on Sunday, April 26, 2015 and they also hosted a table quiz in The Local in Doon which saw 54 tables being filled when they expected around 20.

“We have raised over €20,000 and we are hoping to hand it over soon enough. We are still waiting for a small bit to come back,” Patrice explained at the award ceremony.

March: Katie Whelan

Leaving Certificate student Katie Whelan was honoured for the determination she showed in highlighting the importance of positive mental health, after losing her first cousin to suicide.

The 19-year-old who hails from the Dublin Road, won the support of thousands of people – and crucially Limerick City and County Council – for her project, which saw life-affirming messages placed on Thomond Bridge.

One of the youngest winners of the Limerick Person of the Month, Katie teamed up with Limerick company Alphaset to produce the perspex boxes which displayed the messages including ‘Add friends to your tea’, ‘Take a deep breath’ and ‘Turn that frown upside down’.

They were named ‘Lisa’s Lights’ in honour of her beloved cousin. Her story was covered by both local and national media.

At a launch ceremony, attended by Munster star Keith Earls, the Ardscoil Mhuire student said the reaction had been unbelievable.

April: Team Limerick Clean-Up

On Good Friday, April 3, a massive clean-up day in both Limerick city and county took place. This was known as Team Limerick Clean-up (TLC).

The TLC initiative was sponsored by the JP McManus Benevolent Fund and was co-ordinated by Limerick City and County Council with the support of Mr Binman; the Limerick Leader and Live 95FM.

Some 10,054 men, women and children from all around the city and county took part.

Volunteers included Ireland and Munster rugby player Paul O'Connell, businessman JP McManus and monks from Glenstal Abbey who were out in boats cleaning the banks of the river Shannon.

They were joined across the city and county by school children, business people, charities, sporting heroes and local community groups.

In total, volunteers gave up to 20,108 hours of their time cleaning up Limerick on Good Friday, April 3 as part of the inspiring initiative.

May: Enda Bolger

Racehorse trainer Enda Bolger was named the Limerick Person of the Month after achieving an elusive treble with hunter chaser On The Fringe which triumphed at the three major spring jumping festivals.

On the Fringe became the first horse since 1993 to win the Cheltenham and Aintree hunter chases in the same season and then went on to achieve the remarkable treble by also winning in Punchestown, making him the first horse to win at the three courses since the great Sprinter Sacre in 2013.

The record had previously been broken by the JP McManus-owned Istabraq in 1999.

June: Robert Laffan

Robert Laffan was honoured for opening new channels of communication with his autistic daughter thanks to the development of a device which may revolutionise one-to-one contact with people who have non-verbal disabilities.

Robert’s touchscreen device, Tippy Talk, has enabled his daughter Sadie, 4, to not alone request various items but also to express how she is feeling – which has, in turn, resulted in reduced frustration for the little girl.

It allows her to communicate her desires, feelings and needs to her parents through the transfer of pictures to text messages.

It also allows Sadie send messages to her parents no matter where they are in the world.

And it is not just limited to autism - the Tippy Talk can be adapted to cover other areas of non-verbal disabilities.

While there are apps which work in a similar way to Tippy Talk there is a limitation that the recipient would have to be in the same room as the sender of the message.

July: Brian Toomey

Jockey Brian Toomey was honoured for his remarkable display of courage, grit and determination in returning to the saddle after been given just a 3% chance of survival, having suffered a devastating fall in 2013.

When he hit the ground after taking a headfirst fall from Solway Dandy in a handicap hurdle at Perth, Scotland on July 4, 2013, Brian ‘died’.

The medical personnel who attended him at the scene later said he’d been dead for six seconds.

A large section of his skull was removed as his brain swelled in an induced coma and he spent 157 days in hospital before being discharged. Seven hundred and four days after suffering the fall, Brian was re-licensed as a professional jockey.

He returned to the saddle on July 12 at Southwell and enjoyed his first race on Irish soil since the fall during the Galway Festival. He is also an assistant trainer.

August: Ashleigh O’Hagan

Ashleigh O’Hagan, 22, was Limerick’s only athlete to compete at the Special Olympic World Games in LA where she secured two bronze medals and three place ribbons for her remarkable efforts.

Ashleigh, who hails from Derryhasna, O’Brien’s Bridge, Co Limerick, was among 88 people from across the 32 counties who competed in various events in the City of Angels in late July and early August.

As well as flying the flag for Limerick and Ireland, Ashleigh, who is a gymnast with Lisnagry Special Olympics Club, was also doing all her teammates at the Limerick club proud.

September: Limerick Under 21 hurlers

The Limerick Under-21 hurlers were honoured for ending a 13-year famine by claiming the distinctive Cross of Cashel All-Ireland trophy and, in turn, the U21 All-Ireland title, in swashbuckling style in Thurles.

In front of an attendance of 18,554 at Semple Stadium in September, the Limerick men took charge early on and never let go – their 16-point winning margin only some indication of the superiority of the Munster champions.

The win over Wexford was the county's first All-Ireland title in the grade since 2002 when they won the last of their three-in-a-row and they'll be hoping for a much better harvest from this bunch who look really special.

October: Sharon Slater

Sharon Slater, a woman with an endless passion for Limerick’s storied history, was named the Limerick Person of the Month for her ability to convey that passion to the people of the city, county and far beyond via her website Limerick’s Life.

Sharon, who was reared in Murroe, started the website in 2004 in an effort to record the local history of Limerick city.

Over the past 11 years, the site has gone from strength to strength with 1,000 people visiting each day. It has been further enhanced by Sharon’s use of social media including YouTube. The associated Limerick’s Life Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts have over 10,000 combined users.

Visitors to the sites can delve into a treasure trove of old photographs, articles and videos about the history of the city’s old buildings, churches, graveyards, cathedrals and streets.

November: Neil Pakey

Neil Pakey, the CEO of the Shannon Group was honoured for his achievements in the role  since taking over in May 2013.  

As CEO of the group, he has had responsibility for the transition of Shannon Commercial Properties - the property portfolio of the former Shannon Development, the establishment of the International Aviation Services Centre in Shannon with increased turnover, reduced costs and improved profits achieved since his takeover. He has also seen traffic growing around 20% since independence from the DAA.

Likewise, visitor numbers at attractions under Shannon Heritage, part of the Group, are up, particularly at King John’s Castle, which hit 100,000 visitors in 2015 – a doubling since Pakey took over.

December: Dr Maria Hinfelaar

Dr Maria Hinfelaar was honoured for overseeing a major period of expansion and innovation at Limerick Institute of Technology during her 11 years as president.

Dr Hinfelaar, a native of the Netherlands, joined LIT as president in 2004. The Moylish Park facility which has seen an increase in student numbers from 4,000 to 6,500 during her 11 years at the helm. The college currently has a staff of 550.

During her tenure, she has overseen the opening of new campuses and business centres as a result of takeovers of other institutes of technologies across the region.

LIT was named Institute of Technology of the Year 2008/09 and 2012/13 in the prestigious Sunday Times University Guide. Dr Hinfelaar led the successful negotiations that resulted in the Government’s approval for the integration of Tipperary Institute into LIT in 2011.

Dr Hinfelaar’s strategic vision has seen LIT make use of the city centre in terms of its development and in ensuring community engagement within the city centre.  LIT have committed to the student accommodation element of the Opera Centre site.