A MAJOR charity initiative which was to see representatives from 26 good causes in the Limerick area taking part in Sunday’s Great Limerick Run is on the point of collapse, after charity leaders moved to distance themselves from its organiser.
The 26 Miles for 26 Heroes event was the brainchild of Denyse O’Brien, a native of Cork who lives in the city.
Launched in January, the idea was to have ‘heroes’ representing 26 local good causes cover a mile each in the event, with a baton being handed on after each mile. Some of the most well known charities in the city and county attended the launch, which was followed by a high-profile coffee morning and a Heroes Ball at the city’s Strand Hotel on March 21.
However, several of the charities confirmed to the Limerick Leader this Wednesday that they have ended their participation in 26 Miles for 26 Heroes. This follows the publication in last weekend’s Limerick Leader of a report which detailed how Ms O’Brien, of Sruthain an Padraig, Rhebogue pleaded guilty to fraud amounting to €3,000.
Judge Marian O’Leary at Kilmallock court heard that the mother of a friend of Ms O’Brien’s had given her a debit card to organise a birthday party for her daughter.
While Ms O’Brien returned the card, she retained the number and other details and subsequently used the card to carry out 51 separate transactions, including a €500 deposit on a car and a three-night stay in a Limerick hotel which cost €240.
Ms O’Brien’s solicitor told the court she was “mortified” by her actions and that the fraud had “coincided with a very difficult period in her life”.
A source close to the Strand Hotel said it was “aggrieved” with the turn of events.
“The hotel wasn’t involved in any way with collecting money from the local charities,” the source said.
It is also understood that the hotel contacted gardai this Wednesday morning over the matter and that approximately €900 is still owed to the hotel arising from the ball held at the Strand in March.
Shortly after the report was published, the website for 26 Miles for 26 Heroes was taken down by Richard Lynch, founder of ILoveLimerick.com, who says he now feels “hurt, angry and betrayed” by Ms O’Brien.
Mr Lynch said he went to great lengths to help her because “the original idea was a brilliant one” and brought the different charities together in a spirit of solidarity.
Local media organisations, including the Leader, the Limerick Post and Limerick’s Live 95FM, also offered support to the initiative, which garnered substantial publicity after its launch. The coffee morning, held on February 26, raised €11,170, with charities handling all funds raised themselves.
Mr Lynch wrote to the charities this Wednesday, saying: “I read this story last Thursday morning. I was at University Hospital Limerick at the time. Later that day my father passed away. I buried my father only yesterday and my heart is heavy with grief. After I processed the story, I felt hurt, angry and betrayed and decided to delete the website which myself and my team had spent days building. I also deleted all the photos and stories on my site and on social media.
“I want you all to know I am no longer associated in any capacity with the 26 Miles 26 Heroes project in terms of offering marketing and PR but will continue to do so for all of your individual charities.”
Wendy Costello, chairperson of iCAN, the Irish Children’s Arthritis Network, which had been due to cover Mile 10 on Sunday, confirmed to the Leader that the charity had severed its ties with Ms O’Brien’s initiative.
“We emailed the rest of the charities on Friday,” she said. “We took the decision that we had to dissociate ourselves from it. It’s very unfortunate. Denyse was the face of 26 Miles – there was nobody around her. But a lot of good has come out of it and we meet some brilliant people.”
Liam Mulcahy, who runs Sophie’s Journey Foundation in memory of his late daughter, who died last year aged just eight, also confirmed that the charity no longer had an involvement with 26 Miles for 26 Heroes.
“We distanced ourselves from it after the ball in March,” he said. “We have told the other charities that we are no longer part of it. It is a pity. The good thing to come out of it is that we have made a lot of friends. The idea was fantastic but it seemed to lose direction.”
Several other charities contacted said they were either withdrawing from the event or considering their position.
Contacted this Wednesday, Ms O’Brien said she still expected the event to go ahead, even if some of the charities were not represented.
“I’m sure people will pass the baton on anyway,” she said, adding that as far as she is aware only five of the 26 will not be participating.
“I’ve literally just been sorting all this out today. I literally just sent a group mail 20 minutes ago,” she said.
In this email, which Ms O’Brien forwarded to the Leader, she refers to “an article about me which is upsetting” and tells that charities: “I would hope people wouldn’t act judge and jury, because there’s more to every situation than meets the eye and we have all things from our past that made us or broke us ... Since December I have worked tirelessly in my own time to try promote awareness for you all.”
Regarding the money still owed to the Strand Hotel, she told the Leader: “The hotel is short money for the simple reason that there was two empty tables that night and they still have to be accounted for. That’s why.”
However, in the email sent to the charities this Wednesday, Ms O’Brien suggested that she had already accounted for this shortfall, writing: “I chose to come out of my own pocket as it would not be fair to those who attended”.
The email states that a total of €3,227 had been raised by the ball, which includes the proceeds from a raffle held on the night. She told the Leader that this money is currently sitting in a credit union account and that it would be distributed to the charities after Sunday’s event.
Ms O’Brien also told this newspaper that “one group in particular” had tried to influence the other charities after the court report appeared.
“One crowd got a hold of it and everybody seemed to get a text,” she said.
She insisted that she retained the support of the majority of the charities. Asked to name a charity representative who would be prepared to state this publicly, she nominated Gina O’Dwyer, treasurer of the Irish Red Cross.
However, when subsequently contacted, Ms O’Dwyer said she was unaware that other charities were distancing themselves from the event.
“We’ll have to get the facts,” she said. “I genuinely don’t know the story. We’ll have to get the background and see where we go. I didn’t even know Richard [Lynch] was gone from it.
“For a while, we didn’t even know that we were included in it in the first place. The first time we ever heard about it was on Facebook. We were just nominated [by Ms O’Brien] as one of the 26. It had been so highly publicised that we felt it was OK to go with it.”
Ms O’Brien was also prominent in recent media reports for a different reason. A native of Mourneabbey, Co Cork she gave interviews to Limerick’s Live 95FM and the Leader following the murder in Scotland of her former neighbour, Karen Buckley, saying she was haunted by the thought of Karen’s body being found on an isolated farm.
John Cleary, organiser of the Barringtons Hospital Great Limerick Run, said: “We provide the event and many people use it as a platform for fundraising. Obviously, in this instance, that has been tainted but we will be focusing on the positives. For us the GLR is all about showcasing the city and all that is good about Limerick.
“We had little or no contact with Denyse O’Brien. She came up with the idea off her own bat. I am not surprised that some charities are no longer part of it. They have to be protective of their reputations and their good names.”
Below is a list of the local good causes who had confirmed their participation:
Mile 1: Sophie’s Journey Foundation; Mile 2: Limerick City Fire & Rescue; Mile 3: Limerick Animal Welfare; Mile 4: Grow Ireland Mental Health Limerick; Mile 5: Focus Ireland for Thomond House Limerick; Mile 6: Dóchas Limerick; Mile 7: CSPP Suicide Prevention Limerick / Pieta House; Mile 8: Rape Crisis Midwest; Mile 9: Jack & Jill Children’s Foundation; Mile 10: Irish Children’s Arthritis Network; Mile 11: Mid-West Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus Association; Mile 12: Zondra Meaney Treatment Fund; Mile 13: Limerick Red Cross; Mile 14: MS Mid-West; Mile 15: Cliona’s Foundation Limerick; Mile 16: Donal Walsh Foundation; Mile 17: Ian’s Trust – in memory of Ian Cusack; Mile 18: St Gabriel’s School; Mile 19: Friends of A (Adrienne Hussey); Mile 20: Adapt House Limerick; Mile 21: Injured Jockeys Limerick; Mile 22: Midwest Miscarriage; Mile 23: Limerick Land Rescue Team; Mile 24: Clare’s Wish Foundation; Mile 25: Milford Hospice and Mile 26: Headway.