Trying to interview Mary Coyle is like trying to catch a butterfly in a meadow on a bright summer’s day with cupped hands while blindfolded.
That’s because this tireless community worker in Dore, west Donegal, is so busy organising so many projects.
Her energy seems endless.
“It’s true,” she says, smiling, when I try to pin her down for an interview. “I seem to be so busy doing the projects, I’ve no time to actually talk about them.”
Simply listing the projects Mary is involved in is quite a dizzying challenge.
They include directing a ‘Meals on Wheels Network,’ promoting the Irish language, running a wide range of classes from gymnastics, tai chi and yoga to cookery, choir practice and basketball, as well as a Bothán na mBan (Women’s Shed), a visiting physiotherapist, pulmonary rehabilitation and exercise for the over 50’s.
A particular project Mary is deeply involved in, which proceeds from the ‘Fiddles & Faeries’ world fiddle playing record breaking event on New Year’s Eve will support, focuses on a particular concern in Donegal – access to medical treatment for cancer patients, more specifically getting patients to Dublin for their treatment or/and diagnoses.
Helping such patients, Mary runs the ‘Donegal Cancer Flights and Services,’ a charity that provides help to cancer victims to access life-saving medical care not available in Donegal, as well as young and old who need kidney dialysis treatment.
“We have hundreds of people on our books who have to fly up and down whether that’s for check-ups, diagnosis or treatment,” she said. “It’s very difficult for patients to have to go by bus or ask a family member to drive. It is a five-hour journey and there is huge financial worry as well. It’s not just cancer patients, children use the flight that have life threatening illnesses and people travel up and down for kidney dialysis. It is time for our politicians to pull together and fight for Donegal because it seems to be one thing after another.”
Róise Ni Mhaonaigh from Gaoth Dobhair knows first hand the importance of this service. She travelled from Donegal Airport twice weekly at the start of her mother’s cancer treatment.
“The flight has been a lifeline. Without that service she wouldn’t have been able to receive the treatment in Dublin because of the long journey. The bus can take six hours and if you have one appointment then it could be a 12 hour trip. It leaves us in a place now where we just don’t know what we will do,” she said.
Róise praised the staff at Donegal Airport who made the difficult process that little bit easier.
“They provide such a fantastic wheelchair service. For cancer patients some appointments can be very scary and everyone working at the airport is so lovely. To think that service won’t be there, I don’t know what we would have done without it.”
Róise moved back to Gaoth Dobhair during the pandemic when her mother got sick. The flight has also been a lifeline in terms of work.
“Without the infrastructure it is making it very hard for people to settle here. I have been able to work remotely and I could use the flight if I had to go into the office,” she said. “Dublin isn’t accessible now.”
Difficulties arose earlier this year when Stobart Air, which operated the daily flights, ceased trading, and the flights to Dublin from Donegal were placed in jeopardy, in danger of being cancelled permanently.
Back then, Chair of Donegal Action for Cancer Care, Betty Holmes, said cancellation of the flight would cause immense stress for cancer patients.
“The loss of this service would have a major impact on Donegal cancer patients and leave cancer patients who are scheduled for appointments and treatment asking how would they get to Dublin,” she said. “We need to see our Donegal Minister and TDs fighting hard to make sure this service continues.”
Local TD, Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty then demanded that the Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan intervene to ensure that the flight is restored as a matter of urgency.
“I look at the role that the Donegal to Dublin route has in my own constituency and it’s not hard to see why our community needs the services that this route provides,” he said. “The daily flights from Donegal to Dublin not only open up the northwest to tourism, but they also serve cancer patients who have to travel to Dublin for treatment. Many students, workers and businesses depend on the route as well. The 40-minute flight makes that journey much easier than the 4 or 5 hours it takes to travel by road, each way.”
He added, “The northwest is not connected to Dublin or the rest of Ireland by motorway, dual carriageway or rail. For those who live in Donegal and travel to work or study in Dublin, the regional airport makes this possible.”
Cathaoirleach (chairperson) of Donegal County Council, Cllr Rena Donaghey, said “The Council will continue to support and work with the Airport to ensure that it retains its place as the preferred airport of choice for people travelling to Glasgow as well as using Dublin for both final destination and through travel to other international areas served from there.”
Fortunately, that difficult situation has been solved as Swedish airline, Amapola Fly AB, headquartered in Stockholm, had recently started flights. The airline started in 2005 as an air freight/cargo operator and more recently expanded its operations to include scheduled passenger services. It currently operates on seven PSO routes in Sweden and Finland.