*Thomas Connole. 

TRIBUTES have been paid to North Clare native, Thomas Connole following his recent death.

A well-known disability activist, Thomas died on February 25th following a long illness, he is buried with his parents, as he wished, in Kilcorney Graveyard in the Burren.

He was born in Kilcorney in North Clare and due to blindness he was sent to Dublin to attend a residential school for the blind at the age of three, an experience which he found very difficult. When he finished school in 1992 he came back to Ennis to find work and live independently. He served for three years as the Chairperson of the Disabled People of Clare (D.P.O.C).

Thomas studied at third level and earned an honours degree in social science at the University of Limerick while also obtaining several diplomas at the University of Galway. For 30 years Thomas was also an active member of the GROW community, a peer support organisation for the promotion of mental health. Here he made lifelong friendships and was a valued support and inspiration to many. He was instrumental in getting the Grow program made available in Braille.

Corofin native Dermot Hayes first met Thomas when they were involved in the setting up of DPOC, their work helped it to become “a radical organisation” in the county “along with the ‘Centre for Independent Living’ which was a National Organisation. We campaigned for rights, not charity and promoted the independent living model. Choice was very important”.

Dermot told The Clare Echo, “More participation and inclusion was our goal. Our mantra was ‘Nothing about us without us’. We travelled regularly to Dublin and other counties meeting and supporting other similar groups. Also we visited the EU Parliament to lobby for Personal Assistance legislation and funding. Thomas was very committed to our campaign”.

In the 1990s, Thomas got his own house in Ennis and a decade ago he got one of the first Personal Assistance packages via the HSE which enabled him to set up a company with the aid of the late Martin Naughton, his sister Teresa, her husband Raymond and two others. “This was a big breakthrough and was a huge success. It enabled him to employ his own PAS (personal assistants)which gave him more agency and control over his life,” Dermot reflected.

Hayes added, “Thomas was great company on a night out. He just loved to sing and his friends loved this about him. He joined the Ennis Gospel Choir with Fiona Walsh in 2008. He absolutely loved it and rarely missed a practice. Thomas was taken to their hearts as we saw on the day of the funeral mass where they sang some of his favourite songs like ‘’Something Inside so Strong’. Thomas’ sister Brid did a wonderful moving eulogy from the alter in Ennis Cathedral. In the latter days of his life a number of well-known singers and musicians came to visit him to sing and play music, among them was Tommy Fleming. His contribution to the disability movement over the last 30 years was huge.

Speaking at the launch of ‘We Are Human Too’, a book co-produced by the Clare Leader Forum, Gabriellla Hanrahan paid tribute to Thomas. “I hate speaking in public but when Ann Marie (Flanagan) asked me to do this I was really humbled by it”.

She noted that Thomas was laid to rest surrounded by loving family and devoted friends. She said there was an “emotional ambivalence” that had great joy in launching the book but also “immense sadness at laying to rest one of the brave warriors”.

Ennis native Gabriella knew Thomas for over thirty years, “he became one of the bravest and most fearless people I have known,” she recounted. “Thomas’ weapon of choice in the war against the status quo was the roving mic, who hosted or the venue was never a barrier,” she quipped. In such instances, he became adept at raising his right hand to commandeer the microphone. “Thomas was more than an astute campaigner, he was a grounded, rounded human being, he loved every aspect of human life, he had a wicked sense of humour most particularly when he greeted women”.

His favourite song ‘Something Inside So Strong’ was sung at the launch by Jessica Coyle in his memory.

According to Dermot, Thomas “will be sorely missed”. He saluted his comrade for his great work and said his memory would love in ‘We Are Human Too’ and also the film made by the Clare Leader Forum, ‘Disabled People of Clare 2002’ which he pointed out was available on YouTube “where Thomas can be seen at his very best”.

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Subscribe for just €3 per month

If you’re here, you care about County Clare. So do we. Did you rely on us for Covid-19 updates, follow our election coverage, or visit The Clare Echo every week for breaking news and sport? The Clare Echo invests in local journalism and we want to safeguard its future in our county. By becoming a subscriber you are supporting what we do, will receive access to all our premium articles and a better experience, while helping us improve our offering to you. Subscribe to clareecho.ie and get the first six months for just €3 a month (less than 75c per week), and thereafter €8 per month. Cancel anytime, limited time offer. T&Cs Apply. www.clareecho.ie.

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