Tour de Munster: “It’s Not Just About the Bottom Line”

As fundraising season is on for Tour de Munster, businesses and community groups around the county are doing their part. Ahead of this year’s cycle, Noel Doherty, Sean O’Riordan and Rose Murphy of Fitzgerald’s Solicitors get ahead of the peloton to tell Mike McGrath-Bryan about the route, the sights and the work it does for Down Syndrome Ireland.

It’s a trek that involves months of preparation, with twice-weekly training sessions placing participants in the right frame of mind for a physically demanding four days of cycling around the roads and byways of the province. And yet, the Tour de Munster, one of the pillars of the local fundraising calendar for businesses and community groups, is embraced by the people that partake and help make it happen, with proceeds going to Down Syndrome Ireland to assist their activities around the province, including Cork’s centres and facilities. It’s happening this year from August 9th to 12th, and among the businesses most intricately involved is Fitzgerald’s Solicitors, based out of Lapp’s Quay in the city centre, where three senior solicitors are among those that swap the suits and ties of legal life for compression shorts and indoor training. Gathered around the phone at their office, it’s clear that the excitement is building, as they discuss their internal fundraising efforts, as well as those happening around the county.

“We do a fun-run in September or October, in Mahon, usually and raise funds from that, everyone gets an hour on the bike, and we’re there for the day”, says Rose Murphy.  “I run the Facebook page for Tour de Munster, and get to share the events that people put on: there’s a lot of coffee mornings, and concerts, especially in rural or provincial areas, as we get a lot of cyclists from all over the six counties.” Noel Doherty, a veteran of the tour, interjects with stories of the firm’s own fundraising. “We’ve had a cake sale, we’ve made cakes and sold them to other businesses around our building. It takes a great collective effort for (groups around the city and county).”

The tour route, well-honed over the last number of years, is absolutely no picnic, and makes for the polar opposite of an office fun-run. Running 640km in total, the route takes cyclists around the counties of Munster, with more than a few hills along the way. Much to your author’s surprise, it’s an involved process to get in shape and focus, says Doherty. “It’s great because we would be regular attendees of Tour de Munster training in Cork, so all of the Tour de Munster cyclists in the area get together every Monday and Wednesday at 5.45 up at Harlequins, we go with Paul Sheridan, the organiser, and we cycle somewhere between fifty and seventy-five kilometres each. Paul organises a different route every single night. Lots of hills, great fun. You could leave the office with your head bent from dealing with cases and issues, and after half an hour of training, it’s fantastic, the wind has blown all the worries out of your head.”

Although the run of the ride is spread across four days, there’s no two ways around the fact that it’s a hard slog. Having taken on the Tour for the last eight years now, Noel Doherty is more than qualified to discuss the challenges that lie ahead, and advise potential riders on what to avoid. “Saturday is the most difficult and most enjoyable day. You move out from Tralee, out the Blennerville Road and take on the Connor Pass. If you have any wind against you, or rain, I tell you, that’s a really tough ride. But it’s fantastic, because the easy riders and the inexperienced would go up first, about thirty or forty-five minutes ahead, and then, the faster riders chase behind, and everyone congregates at the top. And then in the afternoon, the process is reversed: the fastest head away first from Torc Waterfall, and wait for the others at Moll’s Gap, for the last riders to come up. So it’s a real community.” Adds solicitor and cyclist Sean O’Riordan: “That day, we stop for tea in Killarney at Deenagh Lodge, a project run by Down Syndrome Kerry, an employment for adult and older people with Down Syndrome. It’s really fantastic.”

By the same token, the Tour offers a look at the province’s formidable countryside, and the many views and natural wonders along the way. But for those partaking over a number of years, these are far from the only highlights of taking to the road, according to Murphy. “Just the effort that people from different branches of Down Syndrome Ireland put in to be on the road and cheer us on. They’re out there, they organise every stop and break, and they’re there to meet us. We may not see them again ‘til the following year’s Tour, but it’s a special effort they make to support us.” Doherty chimes in on the effect this support has on riders. “They have different signs on the road, blowing their horns, welcoming us, and the support that you get, really picks you up. You could be very wet and tired, sore, but you’re meeting local families, and they’re there thanking you for the effort.” O’Riordan proposes that the finish is the highlight, but perhaps not for exhaustion reasons. “Patrick’s Hill is an iconic location, you’ve done another tour, been through all the hardship, and for the big crowd and the Barrack Street Band to be there, it’s an unreal experience.”

For Rose Murphy, the benefits of the Tour de Munster and its fundraising drives are more keenly felt: her nephew Finn avails of the local services of Down Syndrome Ireland, and the impact that its local activities have had for her and others’ families and friends is profound. The collaboration of businesses and community organisations to support Down Syndrome Ireland, meanwhile, has meant the expansion of its services in many areas. “The Down Syndrome centre in Cork is very involved in bringing their members along, and one example that I can work from is Finn. He’s just turned nine, and he’s still in mainstream school. His speech wasn’t great, but because of the services of the Down Syndrome centre… they offer half-price speech and language classes in Centre 21, and my sister and brother in law avail of that every two weeks. I’ve gone to the service with Finn and the words are just flowing out of him. They have to take credit for that and right away I can see where my fundraising is going. It’s very hard to keep going back, asking for money, but when they meet Finn and see how he’s progressed, and that’s one-hundred percent Centre 21.”

While it’s important to muck in with Down Syndrome Ireland by supporting your local Tour de Munster fundraisers, those that need its assistance all year ‘round will tell you that there are plenty of ways to get involved with their centres, projects and facilities. “People can contribute in terms of sponsoring and cycling in Tour de Munster, and spreading the word. Other than that, there are projects like the Field of Dreams, next to the greyhound track, designed to provide activities, training and gainful employment for adults with Down Syndrome. It’s a huge horticultural project with a lot of effort put into it by Down Syndrome Cork, whereby we have a two-acre site, with training facilities, catering facilities and offices”, says Doherty. Polytunnels and raised beds, with a lot of people involved in the horticultural project there. People can volunteer there, whether it’s planting or weeding, and that’s a huge support as well.”

As the city centre’s commercial landscape continues to shift amid change and regeneration, the importance of charity to keeping local, Cork-owned businesses involved in the community cannot be underestimated. Social responsibility will be the key to maintaining ties to the city as change continues to make its way outwards over the coming years and decades, says Doherty. “I think it’s vital. Programmes like these vital because they raise the morale, they bring people together, and allows employees to identify with their industry. Like on the Field of Dreams, companies will sponsor their employees to go out and volunteer, doing a particular project, and at the end of the day they can see that they’ve worked hard and the produce they have at the end of the day. The company makes a contribution, the employees go back and talk to other employees. People like to see that there’s a social benefit and that it’s not just about the bottom line.”

Gwada Mike: “Reciprocation of a Good Favour”

Michael Maurin, aka Gwada Mike, is stepping into a new role, fundraising and spreading awareness of the current situation on the West Indian island of Dominica. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with him about the Dominican Shelter Team and their efforts.

For over a decade, Michael Maurin has been a crucial part of electronic music in Cork venues and bars. Currently at the helm of Afterwork at Washington Street’s Edison venue, Maurin oversees an environment where people can head straight in from work of a Friday, once a month, and dive straight into live music and DJs ‘til late, providing a warm and welcoming alternative to the usual clubbing routine in the city. This kind of enterprising spirit and enthusiasm for new ideas has marked the artist otherwise known as Gwada Mike out as part of the city’s soundscape, but his natural drive has extended lately into philanthropy and fundraising.

Maurin heads up the Dominica Shelter Team, based out of the Cork offices of cloud infrastructure outfit VMware, to raise funds and awareness, via local events and activities, of the human rights and infrastructural situation in the West Indian island of Dominica, affected badly by the arrival on its shores of Hurricane Maria late last year. For himself, the impetus to work and raise €50,000 comes from a personal connection dating back to his roots on the neighbouring island of Guadeloupe (on which Maurin claims to have been ‘raised organically’). “On a big part of the coast of Guadeloupe, you can see Dominica, right on the coast. And in 1989, we had a hurricane, and my hometown was destroyed. I was fourteen. The first people to come and help us when all communications were closed, who came by boat, were Dominicans. So it’s reciprocation of a good favour. These guys had nothing, but whatever they had left, they shared it with us.”

The devastation left across the island in the wake of Hurricane Maria has been accompanied by an infrastructural crisis in addressing repairs and rebuilding of houses. The exact scale of the damage, however, can only be grappled with when accompanied by images and stories from the ground. “A hurricane comes in stages. The first stage passes, the eye is quiet, and the vast majority of the damage was done in the second phase. This was a massive hurricane, the damage was massive. The Prime Minister of Dominica was tweeting, ‘we are losing everything we have worked our whole lives for’ in a rush to get word out before the lines were cut. And when the lines came back two days later, two days out of communication with the world in 2017, the port of the island was too filled with debris to get nearby. More than 90% of the island was affected. They deserve a hand. The irony is one week before the hurricane, when St. Martin, VI was (in the wake of a storm), they sent one of their last boats to help. They knew they were about to be hit.”

The American Red Cross, to whom funds raised by VMware’s efforts will be going, are finding it increasingly difficult to get homes and public service buildings back up, and with this year’s hurricane season happening later on in the year, time is not on their side. This urgency has added to the range and variety of activities that Maurin have ventured out on. “Their airport has just been put back on track, which puts support a little bit back on track. But there’s still so much debris, that you cannot empty the port between September and now, and the big boats cannot enter the port. They are part of the Commonwealth, the UK is doing what it can, but this is really a bit of dust that you don’t see on the map (so awareness is hard to raise) and these difficulties are all interconnected. It’s a chain, with so many moving parts, and things can lost. Meanwhile, there’s kids, and newborn babies, sleeping on old mattresses, soaking water, with no protection from things like mosquitoes.”

VMware have provided an infrastructure in which to organise and arrange events in the city, in Ballincollig and further afield, allowing the public to engage in a number of events and experiences, including parties, gigs, walks/runs open to the public and a planned gala dinner, in the lead-up to the team’s deadline in May. Maurin pulls out a whole document outlining various stages of organisation and mooted venues. “I started it on my own, after fundraising after Hurricane Irma. This time, there was a lot of media on it, because of the situation (left by Maria) in Puerto Rico. More than 20% of their territory is still without power. It’s a state of the most powerful country in the world, and they’re still 25% without power, but it’s every day on the news, Jay-Z sent people over there with 1.5m of goods he collected in New York. But we don’t have that kind of presence. So when I described this to my colleagues, asked them to imagine if they had just seen the Aran Islands get destroyed. If you give, you receive back.”

In May, the team will head over to assist with the rebuilding effort, placing roofs on fifty new-build and rebuilt homes right as the rush to do so reaches a fever pitch. Maurin outlines how the team will contribute in a practical fashion, avoiding the trappings of ‘voluntourism’ that so often accompany drives to assist in the wake of natural disasters. “We’re still in the process of defining what exactly we’re going to be doing. We’re going to be working with the American Red Cross, as well as the local Lions’ Club. (They’ll have had meetings by the time this goes to print), and we’re gonna co-ordinate what we do with them. We want to avoid ‘voluntourism’. What can we do, how can we do this, and how can the people benefit?”

Follow Dominican Shelter Team on Facebook and Twitter for the full range of events as they’re announced, and find DJ Gwada Mike on social media.