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Bernie Gallagher
The southern care system was 25 years behind


When Burnfoot man Shaun Gallagher was a young child, his mother Bernie went to the doctor to discuss the fact that his learning disability was becoming more and more pronounced. Shaun had been slow learning to walk and was now beginning to take severe seizures.

“The doctor told me, quite bluntly, to put Shaun in an institution and start another baby,” Bernie recalls.

“Back in the seventies, there was virtually no educational system in the south for children like Shaun – just institutional care. There was a boarding school, Craig House, in Sligo, but the children could only come home once a fortnight, and the bond was being broken with the parents, who didn’t know how to deal with them.”

Bernie, a psychiatric nurse, was appalled – but was also aware that the care system in Northern Ireland for people with learning disabilities was much more advanced.

“The North was at least 25 years ahead,” she comments. “The southern system, to be frank, was useless. There was no psychiatric nurse in the entire Donegal or northwest area for people with special needs.

“There were no day schools which could cater for Shaun in the South, either. So, we had a number of meetings with the staff of Foyle View School and eventually Charlie Herron, the principal - and a living saint, arranged for Shaun to be enrolled as a pupil.”

Bernie felt it was imperative that Shaun attend a day school.

“I used to work with young adults who had been at Craig House. But when they returned home, their parents weren’t familiar with their needs and couldn’t cope. So, as soon as they were finished school, these youngsters ended up on psychiatric wards.

“There was no-one else for them. Though at least they had a safe roof over their heads, even if no-one was qualified to deal with them. I remember before I ever had Shaun suggesting at a union meeting that we needed nurses for young people with special needs. But there was a fear that we would lose traditional psychiatric posts.”

Shaun had previously been at pre-school, where his family could some progression of improvements; they gauged that he was perhaps six weeks behind the others.

After that he went to Belmont for a brief time, but failed to engage with the school and people.

“But,” says Bernie, “as soon as he went to Foyle View – thanks to the fantastic work of Charlie Herron and [the late] Mrs Glenn he started copying other students and became more involved.”

The curriculum at Foyle View was geared largely towards to social skills, but after some prodding from the Gallaghers, Shaun received instruction in the “Three Rs”.

“I remember our pride when they taught Shaun how to write his name. He would be able to sign for his own passport.”


Shaun was Bernie’s first child, and it would be another five years before she had her second. “This gave us time to understand Shaun’s disability and become familiar with his needs. But a lot of our parenting was trial and error. We did make mistakes – and you can’t really afford to make a mistake at all. For example, when we were teaching him to cross the road, I said, ‘Look up and down’ instead of, ‘Look right and left’. He took me literally and we couldn’t correct him. And it wasn’t until he got to Destined that he learned to do it properly.”


After leaving school, Shaun worked for Acorn, where he was awarded a City & Guilds certificate in gardening – another source of great pride for his parents. He then worked for the Churches Trust for nine years, where he was the only person with special needs in his department.
“He was blessed with a wonderful foreman, Alec Cook, who really protected Shaun. There was one incident at a site when a fellow worker was winding Shaun up, and Shaun lashed out and hit somebody else. But Alec saw to it there was no problem.”

Shaun would later be diagnosed with a bi-polar disorder and spend six weeks in Stradreagh Hospital, where Bernie says he received excellent care. “The diagnosis, and medication he was prescribed, has made a huge difference in his life.”

After leaving the Churches Trust, Shaun took his passion for landscaping to his family home where he tends the garden and lawns. And seven years ago, he joined Destined, which his mother believes has led to a huge change for good in his life.

“Destined has opened so many doors for him. There’s so much to do – rambling, gym, life skills, cooking classes, going to the pictures and drama. And he’s now learning how to handle money with Catherine [a Destined leader]. All the leaders, Dermot, Terry, Catherine and Martina are brilliant.

“There’s a real emphasis here on becoming independent. And every member of the group is accepted for what they are – without labels.

“Our real hope for Shaun is that he would become capable of semi-independent living. And Destined is helping him achieve that. In seven years, we’ve seen a huge change in him. Before he joined the group, we couldn’t have gone the length of ourselves without taking him with us. Now he’s happy to stay in the house on his own.”

The friendships Shaun has formed have been key to his enjoyment of the group. “There’s marvellous integration. They all look out for one another. Shaun has many friends here – he really loves Bernadette Bradley and Jim O’Reilly.

“Shaun was always bad with change. But Destined taught him how to adapt. Other groups might do great work, but they’re often quite regulated and regimented. Destined has rules but there’s also a freedom here, which lets every member progress as they are able without ticking boxes.”


Bernie and her family wouldn’t change the way Shaun is for anything. She believes they have learned so much from him – and that growing up with Shaun has led to her other children becoming very caring and compassionate.

“Our children benefited greatly from what we learned from Shaun - our tolerance, patience and acceptance of each day being a great day to be thankful for.

“We are so lucky in the people we met because of Shaun – quiet heroes and heroines, who have made great contributions to this earth, but never get, or seek any credit.

“I remember someone asking another of my children, who was then about 16, if he’d prefer it if Shaun hadn’t had a disability. My son thought about it for a few minutes, then said, ‘I don’t know – it would be a different Shaun.’ I was very proud of him for that.”