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RTE file photo of Donal Toolan in the late 1980s

In Remembrance of Donal Toolan

Posted: 27 April, 2017

In Remembrance of Donal Toolan
13th October, 1966 – 24th April, 2017

Last Monday Donal Toolan, the life long disability activist, performer and journalist died aged 50. Steve Daunt, writing in his Newstalk blog “Undaunted” said of Monday’s very sad and unexpected news, “It’s a day anybody who knew Donal wished that it never happened. A chasm opened and we are left feeling alone”.

Before Donal made his final journey west to Ballyhaunis in his native Mayo for church service and burial, there was a gathering of family and friends at St Matthew’s Church in Irishtown in Dublin on Tuesday evening. Steve Daunt accompanied me to the removal, which, like Donal was an inspiringly unique affair, being the first wake I had attended in a church. On entering St Matthew’s there was an opportunity to stand at Donal’s coffin and contemplate his sudden passing while listening to the sound of a tune on a violin. From there we were ushered to the kitchen at the rear of the church for tea or coffee, sandwiches and cake. So while the gathering was sad, it was also celebratory.

Later, we were invited to take our seats and listen to a tribute given by fellow Mayo man Donncha O’Connell. They had become close friends when Donncha asked Donal to join the board of the Irish Council of Civil Liberties back in the early 2000’s. However, what started as a short tribute evolved into an hour and half of storytelling, where friends came forward to share their memories of Donal with the gathering.

Donal’s niece Robyn Moran said her initial childhood recollection was of Donal as “the exotic who came down on the train from Dublin”, who gave her her love of books and introduced her to gorgeous foods from Marks & Spencer.

Steve Daunt said that his first memory of Donal was as “the Innkeeper in a very raucous university drama society version of the Nativity”, in 1989.

Deirdre Carroll, the former Director of Inclusion Ireland, spoke of Donal’s affinity with people with intellectual disabilities and his campaigning to see residential institutions closed and people with intellectual disabilities live in their home communities.

And Declan Gorman, playwright and theatre director, described the Donal Toolan he first got to know in Dublin in the early nineties “as a man about town” and “the rock star he wished to be”.

Playwright and disability activist Rosaleen McDonagh told stories from her lifelong friendship with Donal and in particular his deep respect for Traveller people. This respect grew from his experience of being segregated with Traveller children because of his disability during his primary school education. For Rosaleen, the 24th April 2017 will no doubt be remembered both as a day of sadness and pride, as it marks the date she was elected to Aosdána. Donal would have been delighted!

My own memories of Donal are many. We first met in 1993 at the opening of Celebrating Difference, an exhibition at the City Centre in Dublin. Donal was part of a collaboration with Nick Miller, titled a “Conversation Piece”, oil on canvas and audio tape. I had just graduated from NCAD and was exhibiting my tactile sculpture “Working in Touch”.

In the years since then, we met and worked together many times. However, my favourite memory was a panel discussion I chaired with Donal and Steve in Cardiff to mark the Welsh launch of Arts & Disability Ireland’s anthology “Face On – Disability Arts in Ireland and Beyond”, edited by Kaite O’Reilly. Both had contributed to the publication.

However, what the audience at the launch in Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff didn’t know was that Donal assumed the voice of a then ADI board member, Colm O’Briain, for the entire hour long panel discussion. Having worked with Colm on the award winning RTE TV series “In From the Margins”, Donal mimicked his every mannerism and the voice was scarily accurate!

While at a personal level, everyone who knew Donal will remember him with enormous affection, I have no doubt that his work as an advocate contributed hugely to changing attitudes and ways of thinking about disability in Ireland and it is this that he will be best remembered for.

So, to conclude, let me quote from Steve Daunt’s “Undaunted” blog for Newstalk, and a statement from President Michael D. Higgins.

“Donal changed that with the use of one simple word. In 1990 he called a meeting to begin the establishment of the Forum OF people with disabilities. It wasn’t going to be for disabled people. It was a group OF disabled people no matter what ‘impairment’ they had. No false barriers between us. We were a united group seeking all our rights. Younger readers might be thinking ‘so?’, but you have to remember that, back in the day, your wheelchair, your wobble, your deafness, your blindness defined you. Donal changed all that. He brought us all together with the aim of asserting our rights as Irish citizens”.

– Steve Daunt

“I have heard with sadness of the passing of Donal Toolan, co-ordinator of the Forum of People with Disabilities and former member of the Council of State. A deeply committed advocate for legislation on disability rights, Donal Toolan had a rare skill to establish a rapport with all those with whom he dealt.

As a journalist, actor and campaigner he made a contribution to Irish public life that was of immense value. He will be missed in particular by all of us who had the privilege of knowing him. Sabina and I express our condolences to his family, colleagues and wide circle of friends.”

– President Michael D. Higgins

Pádraig Naughton, Director, Arts & Disability Ireland

Actors Donal Toolan, Grainne Hallahan, John Connors and Neili Conroy in Rosaleen McDonagh's Mainstream, Project Arts Centre, November 2016

In rehearsals for Mainstream, Project Arts Centre, 2016

Donal with Milton Lopes in Graeae Theatre Company's Bent in 2004, which was the cover image for ADI's publication Face On. Photo: Patrick Baldwin.

Tags: Donal Toolan, Face On, Forum for People With Disabilities, Graeae

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