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‘He never once saw the chair before her – she was still his Mum, first and foremost’: Meet the Irish Carers of the Year


By Sarah Finnan
29th Nov 2021

Mark Stedman

‘He never once saw the chair before her – she was still his Mum, first and foremost’: Meet the Irish Carers of the Year

The Netwatch Family Carer of the Year awards took place recently with several incredible people being recognised for their trojan work at the annual event.

Now in its 15th year, the annual event was held at The Westin Hotel in Dublin and saw broadcaster Miriam O’Callaghan welcome families from all across Ireland to join her for the special night held in their honour. 

Often referred to as Ireland’s “forgotten frontline”, the awards aim to “recognise and shine a light on the remarkable contribution” of those who are not always appreciated for the extra mile they go in caring for their loved ones with additional needs every day. 

Irish carers
Karen Smith with her daughters, photo by Mark Stedman

Amongst those celebrated on the night was proud Louth woman Karen Smith, who was presented with the 2021 carer of the year award. Hailing from Drogheda, Karen is a mother to two boys and two girls ranging in age from 13 to 24, three of whom have additional needs such as ADHD, Asperger’s syndrome, sensory processing disorder, ODD, and dyspraxia. She also cares for her father who has developed blindness due to diabetes and her mother who has emphysema.

Nominated for the award by her youngest daughter Megan, she described her mother as both “a legend and a hero”, noting that she never complains and “always puts her children and the community first”. In fact, Karen’s generosity of spirit extends far beyond just the four walls of her home and aside from being a family carer, she’s also a driver for Cú Chulainn Blood Bikes, a volunteer with the East Meath Defibrillator Unit, and a keen photographer, offering her skills free of charge to local worthy causes. 

Karen wasn’t the only carer to be acknowledged on the night though and the awards later paid tribute to four exceptional young people – each of whom have spent the best part of their lives caring for other family members. 

Irish carers
Young carer of the year award winners, photo by Mark Stedman

Leinster young carer of the year went to 17-year-old Evan Corbally from Hollystown in Dublin who cares for his two younger sisters Rose and Aobhín, both of whom have Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The oldest of four siblings, Evan’s mother, Gillian, says that he takes it all in his stride – even getting up during the night to settle his sisters if they wake. “His sisters and brother are so lucky to have such a loving, caring, and all-round amazing big brother,” she said on the night. 

Down south, 18-year-old Clodagh Bennett from Rosbrien in Limerick took the Munster young carer of the year award. Clodagh currently cares for her three siblings  – Niamh, Saoirse, and Aidan – all three on the ASD spectrum. In the process of training to become a teacher, she has a lot on her plate but hopes to one day go back and teach in the school she herself went to in Co Limerick. 

Across the way in Mayo, 13-year-old Zoe Gilmartin from Bonniconlon in Ballina, was named the Connacht young carer of the year for going above and beyond for her little brother Ryan who has Down Syndrome. Sure to include him in everything she does, Zoe even learned Lámh, See & Learn and has taken part in his speech and language therapy since he was born. “Zoe is full of compassion, empathy and sees the world in a beautiful way from her unique caring relationship with her brother,” her mum noted.

Donegal native Alex Barr was the final young person to be recognised. 11 years old, he had just started Junior Infants when his mother Samantha became unwell and he’s cared for her ever since. Now a full-time wheelchair user, his mum says that it’s never affected how Alex saw her and credits him with helping her to accept the transition herself. She says he never once saw the chair before her – she was still his Mum, first and foremost, and only for his fight and positivity did she get through that time of acceptance and change.

Commending each of the winners for the very difficult job they do, Catherine Cox, head of communications and policy at Family Carers Ireland, described them as “shining examples of people who go the extra mile”. “Caring is a demanding and emotional job,” she noted, later adding that all of those honoured at the event are “selfless in their service of others”. “Nobody asks to become a carer and yet, for those who do, they take on the responsibility with kindness, love, and dedication. 

“We, as a society, must ensure that this love is not taken for granted and that family carers are not only recognised but truly supported to care safely for their loved ones,” she continued. “After a year and a half like no other, we must continue to champion them, ensuring they know how much their contribution is worth and, most importantly, reminding both government and society of their enormous value in our communities and health services.”

Admitting that “there is always something heartwarming about [the] annual event”, Colin Hayes, head of business at Netwatch reiterated the same message, simply adding that all of the country’s carers are “truly remarkable people and nothing short of inspirational.”