Wonderful Tipperary welcome for disability rights activist Joanne O'Riordan


Wonderful Tipperary welcome for disability rights activist Joanne O'Riordan

The spell-bound attendance at the opening of the Kickham Country Weekend in Mullinahone  emulated the United Nations general assembly in their response to a speech from a truly remarkable woman.

When Joanne O'Riordan addressed the UN in New York on technology she received a standing ovation – the first in the assembly's history.

“You saw what the UN did. You can applaud or not. No pressure”, joked the Cork woman as she officially opened the festival.

She needn't have worried. The audience in St. Michael's NS gave her a Tipperary welcome she is unlikely to forget as they rose to their feet to applaud her wonderful address.

And local poet Joe Tobin had a special welcome for Joanne as he wrote a poem in her honour and read it out to her before presenting her with a framed copy.

In recent years the Kickham festival organisers have moved away from the traditional opening night to spread the appeal of the event and they followed up openings with RTE's Mary Wilson and writer Billy Keane over the past two years with another inspired choice this year.

Twenty three year old Joanne, from Millstreet, is one of only seven people in the world with Tetra Amelia, being born without limbs.

She doesn't call it a disability, more of a condition, and it hasn't stopped her living an incredibly active and fulfilled life over the past two decades.

In addition to her ground-breaking UN speech, she has spoken at many gatherings across the world, received a degree in criminology from UCC and is a highly rated sports journalist with the Irish Times.

“No limbs doesn't mean you have no voice”, she told the Mullinahone audience. “I won't shy away from a challenge as the only obstacles in life are ourselves”.

In a humorous address she never once hinted at self pity. “I hate the word disability. I only see ability. There is no such thing as disability, only bad attitudes”.

Joanne is passionate about sport, especially Barcelona and Cork GAA. Her big surprise on her 18th birthday was a Barcelona game at the Nou Camp where she got to meet her hero, Lionel Messi.

On another occasion she was at a soccer event that Roy Keane was attending. Because it was so crowded she couldn't get across the room to meet him so she asked someone could they get Keane to come across to her.

“My colleagues in the Irish Times joked that I was the only one to ever summons Roy Keane across to meet them”, she quipped.

Paying tribute to the organisers of the Kickham weekend, she said it was  great to keep his memory alive in such a vibrant way. And she pointed out that he was deaf and blind and still managed to produce such great writing.

“Life is about living and being the best you can”, she remarked.

The Kickham festival was very much rooted in rural Ireland and it was very important to keep that alive, she added. 

“There are very real problems across rural Ireland and it's great to see Mullinahone trying to correct that. Rural Ireland has shaped me. I have been across the world but I am always drawn back to Ireland”.

In a question and answer session after her talk, Joanne answered questions on her life, many of them from young children in the audience. She explained what it was like for her in school without arms or legs, how she manages to eat, how she types her stories for the paper.

She was asked does she ever get down. She replied - “I have a great family and amazing friends and a strong sense of self”.

Festival chairperson Teckie Brett said they thrilled to have Joanne as their special guest, as well as her father Joe who accompanied her. She was the latest in a long list of remarkable women across the world who were making a difference.

She had made national headlines when challenging taoiseach at the time Enda Kenny and getting him to reverse a government decision on cutting disability funding.

She had shown herself as a woman with incredible conviction, Mrs Brett said.