‘We won’t stop ‘til we drop’

250 SATURDAYS ON: A small group of spirited campaigners are stubbornly continuing to walk the walk…maintaining their weekly protests five years after the closure of Roscommon A&E…as PAUL HEALY reports

It’s been 250 Saturdays now – and counting.

              Almost five years on (the actual anniversary will be in July) they’re still protesting outside Roscommon County Hospital.

              One hour, every Saturday, every week, every month, every year. In rain, hail, snow and sunshine.

              They are small in number, but fiercely determined. Often it’s just Bill and Christine. Sometimes they have one or two more people with them. Joe and Esther Donlon from Ballyleague are two regulars. So is Bernie Dunne. Bill and Christine hardly ever miss a Saturday.            

Bill Cunningham is a retired Garda, a familiar sight around town on his bicycle. He has been known to highlight the hospital campaign in the Roscommon Easter Parade, marching or cycling up the streets with two big placards attached to his body.

‘Restore 24/7 A&E.’

            Over the years Christine Walker has voiced her frustration on the hospital issue in the letters page of the Roscommon People (as has Bill), pointing out that the public here have been discriminated against since the A&E closure. And every Saturday, like Bill,  she makes the most visible protest possible; marching up and down outside the hospital, refusing to let the ghosts of 2011 rest.

            Another Saturday afternoon regular is Bernie Dunne. When she recently dislocated two fingers, she refused to go to hospital in Galway. Instead, she insisted on being seen in Roscommon. When her family left Leixlip in 1994, one of the reasons they moved to Roscommon town was because of the County Hospital (they were also impressed with the local schools and the GAA club). She has no intention of giving up on the hospital now.

            I have promised myself many times in recent months that I must stop some Saturday and chat to these hardy, resolute campaigners. But I always seemed to have something else to do, somewhere else to go (or it was lashing rain!). Some people see their stubborn campaign as utterly irrelevant now, even embarrassing. Others greatly admire them and perhaps feel some guilt that they’re not out there with them. Whatever your view, there is surely something very admirable about their refusal to let go, not to mention their willingness to devote every Saturday afternoon to their protest.

            Last Saturday, I stopped the car. It was business as usual. Every Saturday, it is business as usual. They arrive outside the County Hospital just before 2.30 pm, and for the following hour they march up and down, sometimes chatting, sometimes silent. Occasionally, pedestrians stop and have a word; passing motorists frequently honk their horns.

            They each bring their own sign or placard. Christine and Bernie hold smaller ones, but Bill’s ‘protest look’ is well established: two large placards fitted over his head and shoulders, so that the slogan can be seen front and back.

            The Saturday afternoon ritual began in July 2011, when, amidst huge controversy, Roscommon Accident & Emergency Unit was closed down. The weekly protest takes place in front of the old A&E, now an Urgent Care Centre.

            At 3 o’clock last Saturday, there was rain and hail; within ten minutes, pleasant sunshine had returned. The protestors are glad of good weather, but unperturbed (“we have wet suits!”) by the often deplorable conditions they encounter. As far as they’re concerned, nothing – including critics – will stop them.

  Bernie: “We do get people telling us we’re wasting our time, that it’s a lost cause. But there’s much less criticism than support. Mostly, people are very supportive. Motorists are constantly beeping their support…and some even stop. People out walking stop and support us. 95% of the feedback we get is positive.”

            Christine Walker says the protestors are not expecting Roscommon A&E to be re-opened, certainly not in the short-term. What they want is an improvement in emergency services. As she sees it, this is literally a life or death issue.

            Christine’s essential point is that the people of Roscommon are isolated; that we have to travel to overcrowded hospitals in Galway. This, she says, “particularly in the case of heart attack and stroke victims”, is just not acceptable.

            They want Roscommon to be upgraded so that patients in emergency situations can at least be stabilised here before being transferred to Galway or elsewhere. They vent their frustration at the fact that ambulances routinely drive past Roscommon bringing patients to crowded hospitals in Ballinasloe and Galway. Bill, arguably the most publicly recognisable face of the small but determined group, says Roscommon people are victims of discrimination.

            “There have been attempts made to imply that we were looking for Roscommon Hospital to be a Centre of Excellence, but that was never the case. We want people stabilised here; as things stand, we are being deprived of our civil rights.”

            Bernie makes the point that many people in Roscommon, particularly the elderly, are upset at the idea of being brought by ambulance to Galway, when there’s a fine hospital here in Roscommon. “How do these people get home?” she asks. “If you have a loved one in Galway, visiting them is a big challenge. But also, in the case of elderly people, it’s one thing to be brought to Galway by ambulance, but how do they get home?”

            As we chatted last Saturday, there was a constant honking of car horns, something that I found a little surprising. Five years have gone by, and many will see all of this as a lost cause, but clearly there is residual support still there, a sense of solidarity.

            Bill expresses gratitude to the motorists on behalf of the Saturday afternoon protestors. “We are most grateful to all those motorists who wave and blow their vehicle horns in support, as they pass us on our weekly vigil. It helps to keep our spirits high.”

            The protestors are apolitical (and not, Bill points out, aligned to the HAC) but it is obvious that one politician in particular is being kept off their Christmas card list: the Taoiseach.

            They lay the blame for the Roscommon A&E closure squarely on the shoulders of Enda Kenny.

            Bill Cunningham: “They said Roscommon Hospital was unsafe and that it was dangerous; it was never dangerous…not until Enda Kenny’s intervention.”

            They spare most other politicians, and in fact single out Deputy Denis Naughten for positive mention, saying he “understands the problems” and that they “have confidence that he will deliver.”

            Asked if they receive support from staff of Roscommon Hospital, the protestors claim “they’re not allowed to talk to us.”

            They’d welcome new volunteers joining them every Saturday. “We love meeting new friends” Bernie says.

            In about two months’ time, they will have been dusting down the placards every weekend for five years. Perhaps surprisingly, they speak with optimism about the future of the hospital. Christine says there’s a new opportunity for progress, now that a new Government is likely to be formed. Mainly, their optimism appears to be based on their stubborn conviction that reason will prevail; that the chaos of 2011 must ultimately give way to a better, restored, enhanced emergency service in Roscommon.

            In the meantime, they continue to devote Saturdays to their campaign, irrespective of the demands on family time or other commitments. They have no intention of stopping. 

            “We’ll march every Saturday, even on crutches, if it came to it” says Bernie. Christine smiles at the question, as if to dismiss it on grounds of daftness.

“We won’t stop ‘til we drop” says Bill, without any hesitation.

            As I leave, a young couple cross the road and speak to the protestors. Two more passing motorists honk their horns. The sun is shining. The impromptu interview over, Bill, Christine and Bernie resume their slow march, making the familiar turn opposite Golden’s shop, then striding back down again, in the shadow of the quiet Urgent Care Centre that was once a bustling A&E Department.