TWO very special people who have selflessly impacted the lives of countless others were celebrated with Special Recognition honors at this year’s Sunday Life Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards in partnership with Ulster Bank.
ittle five-year-old Dáithí Mac Gabhann’s touching story of how he and his family changed organ donation law here because he is in need of a life-saving heart transplant was the final award of Friday night’s gala event at the Culloden Estate and Spa in Culture.
Before that, tribute was also paid to the career and legacy of Professor Jim Dornan, with both awards presented by Sunday Life editor Martin Breen and actor James Nesbitt, as well as Ulster Bank representatives Terry Robb and Sandra Wright.
Dáithí has become the face of organ donation here and had a law named after him, announced by Health Minister Robin Swann last February.
Dáithí’s Law means that people here will automatically become organ donors with an opt out rather than opt in system, which could save hundreds of lives each year.
It’s an issue close to home for Daithi and his family, who are from west Belfast, as he’s in need of a heart transplant himself having been born with an extremely rare condition called hypoplastic left heart syndrome, for which there is no cure.
Politicians here united to support Daithi and his law, and his family hope their efforts will secure a successful transplant for Daithi and countless others.
The awards coincided with Organ Donation Week and Daithi’s catchphrase, which he repeated on stage, is that “organ donation saves lives”. He said that he wants a new heart so that he can go to WWE — the energetic youngster is a big wrestling fan.
His dad Máirtín said: “I can remember the day that Robbie Butler (UUP MLA) stood up on the floor [of the Stormont Assembly] and said that Daithi has united every background here and it’s true, and he called him his captain. And to hear that, you know, he’s an innocent child, was amazing.”
Before Dáithí and his family took to the stage to collect their award, James Nesbitt told the audience: “Jim Dornan would have bloody loved this. This is exactly what Jim Dornan would have wanted the night to end with.
“I’m also lucky enough to know Daithi, Mairtin and Sephanie.
“These people changed the law. This boy is a wee rocket and his parents are unbelievable.”
Professor Jim Dornan was celebrated for his career as one of the leading obstetricians and gynecologist consultants to come from Northern Ireland.
The world-renowned medical expert, who passed away last year, was also a charity champion and his legacy lives on through those endavours, including Tiny Life, which offers support to families who have experienced premature births.
Jimmy Nesbitt told the crowd: “This is a very painful yet extraordinary privilege to present this award. Jim Dornan was a very good friend of mine.
“I’m speaking at something tomorrow [yesterday’s Ireland’s Future event] and the only reason I’m speaking at it in Dublin is because Jim fired my imagination and belief in myself and belief in this place.
“Jim was someone that I learned so much from.
“He was someone with whom I laughed so much. And he was someone I was certainly not alone in loving so much.
“He was an extraordinary, unique, brilliant, passionate Irish legend.”
Collecting the award was his daughter Jessica, who allowed for a moment of light relief when she referenced the fact that her brother, actor Jamie Dornan, could not be there as well.
She joked: “I know this entire room will be devastated that I am the child of Dad’s that’s accepting this award! He’s my baby brother and he’s not that special.”
But Jess did express her heartfelt appreciation that her father was being honored.
She continued: “My father was the most amazing man and Jimmy has paid a beautiful tribute to him tonight and this ceremony has paid a beautiful tribute to him.
“We’re just genuinely blown away because we feel like every day we could sing his praises from the rooftops and from the mountains of Ireland, and it’s lovely to be recognized like this.
“Dad was honored in various ways throughout his life but there’s been a dark cloud over us all really since he passed, so to have had this fortuitous lovely news is really special. We’re really touched as a family.”
The first award of the evening was Spirit of Sport, sponsored by McComb’s Coach Travel, which went to Aidan O’Neill from Crumlin, and was presented by swimmer Bethany Firth and boxer Ryan Burnett.
Aidan is the driving force behind the Run Anon running club and continues to inspire all the members, not least as he is fighting cancer.
The 999 Hero award, sponsored by Shield Accident Management, went to Rodney Connor, who after years of dedication and tireless work established Air Ambulance Northern Ireland, and was presented by actress Kerri Quinn and UTV’s Paul Clarke.
Sarah Jayne Barr was given the Spirit of Health prize, sponsored by Balmoral Health Care, by Emmerdale stars Amy Walsh and Natalie Ann Jamieson for her work during the Covid pandemic.
Just a matter of months after being placed in charge of a team at the Causeway Hospital in Coleraine, her ward became dedicated to the frontline fight against the virus and she and her colleagues rose to meet the challenge.
Paul Doherty was the Unsung Hero after setting up Foodstock — a West Belfast charity enterprise to provide food to those in need as well as pre-loved school uniforms.
Peaky Blinders star Packy Lee and Ash frontman Tim Wheeler presented the award, sponsored by The Boulevard, to Paul, who first started Foodstock from his garage before growing it to premises on the Andersonstown Road to help even more people.
Paul McToal was named Charity Champion (sponsored by Kingsbridge Foundation), presented by actor Ian McElhinney, after raising more than £400,000 for good causes through his Fun Run of the Glens (FROG) events.
The Climate Hero (sponsored by Concentrix) was Hayley Agnew, a firefighter from Kilkeel who was among the brave crews who battled the wildfires on the Mourne Mountains last year.
Her trophy was presented by Coronation Street’s Michael Condron and comedian Tommy Cannon.
Little seven-year-old Farrah McCloskey from Sion Mills was given the Overcoming Adversity award, sponsored by Stroll Insurance, by Emmerdale stars Dominic Brunt and Olivia Bromley.
She was born with a shortened femur and was fitted with a prosthetic leg when she was just two years old — but that hasn’t stopped her from living an active life and inspiring others.
The Caring Spirit award, sponsored by Power NI, was presented by Gloria Hunniford to east Belfast couple Colin and Sharon Jamison who have provided a home to children as foster parents for more than 30 years.
Christine Lampard handed Hilary Cunningham the Spirit of Education honour, sponsored by iPro Hydrate, for her sterling work as headmistress of Fane Street Primary School in south Belfast.
The school serves not only the local Village community, but the children of many refugee, ethnic minority communities and the women’s refuge that now call this area home.
In addition to the multiple educational challenges, many of the pupils are coping with trauma and such is the diversity of the classrooms, 43 different languages are spoken in the school.
And the winner of the Spirit of Youth category (sponsored by Better) was 15-year-old Lucy Montgomery from Armagh, presented by Northern Ireland football internationals Simone Magill and Julie Nelson.
Brave Lucy was recognized because last year she courageously saved the lives of an eight-year-old boy and her father Graham, after they got into difficulty in a river in France on holiday.