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How a little unexpected generosity made us feel better

A single act of kindness has the power to change our lives and offer hope in the bleakest of times. Four writers - Henry McDonald, Karen Ireland, Frances Burscough and Mairia Cahill - share that one event which made them see things a lot differently

By Frances Burscough

Published 10/10/2016

Circus act: Frances Burscough and sons ended up in the VIP seats
Circus act: Frances Burscough and sons ended up in the VIP seats
Frances Burscough
Comforting whisper: Mairia Cahill took strength from a kind word when she felt like giving up
Henry McDonald
Holiday treat: Karen Ireland with her three sons, from left, Korey, Teo and Jesse

A random act of kindness almost 20 years ago is something I'll never forget it. My kids were both very small then - Luke was five and Finn was just a toddler.

An Italian circus, Circo Cesare Togni, had arrived in Belfast as part of a European tour. It wasn't very well publicised and the only poster I saw was in the doorway of an Italian restaurant and was written in Italian.

Despite having been taught the language at school for many years, I could only remember the Hail Mary which we had to chant before and after each Italian lesson three times a week for four years. So it was a struggle, but I managed to translate the time, date and place of one performance.

Eager to entertain my kids and to encourage their appreciation of other languages and cultures, we set off that day in good time and full of anticipation. However the traffic was heavy and by the time we made the 20-mile trip, then walked the full length of Botanic Gardens to the Big Top the show was about to start. Worse still, they wouldn't accept cheques or credit cards and I hadn't enough cash.

Just as I was trying to explain my predicament to the Italian lady at the ticket desk along came a very important looking gentleman with a waxed moustache whom I can only assume was Signore Cesare Togni himself. In a very poor attempt at Italian I tried to explain my predicament by showing him my empty wallet and saying that my children and I would be 'tutti tristissimo' ('all very sad' - I think) if we weren't allowed in. He looked at me, then down at the two expectant children with faces beaming with anticipation and I could see his heart melt.

Then, like a scene from Goodfellas, Il Signore clapped his hands, summoned an usher and flamboyantly gesticulated a command. With a dramatic flourish he bowed and said 'Prego, Signora!' before we were whisked away through the entrance curtain completely free of charge.

As we followed the usher, we were led past the stalls, past the circle and even past the grandstand seats. As the band struck up its first chords we were shown to a fabulous private box, complete with luxurious banquette seats and sumptuous velvet curtains.

It soon became apparent that the seats we were in were usually meant for local dignitaries and VIPs, because every performer nodded reverently at me as they came out on stage.

Instead of being turned away at the door like poor relations, we were treated like celebrities.

I wanted to thank the lovely old man afterwards, but he was nowhere to be seen. It's just as well I suppose, because the only phrase I could think of was 'Piena di grazia, il Signore è con te', which is 'Thou art full of grace and the Lord is with thee' from the Hail Mary.

Even for an Italian that might have been a bit over the top."

Mairia Cahill: 'Two simple words from a stranger spurred me on at my lowest point'

Going public in October 2014 about the abuse I suffered as a child turned my life upside down in a way few could have predicted.

Despite the turmoil, though, there were good points, and I took comfort in the support of many well wishers —  but when the lows came, they hit with a vengeance.

Publicly, I was on every news programme and paper going, confronting the republican movement while running back and forth between the Assembly and the Dail to meet with politicians — and I was exhausted. What appeared to be a state of focus was tiredness — and the numbness of trauma all over again.

The feelings I was experiencing took their toll in private moments.

The phone was ringing off the hook with journalists while victims of abuse were coming forward to them and me with their experiences.

I was in receipt of some well-documented 24/7 social media activity — graffiti was daubed on walls about me ­­ — and I was breaking inside. Things came to a head as Halloween 2014 approached, when I had chest pain and shaking — and couldn’t control it. I had arranged to meet Spotlight’s Jennifer O’Leary in Bray and we went for coffee. But our meeting was quickly abandoned when I couldn’t cope with people looking at me, or the general noise of chatter which comes with being in a small cafe. It was clear that I needed to see a doctor, so I arranged an appointment.

Conscious that this could be risky, as I had previously encountered one of the accused in my trials near to the surgery, a friend drove me from Dublin and stayed with me until I could see my GP in west Belfast. The waiting room fell silent as I walked in — and unspoken hostility hung in the air.

Some just stared rather than saying anything. After the appointment, I came out of the room and walked the corridor to go past the waiting area to get out of the building.

Another patient was walking toward me, and as we passed, she lowered her head, and whispered to me “well done”.

My friend looked at me and squeezed my arm and, as we got out to the car both of us were close to tears as we discussed how kind the woman had been.

That simple act from a stranger, who lowered her head through fear to whisper a few words of comfort so that others could not hear her, spurred me on at a time when I felt like packing it in.

And so, I’d like to thank her —  whoever she is — because what may have seemed like a small gesture to her had a powerful and lasting impact on me.

And it’s a reminder that often the simple things can make all the difference to people’s lives.

Sometimes a hug or a text, or a quiet gesture to another is all that is needed.”

Henry McDonald: '‘In the football magazine among news about buses was tribute to my late mum'

When the first wave of the Cliftonville Red Army emerged in the mid to late-Seventies my mother who was a dressmaker suddenly found a new market.

On her Singer sewing machine, first in No.1 Eliza Street in the Markets area and later in Welsh Street near Inglis’ Bakery, she would be bombarded with requests from local teenagers to run up the red and white colours of the Solitude flag. I lost count of the piles of red and white flags that ended up in our homes which were to be collected by Cliftonville’s new supporters.

For about 25p (and sometimes for free if the kids couldn’t afford the fee) she would stitch together the red and white banners that were to be waved at not only Solitude but also across the Irish League from the Coleraine Showgrounds to Glenavon’s Mourneview Park, and of course, at the grounds of our Belfast rivals — Seaview, The Oval and Windsor Park.

I would take great pride attending games in the knowledge that some of those flags were made by mum as they were hung up on The Cage at home or carried with pride across the flyover into east Belfast.

My mother died five years ago just four months after my father passed away in that terrible year of 2011. Just a few weeks following mum’s passing my sister and I were at Solitude for an Irish League match against, I think, memory is playing tricks here, Dungannon Swifts. I stand corrected if needs be.

An old friend from the Markets and St Malachy’s College, Liam Murray, spotted us filing into the ground and advised me to read the news and announcements section of the Cliftonville programme, ‘The Red Eye’.

In it among the stories about fund-raising functions and information on buses to the next away game was a short but very moving tribute to my mother.

Unfortunately from where I write today I do not have access to the actual programme, but I remember the writer noted my mother’s recent death and referred to her as a ‘good friend’ of the club and its supporters. He/she also expressed on behalf of the entire Cliftonville family their deepest condolences for our loss.

On a chilly autumn afternoon, with fading October sunshine bouncing off the Cavehill in front of us, this heart-warming small act of kindness touched us both.

It told us that long after the mourners had gone and the ceremony of farewell had been completed, in our grief we were still not alone. And that others beyond our immediate family circle were thinking fondly of Florrie.”

Karen Ireland: 'Inside was several hundred pounds and I just burst into tears'

I am very fortunate as I have a small group of good friends around me. They are always there if I need them and often extend small heartfelt acts of kindness which mean the world to me.

As someone who no longer has their parents around to help them out and, now separated and a single mum to my three boys, my friends have become my extended family and a vital part of my life.

Other people’s kindness fascinates me and makes me want to be a better person and to think more about others.

I had major surgery just a few months after having my son Teo and wasn’t able to do very much. I was touched when friends, and even people I didn’t know very well, turned up on the doorstep with huge pies and home-cooked meals to keep the family going until I got back on my feet.

As someone who hates to cook this meant more to me than anything and it left a lasting impression on me and made me want to do similar things for other people when they needed it. Sadly they had to settle for a shop bought ready meal and a bunch of flowers — but the thought was there.

The one act of kindness however which has had a huge impression on me happened about eight years ago.

I had just been made redundant from a very good job and due to the recession work for my then husband was down.

A family holiday seemed like an impossibility, but friends stepped in and offered us their holiday home in the north coast for a week.

This was a miracle in our eyes as it was, and still is, one of the boys’ favourite places. However we were worried as we had little money to spend when we got there.

The morning we were leaving and packing up the car to go a knock came to the door. It was my former sister-in-law, Amanda, who was my brother’s first wife — she was standing at the door having come off nightshift.

Amanda and I have remained very close friends and she’s been the big sister I never had despite us no longer being family.

She squeezed an envelope into my hands and said ‘have a good break away and this will help buy the boys an ice cream when you get there’.

I thanked her for her kindness and thought little more of it until I opened the envelope on the way up the road.

Inside was several hundred pounds. I just burst into tears at her thoughtfulness and the unassuming way she did it.

A heavy burden was lifted off my heart and we were able to go and enjoy a carefree week without having to keep denying the boys things.

I’ve never forgotten that envelope or the sentiments behind it. I hope someday to do something which will have the same lasting impression on someone else.”

Belfast Telegraph

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