Belfast Telegraph

Buncrana pier tragedy hero Davitt Walsh receives overall 2016 Spirit of Northern Ireland award

Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards: Heroes one and all

By Ali Gordon

Sunday Life recognised the ordinary people who have done extraordinary things at the Sunday Life Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards with Specsavers this weekend.

The star-studded evening, held at the five-star Culloden Estate and Spa, was enjoyed by a host of famous faces but it was the nine finalists that stole the limelight on such an emotional occasion.

The top honour of the night was given to Buncrana pier hero Davitt Walsh who accepted the overall Spirit of Northern Ireland Award from Sunday Life editor Martin Breen, Specsavers NI chairman Brian O’Kane and First and Deputy First Ministers Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness.

Former Derry City, Lisburn and Ballymena footballer Davitt risked his life to save a four-month-old baby after her father’s car went down the slipway in one of Northern Ireland’s worst drowning tragedies.

The 29-year-old dived into the freezing water at Buncrana harbour and swam out to the sinking car in March this year.

Inside were five members of one Derry family who all perished: Ruth Daniels, 57, her daughter Jodie Lee Daniels, 14, her son-in-law Sean McGrotty, 49, and his sons Mark, 12, and Evan, eight.

But brave Davitt managed to rescue four-month-old baby Rionaghac-Ann by raising her up and swimming back to safety. Rionaghac-Ann is the only surviving member of mother Louise James’ family.

Davitt attended the Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards with his partner Stephanie, who helped keep baby Rionaghac-Ann warm before the ambulance arrived on that dreadful day back in March.

A tearful Davitt received a standing ovation as he accepted his award on Friday night.

Despite his heroic efforts Davitt, who also took home our Unsung Hero Award, says he only wishes he could have done more to help the tragic family.

He told Sunday Life: “I don’t feel like I’ve done anything special, I was just in that situation and I did what I could.

“I see Rionaghac-Ann in Derry whenever I can and she’s a lovely wee thing. I hope to see her grow up and I’d love to be a part of her life.”

City of Belfast Boxing Academy head coach Terry McCorran was the first winner of our new category, Spirit of Sport.

Since its founding in 2011, the club, based on the Short Strand interface, has been instrumental in bringing kids together from across the religious divide through the sport.

Humble Terry, who got a rapturous response as he accepted his award from champion boxer Carl Frampton, said: “Whatever your baggage is, we leave it at the gate.

“When you hear what other people here do, I just feel out of place.”

In another new category, the Spirit of Health, a hard-working Belfast City Hospital-based unit were delighted to win the award.

The Nephrology Unit is responsible for renal care and those battling with kidney complaints and has saved countless lives over the years.

Last September, in one day alone, the fantastic team carried out five kidney transplants — equalling the United Kingdom’s record —which was well beyond their usual rate of one transplant a week.

The five people, aged between 41 and 56, were on long-term dialysis with end-stage kidney failure from a range of causes, including type 1 diabetes. All five of the patients returned home within eight days of their surgery.

The partner of stroke survivor Clodagh Dunlop, Adrian Simpson, was the worthy winner of our Caring Spirit award.

Adrian was there every step of the way, literally, for PSNI officer Clodagh when she suffered a brain stem stroke which led to locked-in syndrome.

The Magherafelt woman was left unable to speak so devoted Adrian made her a spelling board to allow her to communicate and also joined her at physiotherapy classes while she learned to walk again.

With the help of Adrian and staff at Musgrave Hospital, Clodagh has returned to her Desertmartin home and earlier this month, marked the anniversary of her stroke with a skydive. On Friday night she joined Adrian on stage as he collected the award she herself had nominated him for.

The audience at the glittering awards ceremony was also moved by the story of our Overcoming Adversity winner Colin Bell.

The Newry man, who had his award presented by ex-jockey Sir Anthony McCoy, set up the amazing Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust after his son Kevin, 26, died in a suspected hit-and-run incident in New York in June 2013.

Touched by the generosity of his local community, who raised £150,000 to help bring Kevin’s body home, Colin and wife Eithne have helped bring home nearly 170 bodies to Ireland, including those of Sister Clare Crockett who died in the Ecuador earthquake and Newtownabbey man Alan Drennan who died in Ibiza last summer.

Charity Champion was awarded to Carryduff woman Pamela Nugent. An emotional Pamela was moved to form a bulimia charity after her son Laurence, 24, passed away from the illness in 2009.

In 2012 Pamela founded the Laurence Trust which worked to raise awareness of eating disorders affecting men as well as offering information and support to those battling the eating disorder as well as their families.

She said: “I know if he [Laurence] was standing here today he’d say ‘mummy you’re doing the right thing’.”

Hard-working Buddy Bear School principal Ildiko Veres was named Spirit of Education for her work with children with cerebral palsy.

The dedicated teacher was also singled out for special praise by long time Buddy Bear School supporter and world snooker champion Dennis Taylor.

999 Hero Judith Sexton was “overwhelmed” with her win. As well as being staff officer for one of the PSNI’s Assistant Chief Constables, Judith is also a hostage and crisis negotiator.

In one week alone in the voluntary role, Judith negotiated with a suicidal man with a shotgun, an armed hostage situation in Lisburn and a suicidal woman.

The youngest of our winners was Action for Children young carer. Latasha Moore from Gilford, The 14-year-old dedicates her life to helping care for her parents who struggle with severe disabilities.

The Spirit of Youth recipient’s mother Leanne suffers from Functional Gate Disorder which affects her balance and severely limits her mobility while her father Robin is profoundly deaf.

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