Belfast Telegraph

Sunday Life Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards: Nominees defy all the odds

Andrea Begley will perform at the ceremony
Andrea Begley will perform at the ceremony
Spirit Of Northern Ireland finalist Seanin Smith
Spirit Of Northern Ireland finalist Dermot Devlin pictured with Paul Clarke at UTV
Spirit Of Northern Ireland finalist Marie Devine
Spirit Of Northern Ireland finalist John Mallon
Spirit Of Northern Ireland finalist Stephen Lowry

By Christopher Woodhouse

In the face of tremendous hardship some people can crumble but others strive to succeed no matter what challenges they are presented with.

This drive to overcome despite the odds is what marks out the five finalists in our Specsavers Overcoming Adversity category for the 2014 Sunday Life Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards with Specsavers.

We will feature our Unsung Hero and Young Person finalists over the next two weeks in Sunday Life.

Our nominees will be treated to a top class night of great food and entertainment at our grand final in the five star Culloden Hotel on May 30.

As with last year, UTV will again be recording this year's awards for a special TV programme presented by Pamela Ballantine and Frank Mitchell who will also be our hosts on the night. Entertainment will be provided by The Voice winner Andrea Begley and comic John Linehan aka May McFettridge.

In what is also a moving occasion, guests will be introduced to all of our 15 finalists and get to hear their heroic stories.

Winners in the three categories, as chosen by a judging panel headed by TV star Gloria Hunniford, will be announced on the night, as will the overall Spirit of Northern Ireland Award winner, who will receive a £1,000 cash prize from Northern Ireland’s fastest growing care recruitment and domiciliary agency, Peninsula Care Services.


Just ten years ago Marie Devine was critically ill and waiting on a kidney transplant after spending seven years on dialysis, now she has six medals from the World Transplant Games under her belt.

The 48-year-old Bangor woman, now nine years on from her second transplant after her first was rejected, represented Great Britain and Northern Ireland at the games in Durban, South Africa.

At the age of 31, Marie was diagnosed with an unspecified kidney failure after complaining of tiredness and dizziness.

She spent the next seven years on dialysis, for 10 and a half hours each day, while waiting for her first transplant which failed after just five days.

Her rare blood type of B minus meant she had a while to wait until a suitable donor was found but after a second transplant she has gone from strength to strength.

Marie, who had to raise the £2,000 needed to attend the games herself, won three gold, two silver and three bronze medals in track events as part of the ten strong GB & NI team at the event in August 2013.

She won gold in the 400m, the 4x400m relay and silver in the individual 5km and the 1,500km as well as a bronze medal in the individual 800m.


John lost his brother and niece to suicide and struggled for years with depression, being within seconds of taking his own life at one stage.

The long and painful death of his father from asbestos poisoning prompted feelings of depression which eventually drove John to the brink of suicide, he even went round his friends and family to say goodbye.

However, seven years on John has overcome his depression through a lifelong enjoyment of photography.

His photographic exhibition ‘A View To A Better Mental Health Through The Lens of a Camera’ was a huge success at the Red Barn Gallery in Belfast.

He works tirelessly to help people in distress, depressed or suicidal states.

John said: “My reason for this exhibition is to show people and to send a message, is to say to them ‘There is a view to a better mental health through the lens of a camera’, and not locking yourself away in a room, seek help, one conversation can change everything.”


Being born with a rare genetic disorder, Morquio Syndrome, left Omagh man Dermot Devlin wheelchair bound for life but this hasn’t stopped him achieving what he wants to do.

The 34-year-old, who is just three feet tall, is a passionate disability rights campaigner for the Omagh Access Forum and has set up a special website which acts as a “TripAdvisor for the disabled”.

Everyday tasks that most of us take for granted are enormous efforts for Dermot, this spurred him to set up the site where people like him can go for advice on disability friendly restaurants and shops.

His site, My Way Access, covers the UK and Ireland advising disabled people which restaurants, shops and areas are wheelchair friendly.

He said: “There was no way of finding out before going to Belfast or other cities, towns or villages what places I could and couldn’t go. So I just thought ‘I’m going to fill this gap’.”


Stephen, who had his right hand blown off by a blast bomb explosion while working as a DJ at Cupid's Nightclub in Newry in 1985, has become the first person in Ireland to be fitted with a state of the art bionic hand.

The 51-year-old IT engineer from Larchwood, Banbridge, was chosen to trial the new £40,000 Bebionic artificial hand by surgeons at Musgrave Park Hospital’s Regional Disablement Services.

Stephen’s new hand has helped him do pretty much everything, even using cutlery, something he hasn’t been able to do since losing his real hand.

He even aims to qualify to fly a micro light aircraft solo thanks to the revolutionary new prosthesis, made by Leeds based company RSL Steeper.

Stephen still has vivid memories of the night he lost his hand, he said: “I remember it was like yesterday. I remember it blowing my hand off.

“I remember saying to myself ‘I’m too young to die here’ so I managed to get up and started to walk. Then passed out and next thing I woke up again in the ambulance.”


Beauty queen Seanin was struck down at the age of just 18 by rare debilitating genetic disorders Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS) and Pseudoxanthoma Elasticum (PXE), causing frequent seizures, blindness and recently a major stroke.

Her condition further worsened when, at just 20 years old, she was diagnosed with Scheuermann’s disease, affecting her kidneys and bladder.

Seanin’s conditions have left her utterly dependant on her parents for the simplest of tasks, a far cry from the independent young woman who used to go to the gym three times and week and was a member of the Irish Water Society.

The aspiring actress now spends most her time in a wheelchair and has to learn to walk again but needs to raise vital funds for further urgent treatment in England but struggles through it all with a smile on her face.

The trained lifeguard, who once represented Belleeks in the Belle of South Armagh beauty pageant, is determined to finish her degree at the University of Ulster and go on to do a masters.

Tickets for the gala awards ceremony cost £60, including dinner, table wine and entertainment, can be purchased from JPR, Sylvan House, 232-240, Belmont Office Park, Belfast, BT4 2AW; by phone at 028 90760066 or e-mail:

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