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The Belfast woman who moved to Ballycastle... even though her husband refused to go too

Lillian Whelan's long hoped for move to Ballycastle from Belfast turned into a nightmare until a befriending service came to her rescue as Stephanie Bell reports

Next time you're in Ballycastle, look out for Lola. She's not hard to spot for there can't be too many dogs that get carried about in cushioned shopping trolleys and handbags.

But when your owner reckons you've been her life-saver then it's easy to understand why Lola gets what Lola wants.

"Lola saved my life - her and the love of friends and family," says west Belfast-born grandmother Lillian Whelan (74), who, with her canine sidekick, are now as much part of the town as Yellow Man and dulse.

Just when most people are thinking of easing into retirement, Lillian's life took an unexpected turn which tested her mettle to its core.

"I fell in love with Ballycastle the first time I came to Corrymeela here in the 1980s for a cross-community peace event during the Troubles. That's when I decided that I wanted to live there," she recalls.

"It just felt so good to get away from the city. We used to cram as many of the local kids as we could into our Volvo to bring them here for the weekend. One time the soldiers stopped us in west Belfast and asked us all to get out. They were scratching their heads because kids just kept coming - I think 19 was the most we ever carried, but there was no law against it then."

In 1986, Lillian and her husband Timothy (70), who she married in 1966, bought a house in the town but couldn't convince their teenage children to move so the plan was that the couple would retire there. For years Lillian lived on that dream.

"Then one day just three months before we were set to retire, my husband decided he didn't want to move," says Lillian, whose life changed forever with that decision.

"It was a shock to me as he had never ever said he wasn't going. He couldn't believe I would go on my own, but even though I was about to hit my 70th birthday I said I'd go anyway. No-one believed me but I stuck to my word and moved to Ballycastle for a new life.

"I have great family and friends who helped to get me settled in and my two sisters took it in turns the first few weeks to stay with me so that I didn't feel so isolated."

Her husband's eleventh hour decision not to go to Ballycastle after years of planning was a major blow, but she has no regrets and says they remain good friends.

Lillian adds: "There are things I can't do like fixing the fence or maintenance such as cutting the grass, so Tim would come down and do them for me.

"He is very good to me. I don't ask him if he would come here. I am happy the way I am, but if he decided he wanted to come and join me I would be thankful for him being here.

While Lillian loved the seaside, when she first moved the change from city life where she was surrounded by friends and family was enormous.

And just as she was trying to adjust, three months after her dream move, tragedy struck on her 70th birthday when her first born son Sean died suddenly from a heart attack.

As well as Sean, who was 45 when he passed away, Lillian has another son Gavin (49) and three daughters Briege (44), Aine (40) and a foster daughter Susan (53).

She says: "I was on antidepressants before I came to Ballycastle and I was able to wean myself off them, then Sean died and that knocked me off my feet.

"He was a beautiful person. It will be five years in January and it feels like five hours. He was a gentleman, a lovely, thoughtful person, he really was.

"I got very down but I still went to Mass every day, though if there was a funeral on I'd have to leave and go outside for a cry," says Lillian.

"That's when they organised for the wee community bus to lift me each morning for Mass and as I got to know the other people on the bus - they became like an extended family to me."

Around the same time Lillian's next door neighbour Brenda Boyle got a job with Good Morning Ballycastle, which is managed by Ballycastle Church Action and funded with National Lottery players' money, and asked her if she would like to get involved.

Good Morning Ballycastle volunteers phone a list of vulnerable people every morning just to ensure they're well; if they don't get an answer they call at the house to make sure there's no emergency. COAST (Causeway Older Active Strategic Team), which funds this service, has recently received £445,000 of National Lottery players' money from the Big Lottery Fund to support older people like Lillian who are vulnerable or isolated.

The new four-year project supports Good Morning Services and helps older people connect with other activities to get them out and about again.

"Lillian is one in a million - a real special lady. Getting to know her as a neighbour and through the morning calls has meant as much to me as her," says Brenda.

"And Lillian tries to give back to us, too. If there's a fundraiser she'll always be there with buns or cakes she's baked. She's just great." For Lillian, who was lonely and grieving, those morning calls have made all the difference.

"I just love that wee call in the morning because it reminds me people care. It's been a lifeline - that and Lola," says Lillian, whose granddaughter Torai (17) gave her the pup a year after her dad, Lillian's son, died.

"That wee dog and Good Morning Ballycastle have turned my life around. There's nothing like a dog to get people talking to you and now everyone knows Lola," laughs Lillian.

"I push her in my shopping trolley and people will say, 'look at the wee dog'. All the bus drivers know her now, too. I take her on in my bag and she gets a free ride. It's not, 'Hello Lillian', but 'Hello Lola!' And I'll laugh and say, yes and I'm all right too if you're interested.

"Anyone we sit beside on the bus makes friends with Lola. But if they haven't noticed her in my bag they jump if she suddenly sticks her head out."

Through Good Morning Ballycastle, Lillian also got involved in the Over-55s and a lunch club, too.

"Getting out and about again has given me back my confidence," she says. "Good Morning Ballycastle has helped me get back in the rhythm of life. It took me four years to come out of that deep depression. Then one day I thought, I'm sure my son's happier where he is than I am here, even though I loved Ballycastle.

"Then and there I decided life was for living. Now I try to make other people feel like they're worthy of being happy again.

"Before I got involved with Good Morning Ballycastle, my life was dismal. I loved Ballycastle but within myself I was very sad. I just can't explain the richness the project has brought to my life.

"The fact that people are just so good makes me want to carry on. I loved my life in Belfast where I had the best neighbours but this is the way everyone should be able to live in retirement."

These days despite ill health - she had diabetes, arthritis, asthma and the lung condition bronchiectasis - she keeps herself busy with her new friends and doing her bit for charity, something she was well-known for in her home community in west Belfast.

Lillian volunteers at the local food bank and also collects second hand backpacks and fills them to enable children in Malawi and Libya to go to school.

So far she has filled 200 backpacks and buys many of the items herself although she also relies on donations.

"People give me the backpacks or I go around the charity shops looking for them, bring them home and then scrub them and make them like new," Lillian says.

"I put an outfit in them and a notebook and pencils and pens and a tennis ball, because every child should have a ball to play with. I also put toothpaste and a toothbrush and other things they might need.

"In those countries if they have a backpack then they are allowed into school. I do it through Mary's Meals, it would break your heart the way those children have to live."

Collecting for charity is second nature to Lillian who has done it all of her life. She has worked hard for her retirement, at one stage juggling three jobs.

"Ballycastle is everything and more than I hoped it would be. I am so grateful to be accepted into the community. I've tried to make a contribution and hopefully I have succeeded," she says.

"It is the best thing I have ever done in my life and I've done many good things.

"I would just say to young people that they can make their lives better than what it is but don't expect people to do it for you. Go out and help others and you will find great satisfaction and a purpose."

If you would like to donate towards Lillian's backpack appeal visit marysmeals.org.uk/get-involved/campaigns/the-backpack-project/what-to-pack/ For more details about projects and funding, visit biglotteryfund.org.uk/northernireland Good Morning Ballycastle, tel: 028 2076 8309 or visit localgiving.org

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