In March 2018, Fr Tony Coote, the charismatic and popular parish priest of Mount Merrion and Kilmacud in Co. Dublin, was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease, an incurable neurological condition that progressively robs sufferers of their physical faculties.
Where some might respond to that diagnosis by withdrawing into themselves, Tony decided that he would carry on his priestly duties for as long as he could. With his characteristic mix of humour and honesty, he also took to the airwaves on The Ryan Tubridy Show, to announce that he would lead a 550km walk the length of the country, from Letterkenny to Ballydehob in less than a month, to raise awareness and funds for MND sufferers. He set a fundraising target of €250,000 and invited all-comers to join him. Walk While You Can (wwyc.ie) was born.
By the time the walk began, in July, Tony’s rapidly deteriorating condition meant that he had already lost much of the power in his legs and was dependent on a wheelchair to move around. He was warned that, even in a chair, the exertion of the walk posed a serious danger to his health, but he went ahead anyway. Aware how many MND sufferers lose the power of speech, Tony was determined to use his voice to make a difference for other MND patients in the future.
He had been horrified to discover how little money is available to fund research and care for people with MND in Ireland. Around 150 Irish people are diagnosed each year, but there are currently only three dedicated nurses looking after them, funded entirely by charitable donations. Tony’s neurologist, Prof. Orla Hardiman, also made him aware that there had been no significant advances in treatment for 24 years, because of a lack of research funding.
The documentary follows Fr Tony Coote’s dogged and inspirational journey through Donegal, Sligo, Mayo, Galway, Clare, Limerick and Cork. Along the way, we see how people join the walk, with communities the length of the country turning out to welcome and support him.
Far from being a lament, the walk becomes a celebration, with Tony leading the craic. Despite becoming visibly more disabled as the journey progresses, he sticks to his determination “to show that the illness is not the person. The person has an illness. I’m still the same person.”
Along the way, Tony discusses, unflinchingly, how his diagnosis has affected his sense of vocation and his relationship with God. Tony also describes how his childhood experiences of coming from a broken home shaped his priesthood and his determination to make the Church a place of inclusion and love, never judgment.
As a result, we see how beloved he is among his parishioners in Mount Merrion and Kilmacud, Co. Dublin. Tony is also joined on the walk by former UCD students, who got to know him through the UCD Volunteers Overseas programme Tony organised in Haiti or through the “Please talk” national mental health campaign he set up during his years as a UCD chaplain.
By the end of filming, Tony and his fellow pilgrims had raised over half a million euro for the cause – more than double his target – and his inspirational campaign had raised awareness of MND to a whole new level. He’s not finished, either. There is now even hope of a breakthrough in the medical treatment of the condition, so, just as he had intended, Tony’s campaign is bringing hope to a condition that many regard as hopeless.
Walking the Walk (#WalkingTheWalk ) airs on RTÉ One at 10.15pm, on 6th December
Filmed, produced & directed by Maurice O’Brien
Executive producer: Roger Childs
Press & Publicity: Fergus McCormack: 086 8674751; Fergus.firstname.lastname@example.org .