A friend's tribute: Tomás McGinley gave us a dream, and then left it with us

Former colleague recalls the story behind the creation of the Foyle Hospice

A friend's tribute: Tomás McGinley gave us a dream, and then left it with us

Doctor Tom McGinley, the founder of the Foyle Hospice in Derry, passed away last week.

Doctor Keith Munro was one of the founding members of the Foyle Hospice and wrote a book called Building Bridges about the story behind the hospice. In this article, he pays tribute to his friend and former colleague, Doctor Tom McGinley, who died last week.


Recent days saw the passing of a greatly loved and appreciated ‘son’ of the city.

Though a deeply sad time for his family and the many thousands who benefited from his prolonged services to the terminally ill and their families, it is also a time, soon, to begin to celebrate the life of someone who will, it can be said, never be forgotten, and whose legacy is very personal to many.

When the book, BUILDING BRIDGES, the story of Foyle Hospice, was launched in December 2005 it was dedicated 'to the people of the north-west corner of Ireland who have, in myriad ways, contributed to the success of Foyle Hospice; to Dr Tom McGinley without whom it could not exist, and to Deirdre, his beloved wife, whose wholehearted support allowed him the time and the space to fulfil his dream.'

Tom always related the ongoing success to the ‘people’ who generously donated and volunteered in many ways.

Every great project starts with a ‘thought’, a ‘dream’ if you will.

But how many have the driving force, the determination, as well as the time and energy to make that dream come true? Very few I guess.

Tom was one, who forced his way through all challenges, not without pain himself. Many were the ups and downs.

The challenge was triggered when, in the 1960’s as a GP in a large and busy City Practice, he was treating a young man terminally ill with bone cancer.

Morphine was considered a very dangerous drug which could not be given too frequently.

Tom realised that treating those with a terminal illness was not easy or advanced in those days.

This problem sank into his soul and, while still working as a full-time GP, he decided to study anaesthetics to learn about pain control.

By the end of the 1970s and into the 1980’s he suddenly heard that the new Northern Hospice was raising money in the North-west. He said “We need a hospice – and we need it now.”

The pace picked up rapidly. He founded the Foyle Female Five a race for ladies which raised many thousands of pounds.

A small steering committee was started, by Tom and myself in the autumn of 1983 which was soon joined by Dr Ailbie Bierne, Hugh McElhinny, Ken Goodall, and Grainne Nugent.

An official Guildhall launch took place (below) in January 1984 with a goal to raise £500,000 - (£1,370,000 today).

A centre was bought in Crawford Square and a Home Care Service started in 1985.

Fund-raising accelerated and the search for a suitable site was the next huge step. This was to support the home-care with ‘inpatient back-up beds’.

Tom agreed that the Foyle Bridge should be the symbol for the hospice – which assisted patients and their families across three bridges, the one between life and death, the one that traversed the border between North and South, and the one which broke barriers between Catholic and Protestant.

He was firmly told by a priest at the time, that the new hospice had to be Catholic in character, while a Protestant group complained that it would be too nationalist. We secretly decided one night to build it in the middle of the bridge!

The triumphant goal of opening the Inpatient Unit came on a Thursday in June 1991.

A large group from all levels of society were invited – too many to accommodate inside.

Prayers were said to prevent rain. Well, it did rain on the Monday, the Tuesday, the Wednesday, but on the Thursday the sun shone all day. Radio Foyle broadcast the ceremony live. On the Friday it rained again!

A problem had reared its head prior to the opening. The decision to ask someone to ‘cut the ribbon’ was not an easy one, as you would guess.

Would we ask a politician? A church leader? A film star?

Given the social milieu we all lived in, the task was not easy.

The perfect solution suddenly occurred.

Tom agreed would invite two children, whose mothers had passed away from cancer. One was a Catholic and the other a Protestant. They would cut the ribbon together.

Since then the hospice has grown, the virgin gardens have bloomed more beautifully every year.

The services of the Hospice have expanded and developed.

In 2002 a new day centre was opened onsite, expanding services yet again. The fund-raising centre was also on-site, headed by Ciaran McGinley.

Towards the end of 2010, Dr McGinley felt that due to health reasons he must step down. The Board reluctantly accepted his decision and fully appreciated his reasons.

Tom had dreamed a dream. He had become the driving force towards founding the Foyle Hospice. He had been Medical Director, chairman of the Board as well as acting as CEO.

History has been made, his accolades well earned.

Tom was awarded a Papal Knighthood for his work, received Freedom of the City, and many other awards.

There is a statue placed close to the path between St Columb’s Park and the Foyle Bridge right beside the courageous flier, Amelia Earhart.

More than all of these awards, however, are the thoughts and prayers of those many thousands of patients and families who, over many decades, have benefited from the services of a dream come true.

The poem, Ulysses, by Alfred Lord Tennyson, ends with the following: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Tomás McGinley gave us a dream, and then left it with us.

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