If you happened to see me out and about for a walk with my family this Christmas, you’d probably think we were quite ordinary.

A mum, a dad, two little boys, and a dog. To be honest, you’d probably not give us a second glance, not unless you looked a little closer and noticed the wrist straps on my boys, or the harness on my dog. Because, yes, I’m blind. I can’t see a thing. Just darkness.

My Guide Dog Max does all my seeing for me. And those straps I mentioned keep me and my little boys literally joined at the wrist every moment we’re out and about.

Without Max life would be terrifying. Handling pregnancy, bringing my two little boys into the world, keeping them safe –  I can’t imagine how any of that could have happened without a Guide Dog by my side.

You see, I’ve lived both with a Guide Dog and without one, so I know exactly how huge a difference one of these four-legged heroes can make. Max makes my family’s life possible every single day, especially the really big and important days, like Christmas.

I was born with a visual impairment, and as I grew up my vision grew worse until eventually I couldn’t see a thing. If you want an idea of what the world looks like to me, simply close your eyes. That’s all I see.

I went to a school for the visually impired, got my Leaving Cert, and then went to college where I built on my computer skills before moving into the workplace.

Out in the big wide world life became incredibly hard. Just imagine trying to get on a bus or take a train into town with your eyes shut, and nothing but a cane to help you get there.
One time I accidentally caught the wrong bus.

When I got off I didn’t know where I was. I was totally lost. I was in a panic about being late for work. In a panic about not having a clue where I was. I called out to people passing by, “Excuse me, excuse me, can you tell me where I am?” But people are just so caught up in their own lives, they just walked right past me. I remember coming close to tears.

You’ve probably seen people out with their long canes. And you might well think the cane means they can go anywhere with ease. It doesn’t for me though.

Going anywhere that’s not familiar is incredibly daunting and sometimes very frightening. I remember working on Harcourt Street in Dublin while the Luas was being built. It was a nightmare. I’d just be getting used to walking along a certain street when all of a sudden scaffolding would appear where there wasn’t the day before.

I would move my cane left and right for ages wondering, “what is this?” I’d have to investigate it with my hand, or wait on somebody to come to my aid and tell me what it was and how to get around it safely.

I was in constant fear of falling down a hole, or tripping over an unsecured piece of building material. Aside from outright scares like that, being blind puts real limits on your life in a thousand little ways too.

Even something as simple as getting a drink of water from the water cooler in work is a challenge. Sometimes I’d ignore my thirst and stay at my desk because I knew I’d end up bumping into something. So instead I just went thirsty.

All of this grew too much for me. And it was affecting my relationship with my partner Brian too. He was wonderful about everything, but I hated being so reliant on him for lifts and such all the time. And so I applied for a Guide Dog.

When I was 25 along came a Labrador called Dotty – and my whole life changed. No more having to worry about where the kerb is so you don’t trip over it. No more worrying about scaffolding or holes. No more getting lost on the bus and having to ask for directions. No more having to ask Brian for a lift to go somewhere. No more worrying about Brian worrying about me!

I just couldn’t believe the freedom, and I was just awestruck by her abilities.

Nothing fazed her at all. She just guided me round every obstacle. I realised very quickly I could just trust her completely. And with that trust came new confidence. Confidence to say to Brian, or friends I might be meeting somewhere, “There’s no need to pick me up, I’ll meet you there.”

And the first time we came across a new scaffolding around a building on Westmoreland Street, Dotty brought me the whole way around and back up on to the path. I just stood still and went, “Wow!”  I’ll never forget how huge a deal that was for me.

And from there my whole life just opened up. Suddenly I realised I could do all kinds of things I’d never have taken on before. I’m fiercely independent and hate having to ask others for help. If Brian wasn’t around to give me a lift, I’d rather stay in on my own than ask someone else to take me somewhere.

But with Dotty, suddenly I was off to all sorts of social events. Concerts, pubs, restaurants, the whole lot. Meeting new people. Making new friends.

Handling pregnancy and maintaining an independent life would’ve been impossible without Dotty by my side. She took good care of me and my bump whenever we were out alone. And I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to take on raising children without her.

When Nessan was born Dotty helped me to do all the things every other mum would do. I could put him in a sling and go out for a walk to the shops, because I still had Dotty to guide me. I could do anything. And the same again with Ciarán. Once they were toddlers, I used wrist restraints so that all four of us were together, Dotty leading me, and me minding the boys.

We got to go everywhere together, which was not only incredibly important for me, but was absolutely critical for the boys, and Brian and I as a couple too.

It meant that they’ve been able to do all the things kids their age would normally do, and they’ve been able to grow up without me having to say no to this, that and the other. For me, having a Guide Dog means independence. I can live my life my way.

But for the whole family, for all four of us together, having a Guide Dog means freedom, freedom to live a full, happy family life. And that’s something that really came home to me not long ago. Because for a few months after Dotty retired I was ‘in-between’ Guide Dogs.

Suddenly, my freedom and independence was all taken away from me again. I was back relying on Brian for lifts to and from work or getting the boys to school. Going back to using the cane was impossible. And the constant fear of dangers on my journeys meant I even lost the confidence to go to the local shop for milk or bread.

It was a huge struggle, and I was so relieved when I got the call that a new Guide Dog had been matched with me.

My new Guide Dog is Max. He’s a real lively dog and he walks at a much quicker pace than Dotty, but that suits me because I love to walk quickly. Right now we’re all really looking forward to Christmas. Every year we head in to the GPO and we post off letters to Santa Claus. Then we go for hot chocolate with marshmallows. And then we join in the festivities of the lights being switched on in Dublin City Centre.

Of course I can’t see the twinkling lights. I don’t really know what Christmas “looks like”. But thanks to Max I can still be there instead of being stuck at home.

I can still hear the delight in my children’s voices and sense their excitement through their hands as I hold them. And we can still be a normal family together doing all the things you and thousands of other families do.

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