Fionnbar Walsh keeps Donal's memory and message alive
Donal Walsh's father Fionnbar talks about how his family are continuing the campaign to prevent teenage suicide
Published 05/05/2014 | 02:30
'HAVE you got the Kleenex with you?" asks Fionnbar Walsh within minutes of meeting.
Then he laughs. He is known to most people as Donal Walsh's father and he has no problem with that. In fact, he is proud of it, so proud that he has written a book about his late son and his journey. It is called Donal's Mountain – How One Son Inspired a Nation. It was written with June Considine.
Donal Walsh's story became known to most Irish people after he appeared on Brendan O'Connor's Saturday Night Show and then his articles were published in this newspaper. The Kerry lad was an ordinary 16-year-old but when he was struck with cancer three times he showed tremendous strength and courage. In the end, he knew that he was going to die, so he lived life at full throttle.
His family had been told to make as many memories as possible. As a result, he got to drive a Ferrari, had a ride in a helicopter and his Dad brought him and his pals to London. But it wasn't all about him. He was a generous, caring lad who in that time also raised €50,000 for St John's Ward in Crumlin Children's Hospital where he had spent a lot of time.
Thanks to his faith, Donal had no fear of death. He spoke of how teenage suicides made him angry as he wanted to live and had no choice in the matter of his death sentence, yet people were choosing to die and would leave behind a mess. He urged them to seek help and appreciate life.
"I see all the support that I'm getting in life and I see all the good things in life and the beautiful things that I'm going to be leaving behind," he said.
Donal died on May 12, 2013. Almost 7,000 people attended his funeral in Tralee.
"They shut every business in town, "says Fionnbar. "We were walking down the Mall, which is normally the busiest street, and there was absolute silence. I could hear this strange squeaking noise. It was a sign swaying. Normally you wouldn't hear it as there would be too much hustle and bustle. Buses stopped and people got off them to pay their respects."
His voice quivers as he says this.
There were several pallbearers – including Donal's brilliant bunch of pals, the lads who had kept his spirits up all through the cancer. They wore the same red tie that Donal was wearing in his coffin. The gesture made sense as they had been with him for every step of his journey. For instance, when Donal got a wheelchair all the lads had a go in it and then they broke it. He said that it was hard to call them friends because, when they were that close, they were more like family. His regular parting words to them were, 'See you tomorrow', and days before he died it was no different.
His two sets of uncles carried the coffin at different stages too and then, on leaving the church, the Munster rugby team took over.
Like his father, Donal was a huge rugby fan and, when he could no longer play, he became a fitness coach for a team. In the early days of his illness he forged firm friendships with the Munster team, Paul O'Connell in particular. When they met in Tralee, they just clicked. After exchanging numbers, they would text and talk. Paul would often drop in to see him in Crumlin Hospital, once even on the day before an international match. Spotting the rubber straps which Donal had to use for his physiotherapy, Paul grabbed one, tied it to the radiator and proceeded to do his exercises to build up strength for his injured ankle. He chatted away as he did this work. Naturally, Donal followed suit. No longer were the bands about physiotherapy for a boy with a prosthetic.
Another time when Donal met the team, Ronan O'Gara spotted Donal's crutches and asked what was wrong with him. He told him that he had cancer in the knee.
Fionnbar remembers that the more Donal told Ronan, the more he asked questions. "Even though we had told Donal what was going to happen, we weren't sure if he quite understood it, but that was the first time we saw that he had the whole grasp."
At the funeral, Danny Cournane, a half Maori, half Irish kid who had been coached by Donal, did a solo haka. He used to do these before matches and now he had requested to do it in front of the hearse. The Maori ritual was like a tribal shout of grief. It must have taken guts to do it but then it was an appropriate act for such a brave man.
Leinster player Shane Jennings also had a close friendship with Donal. When the cancer came back for the second time, he told him that his mother had had cancer three times and was still alive, so he had to fight back. All of a sudden the game was on.
Fionnbar tried to be stoical for his son but there were times when he let his mask slip.
"After he was diagnosed for the third time, I found it very hard to have a conversation with him without tears welling up because I knew those were final conversations. I probably did a lot more crying when he was around than after he died because it upset me to see him in the agony that he was in at times."
When I ask him what Donal was like as a kid, his face lights up.
"He was the most ambitious young fella. He wanted to be faster and better than his big sister all the time. Jema was two years older than him. When he was six weeks old he started eating his first potatoes. He was inconsolable until he got real food into his mouth. And then you could see it in him, that he was struggling to walk and talk. He couldn't understand how she could do these things and he couldn't."
When his cancer was diagnosed, Donal was determined that it would not ruin his life. The second time he got cancer they took out part of his lower lung. He went through the wars again but finally he recovered.
"He took up cycling as a serious aerobic sport to build muscle capacity. He had a prosthetic knee and one and a half lungs and he was up to 30k an hour on a bicycle. He was s**t hot on a bike," says his father with pride.
In the middle of it all, Fionnbar had lost his job as a hotel manager but suddenly it didn't seem to matter that much. He had to stay positive for his son.
Donal's mother Elma gave up her accounting job to nurse her son. And it wasn't easy for Jema either – she was doing important exams. But they had great help in Brian, Elma's brother, who came to mind Jema. He was like a surrogate father.
"Donal only spent two days in bed, that's how physically active he was," says Fionnbar. "He was up with his friends on the Friday night and then he died on the Sunday evening."
But there was laughter, even right up until the end. Fionnbar tells me how Donal was listening to people whisper about him and then he opened his eyes to say – "I'm going f**king nowhere today." Or another time he woke to see his father and uncles huddled arm in arm at the end of his bed, and he told them, "It's like waking up to a scene in The Sopranos."
"He gently slipped away and with just the four of us in the house – Elma, Jema, Brian and myself. I think the biggest increase to my faith was the gentleness of his passing and the ease with which he went. He just slipped away, like moving into the next room. We can't see him but we know he's still around and with us and he's still influencing us and will for a while to come."
Fionnbar had made up his mind about one thing for his son's funeral.
"We decided beforehand that we were going to bury him physically. Donal was angry about suicide and the way that on Facebook and Twitter, people had their three days of glory and then you had copycat cases. We've gone very sanitised in our funerals in Ireland where we put this piece of false grass on top of the grave. I wanted six shovels and we buried him straight away. It was about continuing the conversation so that kids would walk away and say – they buried Donal Walsh. He is gone and he ain't coming back.
"On the night that Donal died, he got six thousand more followers on Twitter. Donal would have enjoyed that one. What were they expecting, that he'd tweet back?"
Lots of people came to the house to sympathise with the Walsh family and this carried on for months afterwards. Fionnbar appreciates their kindness but in the end he says that it became intrusive.
"One day a total stranger came to the door and said I'm here to give Donal's mother a hug. It's lovely but we don't know you."
The week after the funeral they both went back to work. Fionnbar had a new job managing a hotel. "We had to go back otherwise the visitors would still be coming," he laughs as he says this.
"I have very strong feelings of Donal being around," says Fionnbar. "There's a particular robin that keeps on visiting the house. Elma had a significant birthday and on that day she found the robin in the house. He flew in and was right beside Donal's photo. Elma said, 'Donal, if that's you having a muck with me, come over closer' and the bird did. There have been loads of coincidences. I don't know if we read things into things that aren't there but it is very bizarre."
Since Donal's death they set up a foundation called www.donalwalshlivelife.org.
"The sole purpose of it is to continue the conversation that Donal started which is about suicide prevention in teenagers," says Fionnbar.
These days their lives are very busy. Two days every week Fionnbar and Elma travel around schools in Ireland telling their son's story. There are also all sorts of events for the foundation like charity cycles. Elma will be off to Rome and the day after I meet him, Fionnbar will do a 50 km cycle.
"Donal spoke about suicide and the mess that it leaves behind and now I say, 'look at the mess that we're in now. I'm 52 and I wouldn't have been on a bike in 30 years. Me in lycra going up a mountain? That has to be a laugh'. Donal, sometimes, I wish you'd kept your mouth shut."
Donal's Mountain – How One Son Inspired a Nation by Fionnbar Walsh with June Considine is published by Hachette Books Ireland, €16-35
The Donal Walsh Live Life Foundation – www.donalwalshlivelife.org
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