Saturday 1 October 2016

Billy Keane: Donal Walsh's candle of hope still lights way

Two years after the death of the inspirational teenager, his legacy lives on with his family

Published 09/05/2015 | 02:30

Donal Walsh
Donal Walsh
Donal Walsh died on May 12, 2013 and his parents have kept his room exactly as it was since then
Donal's beloved dog Shirley

I never met a saint's dog before. The old collie cross waddled over to us, sideways to sideways, like a listing ship on a swell. Shirley is her name and she checks every car for Donal. Donal Walsh's second anniversary is coming up next Tuesday, but still Shirley keeps her vigil. Donal was mad about Shirley.

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The faded rugby ball beached on the driveway was badly in need of pumping. Eighty students from Tipperary couldn't resist a kickabout with Donal Walsh's rugby ball. They asked to see Donal's red shed, the den where he met up with his pals. The message stencilled on the wall by Donal himself is LIVE LIFE. Donal knew he was dying, but he begged others to live and he has saved so many who were contemplating ending their precious lives.

The late Donal Walsh
The late Donal Walsh

The teenagers asked to see Donal's room. The room he died in.

Donal's parents Fionnbar and Elma felt they couldn't refuse. The room was closed up to the public for a long time. It was as if the family wanted to keep some little bit of Donal for themselves.

One of Donal's pals told us the story. He was lonesome for his friend. "Can I go to the room?" he asked. "Sure," said the Walshes. The friends come now and then, and maybe take a liedown on Donal's bed to have a think.

The Tipp kids brought a cheque for €18,000 for the Donal Walsh Foundation, raised from a concert organised by Ned Kelly, a Tipperary farmer who was touched by the story of the heroic last days of a 16-year-old. The money will be well spent. Lives will be saved and reclaimed.

The room has remained untouched since Donal died. There's a bottle of Coke on the dresser. It was Donal's and Elma didn't have the heart to remove it. Elma didn't move anything. Maybe she tidied a bit. Elma is a mom after all. I was nosey. Elma left me in the room on my own and I opened the wardrobe. There, folded, on coat hangers, cleaned and ironed by his mom, were Donal's clothes.

For some reason, that was the hardest part for me. I had to sit on his bed. It was soft and warm from the evening sun shining in over the mountains of the west. He was a handsome kid and he liked his clothes. I can't explain why it hurt so much. Just that it did. Donal's rosary beads are by the bed and a little card with Padre Pio on the front. Donal said his prayers. But if he is a saint and I believe he is, he was a boy too, just like any other.

Donal's Debs date Joanne was in the middle of studying for her second-year nursing exams. "He was non-stop cracking jokes, all night," said Joanne. Donal chanced a half- pint.

"I drank just half of it and I fell off the stool. I'm some drinker," and he laughed as he told his mom. They had very few secrets. He was in terrible pain that night but he was going to the Debs and no more about it.

Donal was told he was terminally ill and so he had to pack a lot in. He secured a forged ID and blagged his way in to a nightclub. Everyone there knew he was 16. Donal was famous, but he didn't know that. You need to be 18 to get in to clubs, but the security men didn't bother too much. Donal stayed only a while. He was too sick. Things to do before you die.

So he was just a boy, but what a boy. And this is why he has connected with so many young people. His message was simple. "So please, as a 16-year-old who has no say in his death sentence, who has no choice in the pain he is about to cause and who would take any chance at even a few more months on this planet, appreciate what you have, know there are always further options and help is always there."

He was a beautiful writer. Donal's plan was to study journalism in UL. "He wanted to go in to sports writing," said his dad. Paul O'Connell was a big buddy and by the bed there's a photo of Simon Zebo with the words "The next try is for you".

The writer of one letter to him was 15 and she had been suicidal.

"When I saw the documentary on Donal that was when I felt awful ... The things he struggled with and the way I acted was just terrible. The things Donal had to fight and go through must have been torture and he was brave enough to never act like I did and he was so brave, positive and kind ... he's very special and I know God loves him. I heard God makes people struggle because he wants to strengthen them for heaven. I believe that's what he did for Donal."

The plan for me was I would stay away from the emotive. Be analytical. Objective. Check to see if the talk of sainthood and the saving of lives wasn't just part of the search for a teenage idol, a poster boy to boost the ranks.

After any encounter with Donal, there's a fierce desire to stay ethical and true to the memory of the boy who not only saved lives but founded an honesty of expression movement among young and old. The old feeling returned in Donal's room. I was overcome with sadness, but there was a sense of hope for humanity. There in the place where a body was taken from, the spirit remains.

There's a stream of swear words from another room. "You effing bitch, you're out all day and then you pee on the floor." Shirley did her business. "Nice talk that," we say, "for the mother of a saint." And there I am reading a letter from another loving mother who dreamed of Donal and went to check on her child who was in the process of attempting suicide. The kid was saved.

Fionnbar and Elma travel Ireland to spread Donal's message. Elma is on her way to Derry next week. Fionnbar uses his days off from work at The Maritime Hotel in Bantry to talk to schools.

Fionnbar's wonderfully moving book 'Donal's Mountain' is an update for his boy.

Elma is a calm person and not given to losing her composure too easily, but she feels the loss. "It can be very sad," says Elma, at the kitchen table , but then in comes a tweet from a girl who is in the middle of college exams and is praying to Donal for help. Elma always replies. The cause keeps her busy and most importantly gives reason as to why Donal was taken from her.

Fionnbar has his days too. The worst was last August. The Leaving Cert results came out. Donal's classmates called with their news and told their pal's dad of their hopes and dreams. He has great faith, but Fionnbar is the kind of a dad who would love to hug his son.

There's an anger and frustration in Fionnbar. He doesn't see much by way of improvement in the facilities for child cancer patients in the new children's hospital. Elma feels the way to stop suicide is by setting up an early-intervention programme in the primary schools.

The ministers of education and health had better take heed. Like son, like parents. The mother and father are fiercely determined. Listen to them, please.

There's a candle in a box on a shelf in Donal's bedroom. The same candle that was there for his baptism, his communion, his confirmation and his funeral service. The candle will be lit again for Donal's memorial mass on Tuesday next at 1pm in the Dominican Church in Tralee.

I wondered before the visit if Donal's memory might have dimmed in these days when a world full of magpies moves from one bright object to the next. I am so happy to report the legacy is safe and flourishing.

Donal Walsh's candle is still lighting the way.

Irish Independent

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