Friday 30 September 2016

A lesson in courage, dignity and character

We saw the best of the often maligned values of south Dublin's so-called 'rugby schools' in the last week

Published 28/06/2015 | 02:30

Mourners at the funeral of Berkeley tragedy victim Eoghan Culligan at the Church of the Annunciation, Rathfarnham.
Mourners at the funeral of Berkeley tragedy victim Eoghan Culligan at the Church of the Annunciation, Rathfarnham.

I had not intended to return to the subject of the Berkeley tragedy this week. At the end of last week it felt like time to leave the families alone with their grief. And, indeed, there were requests for privacy. It quickly became apparent that this was not going to happen and the return of the victims and their funerals were going to be public events. No doubt it will be discussed at another time whether or not this should have happened. For now I think it is worth parking that and reflecting on what did happen this past week and the impact it had.

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It felt at times as if the families had accepted that their children were now, in that phrase, the children of Ireland, and their funeral would be public events. And one can only hope that they took some consolation in the fact that the nation seemed to mourn with them.

I am not normally one for public grieving of people I didn't know, but I'll admit that like a lot of people, I found myself moved to tears watching the funeral coverage on the news during the week and reading the accounts of eulogies by family members.

The person who was perhaps most conscious that his child's funeral had become a public occasion was John Schuster, the father of Niccolai Schuster, who took the opportunity when speaking at his son's funeral to call for no stone to be unturned in the investigation into the Berkeley tragedy, and also to exhort parents to let their children be free. People found themselves as full of admiration for John Schuster, as they had been for the victims and their friends and peers.

Conscious that a tragedy like this might make people loath to let their children out of their sight, and perhaps conscious that young people from Niccolai's alma mater St Mary's, and other schools around the country, are currently heading off on rites-of-passage trips to Magaluf and other sunspots, John Schuster said: "This tragedy is going to increase the anxiety of parents of kids leaving these shores after the Leaving Cert and the future for J-1 students. I would like to send a message out to the parents of Ireland: Let your kids go. Do not let this incident deter you. Let your children have freedom. It will give them life experience."

It is an extraordinary man indeed who, when mourning his son, who died in the most awful circumstances, is thinking of other parents, of other people's children. But this selflessness was evident a lot this week. Parents of Berkeley victims, including John Schuster, took time out from their own grieving to attend funerals of other victims, to stand with their friends and neighbours and their dead children's pals in their grief.

John Schuster was also thinking of Niccolai's pals. He said that many of Niccolai's friends have asked him what they could do for him and his wife Graziella. So they had thought about it and their greatest wish was that Niccolai and his brother Alexei's friends who were learning to drive should be careful, and should think of John and Graziella when they were tempted to speed. In a sad but beautiful moment, he also asked that they would always call to the house. The house is now open to them all, and they should never feel they were intruding. "I cannot express how much it would mean to us if you dropped in unannounced," he said, "We love having young people in the house and we want to keep it that way".

As someone close to it said to me during the week, John Schuster raised the bar for families and asked some serious questions of all of the rest of us about how we would handle this.

John Schuster wasn't the only one who showed such dignity last week. He is just representative of how everyone involved in this awful thing has demonstrated such incredible courage, dignity and character. That includes all the peers and school friends who formed literal guards of honour and metaphorical rings of love and support around their fallen friends and their grieving families.

The other extraordinary piece of character that has to be acknowledged this week is that of Clodagh Cogley and her Facebook message from her sick bed. If you were little over a week out of an accident that had killed half a dozen people you knew and left others maimed and had left you, in that awful phrase that we started hearing a few days after the tragedy, with "life-changing injuries", would you have the strength to send out a positive message to the world? Would you have the strength to be looking on the bright side of things?

If you were Clodagh, would you have been able to even articulate that, "The chances of me using my legs again are pretty bleak . . . life is pretty short and I intend to honour those who died by living the happiest and most fulfilling life possible. Enjoy a good dance and the feeling of grass beneath your feet like it's the last time . . . because in this crazy world you never know when it might be." With that one post, Clodagh Cogley became an inspiration to people her age, her words spreading around grieving south Dublin like bushfire, just as word of the accident had the previous week.

Beyond all the personal tragedy of this, something broader happened this past week. And that was that the country saw all the positives of a culture that is often much maligned. For years now it has been fashionable to slag Dublin 4 and south County Dublin and in particular the culture of the fee-paying and so-called 'rugby' schools. It is there in things like the gentle satire of Ross O'Carroll-Kelly, in stereotypes like Damo and Ivor. We even saw it when we poked through the entrails of Anglo Irish Bank, where you were more likely to fit in if you were one of our kind of 'goys'. It's part of Irish culture to think of south Dublin in that way, an enclave of privilege bound by old school and sporting ties, where they look after their own.

But this week, we saw the positives in that culture. We saw how those ties, that brotherhood, means that people are there for each other in troubled times. We saw the strength of character that sport and being part of a team gives people. We saw how a community that some dismiss as superficial and maybe super-competitive is actually a place where friendships and social ties are real, and not just for the good times. We saw how schools that might indeed be bastions of privilege can also be places that build loyalty, character and courage. Even more broadly, we also saw these last two weeks that, despite what our generation can often think - that Facebook friends are not real, and that kids now have hundreds of acquaintances but no really intimate friends - friendship among young people is alive and well and the bonds of friendship among the social-media generation still run deep.

It's always nice to have your prejudices challenged. And a lot of us have in the last week or two. It's a pity it had to happen under these circumstances. But amidst the grief, the young of south Dublin can feel pride this week. The values they were brought up with and educated and socialised into came through for them in the last ten days.

Sunday Independent

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