Tuesday 25 October 2016

A love between two brothers that we could all learn from

Daniel McCarthy was so devoted to and dependent on William he couldn't bear to leave his dead brother's side, says Brendan O'Connor

Published 09/10/2016 | 02:30

A sorry tale: A garda stands outside McCarthy brothers' home in Bluebell. Photo: Arthur Carron
A sorry tale: A garda stands outside McCarthy brothers' home in Bluebell. Photo: Arthur Carron

Do you find yourself haunted by the image of poor Daniel McCarthy staying by the side of his dead brother William? What went through his mind in his final days? William had been the one who looked after them both. William kept the house. He kept the front of it well. He was a painter and a handyman, doing jobs for people in the deaf community among others, and the house looks neatly painted and tidily kept. The back was a different story. Some of the windows were boarded up because apparently youths along the canal behind the house would throw stones at the window. One neighbour spoke of one window just remaining broken with the curtains blowing out through it and birds coming and going. William was the one who drove the car too. Daniel was more often seen around on his bike and was, by all accounts, regarded as the odder of the two.

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Of these two brothers, both seemingly cut off from the mainstream world due to their deafness and their inability to speak except in Irish sign language (ISL), a limiting language, William seems to have been the one who dealt with what you might call, 'the outside world'. And William, who probably needed to be cared for himself, cared for his brother until the end.

And when William was gone it seems that Daniel didn't know where to turn, didn't know what to do without William. William dying was one of those situations that William would have known how to deal with. But William of course was gone, and with him not only was Daniel's window on the world gone, in a way, Daniel's world was gone. There is almost a tragic beautiful sadness about the fact that Daniel didn't leave his brother's side, an epic, timeless quality of loyalty and devotion. But of course Daniel didn't leave William's side presumably because Daniel didn't know where to go, who to turn to in that forbidding world outside, how to communicate, who to communicate with.

In the world we live in, it is startling to think that language can still make two people so 'other'. With technology and globalisation and whatnot, language is rarely an issue anymore. But here were these two men, in the middle of Bluebell, far away from their home in Kerry, but surrounded by neighbours, and yet they were cut off, not just by their difference, but by their language. Most of their neighbours didn't really know their names and had no interaction with them. This is no slight on the neighbours. That's just how it was. Anything beyond a wave seems to have been impossible. But it does seem that reports that the brothers were reclusive were overstated. According to reports the brothers were active members of the deaf community, and William in particular was intelligent, eloquent and expressive in ISL.

It's interesting isn't it? How this man who was seen as uncommunicative by many was actually a natural communicator. He just did it in his own language. Indeed, many will argue that it is wrong to impose the culture of oralism on deaf people, that it forces a disability on them because it forces them to try to communicate in a language they have no aptitude to learn. So in oral speech, very bright deaf people can feel slower and stupider. They can be misunderstood in a broader sense. But then, if no one around you speaks your language and if the State does not formally recognise your language, then your language becomes a distinct handicap, no matter how eloquent you are in it.

There is an awful phrase that social workers and the like use: "linking in". In Ireland, you 'link in' with 'the services', and then you become a 'service user'. It is unclear at this point how 'linked in' the McCarthy brothers were. The HSE has not commented on the case apart from to express condolences, and while the McCarthys were involved in the deaf community, it is difficult to say how much of a support structure exists there.

What we can say is that the inability of the brothers to link in was connected to their language problem, to the fact that they could not link in through ISL because that was not possible.

Poor Daniel certainly didn't know where to turn with his ISL when William died, though there were reports that he left a written note saying his brother was getting very sick and he did not know what to do.

There has been much discussion and much soul-searching about who or what bears responsibility for the McCarthys ending up in the sad place they did. The story has given impetus to the campaign to have ISL recognised as an official language through which to do State business, and also to the campaign to have residential support for vulnerable members of the deaf community - it seems that some deaf people can become more vulnerable as they get older.

In the end, everyone seems to have agreed that what we can learn from this awful tragedy is that we should look out for our elderly neighbours a bit more, and that we should keep an eye on them even if they don't seem to be very receptive. Even if they do not seem to welcome it, we are told, older people will always be glad of someone calling in to ask if they are okay or if they need anything in the shop.

It sounds a bit twee, but perhaps we should use this as an occasion to reflect on community, humanity and how we are all connected. The easiest thing to do with those who are other, who are separated from the rest of us by language or temperament or other difference, is to ignore them or wave, or assume that because they don't reach out they are being cared for by someone. And if they are lucky usually they are. But the bottom can fall out of that world very quickly as Daniel learnt. And anyway, people need more than just one carer, people like to feel they are engaged with the world in some way more than having boys throw stones at their house. People like to feel that people would notice if they weren't around anymore.

And maybe in a strange way there is a lesson to be learnt in that tragic image of devotion and dependence, of Daniel apparently unable and unwilling to part from his brother. We are all connected. We all depend on each other. But the more people there are to lean on, the less dependent we are on any one person. And that lightens the load for everyone.

Sunday Independent

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