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Thursday 28 August 2014

Brendan O'Connor: Donal's potent message to live life, now

Donal Walsh was a modern hero who knew the medium was a huge part of the message for his age group

Brendan O'Connor

Published 05/01/2014 | 02:30

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Ronan O'Gara helps carry the body of Donal Walsh from St Johns Church in Tralee Co Kerry yesterday. Pic Steve Humphreys
Ronan O'Gara helps carry the body of Donal Walsh from St Johns Church in Tralee Co Kerry yesterday. Pic Steve Humphreys

EVEN fervent RTE-haters were forced to admit that the station carried two outstanding pieces of public service broadcasting last week.

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On Friday, the subject of one of these programmes, Ronan O'Gara, wrote of the other programme: "If you managed to catch the documentary on the last few years of my career on RTE I hope you enjoyed it, even if it could hardly compare with the Donal Walsh programme the previous evening. That puts the worries of a rugby player into sobering perspective."

O'Gara, like many Irish rugby players, knew Donal Walsh. O'Gara was a pallbearer at Donal's funeral. Carrying the coffin with him were other Munster players like Damien Varley and Simon Zebo. O'Gara also wrote in his recent memoir about exchanging messages with young Donal on the Wednesday before he died.

The word 'humbling' is overused, and misused these days, and is often used to mean the exact opposite to what it actually means. But many Irish rugby heroes, and other sporting heroes like Paul Galvin, found Donal Walsh humbling. They clearly felt that his courage and heroism dwarfed their own. Somehow, this young rugby player from Tralee inspired these giants of the game. Paul O'Connell, who was a good pal of Donal's, spoke movingly in the Donal Walsh: My Story documentary, not about what he did for Donal, but what Donal did for him, how his unlikely friendship with this young man inspired him. Shane Jennings too seemed humbled by Donal.

It used to be said of Nelson Mandela, half-jokingly, that he was the celebrity's celebrity, the only one who could make the great and the good come over all starstruck. Donal Walsh, you could say, was the hero's hero, a "giant", as his father Fionnbarr once called him, who, as O'Gara so starkly put it, put the worries of a rugby player into sobering perspective.

There aren't many heroes anymore. As sceptre, crown and crucifix have come tumbling down, we believe in fewer and fewer. But yet we crave meaning. We crave something that will elevate us to our better selves. Sometimes it feels as if heroes are a thing of the past, a throwback to a more innocent age.

And then last year, from an unexpected corner, came a hero, an unintentional, unlikely hero, one who was dying, and dying far too young. That was Donal Walsh, and by his side stood two other reluctant heroes, his parents Elma and Fionnbarr Walsh. And Donal Walsh chose to live out his final days semi-publicly, because that's what he believed God wanted him to do, and because that is how his generation live their lives.

We didn't need the moving and perfectly pitched documentary, made by Siobhan Russell, to remind us of Donal on New Year's Day. All over the Christmas and the New Year, as people looked back on the year, Donal Walsh stood out as the hero of 2013. Wherever they gathered to remember the year they remembered this young man and the incredible, inspirational thing he decided to do with his final months, which was to put aside his own tragedy and to try and find meaning for others in it, to make an example of himself, to do some good, to leave a legacy, to make his death less pointless and incomprehensible.

And the strange thing was that the tributes to Donal went far beyond those who knew him. But then, in some way, everyone felt they knew Donal Walsh. The whole country felt they made his final journey with him, and half the country were shocked when he did actually die, because even though he knew he would, he did not seem like the kind to die. Paul O'Connell said as much -- Donal had always fought so hard that it seemed wrong that his fight was over.

In some ways it is very easy to see why Donal Walsh captivated the nation and in some ways it is hard to pin it down. In one way Donal was a product of his generation. While we are at times rightfully dismayed about the teenage urge to share everything on Twitter and Facebook and whatnot these days, there are times, when, as the Yanks say, it's good to share. And Donal Walsh knew how to share more than any other teenager at any other time would have.

The technology that kids have access to these days, and the ease that Donal had with that technology, was in evidence all over last week's documentary. The casual footage of Donal messing around with his friends, making jokey Justin Bieber videos in his bedroom, was heartbreaking and yet life affirming. Donal's ease with talking to camera, whether it was on a chat show, or for the video he chose to make for the HSE just weeks before he died, lent the whole show an intimacy. This intimacy was aided by the fact that Donal was a 21st Century boy, who understood the media and who understood communication. The intimacy of the piece was helped too by the fact that Siobhan Russell was the researcher who booked Donal on the Saturday Night Show. She 'got' Donal, had spent time with him, and became close to Elma and Fionnbarr. She was there for the journey too. Donal, Fionnbarr and Elma trusted Siobhan, which was crucial,

In his short life, Donal Walsh also trusted in the mechanisms that exist for the modern teen to tell his story, and he believed in the right and the duty of the modern teen to shape their own narrative, to tell their own story. And even in death, on his documentary, he did it. He actually narrated a posthumous documentary about himself from the digital and media narrative he had left behind. Hence the intimacy. While others commented on Donal Walsh's story in the documentary, the reason it was truly My Story was that Donal told his own story, as he had done in life. In life he had done it, like his peers, using Twitter and smartphones.

Unlike his peers he had also done it on TV and even in the pages of this newspaper, when he wrote an extraordinary piece that recently won him a national journalism award. And part of the legacy he left behind was a 21st-Century legacy of footage and audio -- his giant digital footprint, if you will.

On one hand, Donal Walsh conveyed a message that was timeless. And it wasn't just about encouraging young people not to commit suicide just because things looked bad. In reality his message was a far more important one. You only have one life. It is short. It is taken from many people before their time. Some people never get a chance to try to live out their dreams. So do it. Live your life and savour it and enjoy it. And do it today. Because that is all we are sure of. For a country that had postponed living until things got better, this was a potent message. Live your life. This was a primal message that could have been conveyed to people at any time.

But in 2013, this timeless message had a hashtag in front of it. And it spread like a virus, like a life-affirming epidemic. And, as Paul O'Connell said, there was no marketing behind it. It spread naturally, the way good truth does.

On Wednesday night, as the documentary aired to record numbers for an RTE Two Reality Bites show, Donal's simple message reared up again and spread out there, not just on TV but trending worldwide on Twitter as well. Just as Donal would have planned it, and just as it did, to his delight, the first time he appeared on TV. Just as, tellingly, the show was number one on RTE Player, where a lot of Donal Walsh's peers watch their TV, and it has remained one of the most popular shows on RTE Player in all territories for the rest of the week. Rippling on and on all over the world through technology.

Donal Walsh was not just a hero, and a hero's hero, he was a hero for the modern age, a kid who not only understood some fundamental truth about life that we had all forgotten, but a kid who knew how to talk to his generation in a way that none of us really knows, in a way that any marketing man would really love to know.

Donal Walsh was a hero, but a thoroughly modern one, who understood instinctively that the medium is certainly a huge part of the message for his generation. We have a lot to learn from him, not just about life, but about effectively communicating with the Donal Walsh generation.

Irish Independent

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