Nicola Furlong: Tragic death reminds us of our country's great loss
Young Irish people who go abroad, whether to study or to seek work, run extra risks, writes Colum Kenny
Published 03/06/2012 | 07:37
IT IS every parent’s nightmare. Their daughter or son goes abroad and meets an evil end. The death in Japan last week of 21-year-old DCU student Nicola Furlong was untimely and unpleasant.
Not that the sudden death of any young person is easy to take. The loss of UCC student Niamh McCarthy in a sand dune accident in Kerry last week was awful too.
But young people abroad run extra risks. They do not know the ropes, and many of them have no network of family and friends around them.
Some are leaving Ireland on exchange programmes, and some in search of work. Often a student’s visit turns into a longer stay, either by choice or by necessity. But in any case, Irish young people abroad
are strangers in a different culture.
Was it chance, evil design or attraction that brought together two DCU students and two Americans in Japan? Whatever the reason, the outcome has been a disaster for all involved.
The four met at a concert by American rapper Nicki Minaj. One of the men, a musician, is reportedly younger than the two Irish students and has not been named by police.
The other is 23-year-old James Blackston.
Blackston has danced with Jennifer Lopez and the Black Eyed Peas. He is said to come from South Central in Los Angeles. I have never been there. But a few years ago I drove from outside Los Angeles to LAX, the city’s main airport, and people warned me not to take the prior exit to South Central. That is the kind of reputation it has.
A video on the internet is said to show Blackston dancing on a Japanese commuter train. The ‘wilding out’ performance that features in it is both aggressive and intimidating. Blackston is reported to have been on tour in Japan as a back-up dancer.
Both Americans are now in police custody, and rumours of what led to the death of Nicola in a fancy Tokyo hotel abound.
If it transpires that drugs or date-rape substances were involved in her death and in any assault of her Irish friend, then few people will be surprised.
Whether Nicola and her friend meant to miss the last train or not, they found themselves in the company of people who were exciting and different. But the media glamour of a rap lifestyle does not always match the reality of life for those who grew up in a ghetto.
But we cannot always be there when our children most need us, and in any event students are only children in the eyes of their parents.
Exchange students expect to have fun while they are abroad. It goes with the territory. Nicola sent a message to her mother before she left: “Ten weeks and I’ll be back in Ireland,” she texted. Within one week, her remains have returned.
Nicola was a student of international business and languages. She was getting to know Asia. A member of DCU staff was already in Japan visiting exchange students there when disaster struck two of them. That person has been able to offer support to Nicola’s traumatised friend.
DCU president Brian MacCraith extended the sympathies of all DCU staff and students to Nicola’s family.
And then there are the growing numbers of young Irish people who are not simply on student sojourns abroad, but who may have to eke out an existence for themselves in the long term far from their families. Betrayed by those who ruined our economy at home, are they being supported abroad in any way by the new Ireland?
Recent young emigrants forced to go abroad to seek work got a peculiar message from Ireland last week. As some Irish voters went to the polls on Thursday, ostensibly to help to determine the future of the EU, Irish voters abroad had no say in the matter.
The absence of some facilities even within the EU for Irish abroad to vote in domestic elections and referenda is a continuing disgrace. Other countries provide such a service. We could if we wished to do so. When we do not, it sends a disowning message to those abroad.
And most young people leaving the country no longer have the same kind of extended Irish communities to rely on abroad that earlier generations had. For one thing, the Catholic Church is seriously weakened. For another, they are going to a much wider range of destinations, where the Irish are more thinly spread than ever before.
Emails and Skype and texting and mobiles only go so far to bridge the gap. Sometimes they accentuate it. Nicky’s father told the Irish Independent that when she spoke long distance to him the day before she died, “she joked that next time we saw her would be in the papers drinking champagne with Nicki Minaj; she didn't know that the next time we would see her it would be in the papers as a victim”.
As Ireland struggles to recover from recession, it needs energetic and bright young people like Nicola to go abroad and to learn about the world. She was brave to do so, and reportedly found it quite hard to go.
Nicola Furlong’s death is a loss not just to DCU and to her native Wexford but to Ireland. May she rest in peace.