Thursday 12 December 2019

Brave teen who became a hero to the nation

Martina Devlin on the inspiring story of Donal Walsh, written by his father, Fionnbar

Donal Walsh and his father Fionnbar. Photo: Mary O'Connell
Donal Walsh and his father Fionnbar. Photo: Mary O'Connell
Donal, his father and sister
Donal's Mountain: How One Son Inspired a Nation by Fionnbarr Walsh
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

He was a normal teenager in many ways: addicted to sports, keen on Top Gear and pizza. And an unusual teenager in other ways: living under a death sentence, he used it as a teachable image – consciously demonstrating that life is precious.

Sixteen-year-old Donal Walsh came to national prominence when he used an appearance on RTÉ1's The Saturday Night Show to campaign against teen suicides, telling his contemporaries that life was always preferable to death, even on dark days. His words opened up debate on the taboo of youth suicide.

Donal was already on borrowed time when he gave that interview. By then, he was battling against his third recurrence of the cancer which first attacked him at the age of 12. The Kerry teenager resisted death every step of the way, but died a matter of weeks later, a month short of his 17th birthday.

Near the end, he asked the priest ministering to him what it was like on the other side, but naturally the priest didn't know. He asked if Donal was afraid, and his answer laid bare his courage and optimism: "No, Father, just a little nervous."

Donal died a year ago on Monday, on May 12, 2013. He wore a suit and red tie for his final journey and his close circle of friends dressed similarly. His favourite aftershave and a Zippo lighter were placed in his coffin – a Christmas present from a pal so that he could whip it out, looking debonair, to light cigarettes for girls.

The funeral in Tralee stopped the town in its tracks. Members of the Munster rugby team who had befriended him during his illness carried his coffin, while a sole Haka ritual dance was performed.

Throughout his illness, Donal never lost his sense of humour. As relatives gathered by his deathbed, he quipped: "Jeez, it's like waking to a scene in The Sopranos!"

Moved by his story, which went public after Donal won a Radio Kerry/Kerry's Eye Local Hero Award, strangers sent details of cancer cures. One recommended he pick the leaves of the prickly aloe vera plant at night and chop it up in the dark. Donal noted it might solve his cancer, but at the cost of his fingers.

He worried about his family. Once, he asked his mother Elma how soon she would return to work after his funeral. The following Monday, she told him. He approved. "That's right. Keep going and don't be sad."

Clearly, Donal was an exceptional person, wise beyond his years, but he was no saint. He raged against the dying of the light, and was determined to extract every ounce of enjoyment from life, too: he drove a Ferrari, had a helicopter ride, and a trip with friends to London. Until virtually his last breath, he wanted to accumulate experiences.

His father Fionnbar has written an account of Donal's life, but the book also includes some of Donal's writing, too. His words are direct. In his famous 'suicide letter' he wrote that people might think they were at the limits of their endurance but they were wrong: "I am at the depths of despair and, believe me, there is a long way to go before you get to where I am."

When he started chemotherapy, he called it both his friend and his enemy. He underwent it, gruelling though it was, because: "I wanted to live, to play for Munster, to travel the world, to raise children and die when I'm 100, not 12."

He fundraised tirelessly, including for Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin, Dublin, where he had treatment. Pulling no punches, he wrote: "It really does make me ashamed of my government when they can get wages in the hundreds of thousands annually, but one of the most important children's wards in Ireland, for some of the sickest kids in Ireland, has to rely on charitable donations to buy a bucket of paint and a brush. That is one of the sickest things I have ever come across in my short time here."

As the cancer advanced, his knee had to be replaced with a prosthetic. He was devastated – his sporting dreams were in ashes: "I couldn't talk to anyone for days." He longed to return to school – to his friends, to the normal life of a teenager. And true to form, he threw himself back into the fray.

He always said to his friends "I'll see you tomorrow, lads" so there was never a final goodbye. For those who love him, he lives on in the Donal Walsh Live Life Foundation, with family members giving talks around the country to keep his anti-suicide message alive.

Donal's message was that people shouldn't surrender to despair because they had what was out of his grasp. Tomorrow.


 Donal's Mountain: How One Son Inspired a Nation; Fionnbar Walsh; Hachette Books Ireland, tpbk, €17.95, 320 pages

Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709 350

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