'My son's message of hope is helping to save young lives'
Family friend Billy Keane talks to Donal Walsh's father Fionnbar
Seventeen years ago today, baby Donal was born to Fionnbar and Elma Walsh. This afternoon at 3pm, Donal's month's mind Mass will be celebrated in St John's, Tralee, the church where his funeral took place and where he was baptised. But that is not the end of the Donal Walsh story.
Donal, from Blennerville, Co Kerry, has saved many from death by suicide in the weeks since he died. For those he helped through the darkness and for his family, Donal Walsh lives.
Fionnbar warns me this is not an interview as such. Just two pals whose sons played football against each other chatting away. He has been inundated with requests for interviews. This unfailingly polite and giving man who finds it very hard to say no wants to do his best for everyone, and his son.
Just before he died, Donal appeared on Brendan O'Connor's 'The Saturday Night Show' and pleaded with teens contemplating suicide to live the life that was so quickly ebbing away from him.
Fionnbar brings the story up to date.
"One of the amazing things about the passing of Donal has been his legacy, which was evident from his funeral. The dignified silent grief had to be seen to be believed. Since his passing, anonymous visits to his grave have been made by friends and strangers alike to pay their respects to 'Little ole Donal from Tralee, with a few stories and cobwebs thrown in', as he described himself in his own writings.
"One west Cork priest visited the grave for half-an-hour to pay his silent regards and had to come back to the family just to note that in the half-hour he was there, over 20 young people passed by, stopped and paid their respects, then moved on.
"One of the most poignant stories was from a mother of one of Donal's friends who dropped by the house with another mate. She quoted her child: 'He has done something special to his generation – he has made spirituality cool'!"
Fionnbar, Elma and Donal's sister Jema take great solace from the almost daily good news bulletins.
"The stories keep coming in," says Fionnbar. "Stories of boys and girls who were thinking about suicide, but Donal's message of hope stopped them."
He quotes south Kerry coroner Terence Casey from memory: "There have been no youth suicides in south Kerry since mid-February, when Donal first came to public attention with the 'Kerry's Eye'/Radio Kerry Local Hero Award. Normally, I would have about one or two per month reported to me, and while I cannot directly attribute all of this to one person, Donal has had a profound effect on people."
Fionnbar's voice is filled with pride. "It's as if Donal's death has not been in vain," he says. "If it's three or six lives saved, isn't that incredibly positive? Sure, they are not all credited to Donal, but even if his words have saved one family from the trauma of suicide, isn't that great!"
Fionnbar and Elma are a very united couple. "The task into the future will be to keep this message rolling out to the second-level schools across the country," says Elma. "When you see the thousands of positive letters from people on how his message has helped, you cannot but promote what his mantra was, to 'Live Life to the Full'."
Fionnbar has created the hashtag #Livelife on Twitter and is hoping everyone can use it on Donal's birthday today to trend his message again.
Written on the walls of Donal's red hut, his den, perfectly stencilled there by him, are the words: "Leave no stone unturned, leave your fears behind." Now there is a new message. Donal's last video, made by the HSE, will be viewed by his family today, having been initially scheduled for Thursday.
Every time I see recordings of my dad on TV, I choke back the tears. He died 11 years ago, and he was 74. Today will be tough on the Walsh family.
Fionnbar takes a deep breath when I ask him about the video.
"We will look at it and see what comes from that," he says.
He moves on, not wishing to pre-judge. The fact that today is the month's mind brings him back to the funeral Mass.
"To everyone who had any part in the ceremonies of the 'Celebration of Donal's Life', each and every one of you honoured our family and son in a very special way and we will never forget this and humbly thank you."
Donal's pals will be at St John's again this afternoon.
Paul O'Connell and Jonathan Sexton have sent a message from the Lions' tour of Australia. Donal was a fine rugby player with Tralee RFC, and the rugby community has stepped up – September 12 sees the CROSS Rugby Legends Malin to Mizen Cycle hit Tralee.
"I'm training hard for that," says Fionnbar, who will lead the cycle from Tralee RFC up the steep incline to Moll's Gap near Killarney. The cycle is in aid of the Cross Rugby Legends Cancer Research Fund.
You must miss him terribly, I say to Fionnbar. "There's a gaping absence caused by Donal's death in the family home," he says. "There is an intense loss. The pain is intense. You have no idea until you go through it, but the friends that Donal brought to the family have been with us throughout the experience.
"Donal chose his friends well, and with the extended family have helped to ease the loss that has been left by his departure. Watching these boys and girls mature into young men and women has been one of Donal's final gifts to his family."
Fionnbar locked the door of Donal's bedroom on the day he was taken on his last journey. He wanted the room to still be Donal's bedroom as it was when he died there.
He knows for sure that "Donal's spirit is still with us".
THERE is no more noble quest than the spreading of the word of your dying son. Fionnbar and Elma are lovely, honest, open people pushed to extraordinary deeds by a series of events that would try the bravest.
So, is this all just a sad and desperate attempt by a grieving family to bring their boy back to life by keeping his message alive, or is there more?
Miracles are happening. Lives are being saved. Some of us who have witnessed the Donal story at first hand are convinced that Fionnbar and Elma have raised deeper issues.
Fionnbar has not lost his sense of humour. It sustains him. He warns me: "Don't make the piece too sad." And there's a text from him as I finish writing: "Just did 20k cycle. Not sure if it's grief or mid-life crisis, but the arse is getting very leathery."
He stops by Donal's grave every morning on his way home from the cycle. Father and son have their little chat. And off home he goes, on Donal's bike.