Thursday 19 September 2019

'All it takes is one mistake; we wanted Jack's friends to see what drugs do'

Elaine and Johnny Downey allowed their son's many friends to witness how a fine young man died because of drugs, writes Alan O'Keeffe

HEARTACHE: Parents Johnny and Elaine Downey with a photo of their only son Jack. Photo: Dylan Vaughan
HEARTACHE: Parents Johnny and Elaine Downey with a photo of their only son Jack. Photo: Dylan Vaughan
Jack pictured with his mum Elaine last year

Alan O'Keeffe

The last words Jack Downey said to his mother were: "Mam, I love you. You're my best friend." As she grieves, Elaine Downey treasures those words.

Her only child lost his battle for life at the age of 19 - three days after he ingested an illegal substance, believed to be ecstasy/MDMA, at an August bank holiday weekend music festival in Mitchelstown, Co Cork.

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Elaine told the Sunday Independent she knocked on her son's bedroom door at their home in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, as she left to go to work at a jeweller's shop in the town on the morning of Friday, August 2. She wanted to say goodbye and wish him well on his visit to the Indiependence Festival.

She used a phrase from her native Co Kilkenny when she told her son: "Mind yourself and don't do anything quare."

Jack's reply: "Mam, I love you. You're my best friend," were words she heard often from him.

He was "a fine, big young man" who was 6ft 2in and strongly built - but he was always "my lovely boy", she said.

Jack pictured with his mum Elaine last year
Jack pictured with his mum Elaine last year

After Jack was rushed to hospital, a warning was issued that it appeared he had been the victim of 'a bad batch' of drugs.

Now Jack's parents want to warn teenagers and young adults to resist the temptation to take party drugs as they risk devastating themselves and their families.

Johnny Downey, a garda stationed in Clonmel, and his wife Elaine told this newspaper they made a decision to allow large numbers of young people to visit Jack as he lay dying in his intensive care hospital bed in Cork University Hospital.

They are grateful to the medical and nursing staff for battling hard to save him.

The doctors had already said there was no hope and plans were in place to disconnect him from medical equipment at his bedside.

Legions of his friends said tearful and loving farewells to Jack - his parents believed it was also important that these young friends should witness for themselves the harm that illegal drugs can do.

"They all saw Jack tubed up and wired up. There was a shock factor," said Mr Downey.

Jack had a reputation at Clonmel Og GAA club as a leader and as a potential future chairman of the club. He was a popular figure in Clonmel. He had completed the first year of his accountancy studies at Cork Institute of Technology.

"Jack was 19, going on 39. From the age of eight, he wanted to be an accountant," said his mother.

The love shown by his friends at his bedside left a lasting impact on his parents and his many relations.

"We were duty-bound to let every single person who came to that hospital see how Jack Downey, the fine man that he was, was destroyed. Destroyed by what happened," she said.

Mr Downey said: "He was on dialysis. His liver was totally destroyed. All his organs had failed."

Elaine added: "When the last of the boys had said goodbye, Jack had a tear in his eye."

She said she remains deeply concerned that a great many young adults in Ireland continue to take chances with illegal drugs.

"Many young people today are different from how our lives used to be. They want a buzz. Many of them are sensible, educated, bright young people with great futures.

"But all it takes is one big mistake and the results are awful and horrendous. And there is always someone there preying on them," she said.

"We can't let what happened to Jack happen to any other boy or girl. People have to stand up and speak. The young need to look out for each other. And people should be willing to pull youngsters aside if they are doing what they shouldn't be doing, even if they get a tongue-lashing for intervening. We are all too casual about what is going on among young people in Ireland," she said.

Jack's father said he is not interested in directly blaming anyone's behaviour as his son is gone and they are not getting him back.

Johnny and Elaine were deeply grateful for the huge outpouring of support from friends, the local community, and Clonmel Og GAA club.

They had many stories of Jack's extraordinary passion for the GAA throughout his life. By the time Jack left primary school, he had collected all of the county team jerseys from the 32 counties. He went on to collect more than 100 different GAA club jerseys. He visited all GAA club grounds in Co Tipperary. He had a collection of 700 sliothars from matches and club grounds and he had an encyclopaedic knowledge of GAA players throughout the country, past and present.

He won an All-Ireland Under-17 Celtic Challenge Medal in Tipperary's victory over Carlow in 2017. He won a South Tipperary Minor A Hurling Championship medal with Clonmel Og last year.

He was the goalkeeper for Clonmel Og hurlers and the free-taker for Clonmel Og footballers.

He repaired hurleys for his teammates on a workbench built for him by his grandfather, Stephen Quigley, who telephoned him at the same time every day for a chat, said Elaine.

The chairperson and founder of Clonmel Og, Eddie Kearney, said: "Jack coached juveniles, organised projects for the club's summer camps, refereed blitz matches, repaired hurleys, cleaned dressing rooms, and helped coordinate the club lotto. It was only fitting that he would lie in repose in the club before his funeral."

Local priest Fr Michael Toomey played a central pastoral role in reaching out to young people in the days following the tragedy.

Fr Toomey said people have asked how could someone like Jack, who was "so good hearted and generous" and who loved sport so much make such a fatal mistake in taking illegal drugs.

The tragedy is "a wake-up call" for any parent in Ireland who believes such a fate could never befall their own child. Any child could be offered drugs by friends or others, he said.

"Peer pressure and fear of being excluded is all that is needed to encourage any young person anywhere to keep in with their circle of friends," he said.

"The age of those who take drugs is, in my experience, getting younger," he said.

"Drugs are often cheaper and easier to obtain than cigarettes and alcohol for a young person. You need ID to get tobacco and alcohol. No dealer needs ID when it comes to selling their gear," he said.

"We need to keep encouraging young people to make the right decisions, to say it takes a bigger man or woman to say 'No'," he said.

After the funeral in Clonmel, Fr Toomey encouraged young people to get back together and train for the next match. To do their best to learn from Jack's death and, he said, "to play to win on and off the field, in memory of their friend and teammate, and do their best to keep safe and look out for one another in the days ahead".

At the graveside, uncles of Jack were present with a bag of soil from the townland of Esknafeeina, near Glengarriff in Co Cork. His father grew up on a small farm there and Jack was a popular visitor to the locality.

Jack was buried in his blue deb's suit, along with a hurley and a ball.

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