Sunday 20 January 2019

Billy Keane: They’ll never walk alone - why Ireland is no longer afraid to talk about suicide

Joan Freeman, founder of Pieta House, with Miriam O'Callaghan at the Darkness into Light launch last year Photo: Arthur Carron Photo: Arthur Carron
Joan Freeman, founder of Pieta House, with Miriam O'Callaghan at the Darkness into Light launch last year Photo: Arthur Carron Photo: Arthur Carron
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

The only day we get to stroll through the dark parks and pathways in the company of old and new souls is almost upon us. ‘Darkness into Light’ is the annual walk through the darkest hour of the night, the hour just before dawn when the black of the sky gives way to lighting up time.

This Saturday close on 100,000 people walk as one. For me, this night move is the most rewarding hour of the year. I always feel there is great hope for humanity, for our home place and our home country. People are good when we are in trouble. This is us at our best as a nation. Love is in the air.

The late night and early day walk is about raising awareness and fostering new understandings. We walk to remember those who died by suicide. We try to understand too why such suffering ends so terribly. We walk to endorse the supremacy of the human spirit.

There was a time in this country – and it’s not all that long ago either – when the word suicide was whispered behind hands held up to the mouth. This dark cloud placed over the families who lost a loved one. And they were alone. Suicide was a forbidden word.

Now, thanks to the pioneers who had the courage and the love to speak of their torment either through the loss of a close one or by voicing the story of their own pain, suicide is spoken of openly. The taboo now is in not talking.

It is a very Irish victory.

We Irish are a nation of talkers. We talk ourselves and others out of the end of the world, the individual world. To those of you who are so close to falling off, keep talking and telling. There’s a cure in talking and telling.

The shame placed on families by society has been replaced by understanding and compassion. For me, in my time, this opening up is our finest achievement as a nation. The young lads talk out each other’s troubles. In my day, we didn’t. I wish we did. We weren’t really open for the telling and talking. I can think of one or two who would definitely have been saved. And it still breaks my heart.

There is also a sense in our country that we are all in this together. Very few have managed to make it through life without encountering a crisis. That is why I would ask you to march with us on Saturday next. You are telling the bereaved and the desperate that we care. You will bring the source of help to public attention and the 100,000 will give testimony to the life- saving work of Pieta. The service is free and there is barely a waiting list. The counsellors know how to help. They know their stuff and Pieta has saved many.

The death of a loved one still leaves a terrible void, but I for one believe we must try to somehow forage through the debris from the collateral damage for new beginnings. I have this beautiful, bright, tall-stemmed, vibrant metal flower which has been welded and soldered together by the American artist Amy Hart. The colours and graceful lines attracted me to the flowers when I picked it up in the Olive Stacks Gallery here in Listowel. But it’s just here now as I write that I glean why I have the metal flower before me. It is a symbol of the restoration of the human form, both inside and out.

We are put back together again from the scraps into a thing of beauty. Sometimes we have to get broken-up to become whole. The bad days show us where to look for contentment by comparison and as we always say around this time of the year to any of you who are suffering, this too shall pass. I promise you that.

We must speak of the terrible and understandable contradiction in how we deal with suicide. Yes, there is collateral damage but the inner torment of those who suffer truly is awful. Suicide always leaves its mark.

There is help now. Pieta has taken over Console and the governance is strict. Those who have lost a loved one are part of the story and they have to be minded. Pieta, and others too, know how to help. They have the knowledge and you can be made whole. There is no shame. One in four Irish gets help at some time. Pieta in Tralee has assessed 707 people since opening up. That in some way gives you the scale of the problem but the fact that the numbers are high is good, in that people in trouble are seeking help.

We have a silent mile in our night walk through the old woods of Gurtinard. That walk up the hill is my favourite place on earth. I have always been drawn here from the time dad brought me walking in the woods.

This is the most beautiful time of the year, with the scented white wild garlic, the yellow primroses and the purple woodland wild violets blooming in their finest on either side of the path. The River Feale is to our back and the tall trees waltz on the top branches even when the breeze is but a whisper. I met a woman there a few days ago and she said: “My thoughts can be spinning around like rocks in a tumble drier as I try to figure out my problems but then after a half-an-hour walking here, I’m fine.” There’s a cure too in a walk in your own favourite place.

Just before the hill in the woods, I always say a prayer for the young lad who perished there. And we will think of him and those who were once lost but who we now hope are found, as we walk along the silent mile.

We never walk alone. I believe the lost walk with us until they are found. I believe that we ease their suffering by showing our compassion and understanding as we walk with them on their journey to redemption. The arm around the shoulder, the minding and the kind word go on forever.

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