Sunday 8 December 2019

'My happy, outgoing son said something wasn't right... within four years he was dead' - one family's story of suicide

Grieving mother is raising awareness about the Shine A Light initiative on December 14

Cillian Mac Donagh pictured with his mother Kirstin
Cillian Mac Donagh pictured with his mother Kirstin
Cillian's death has inspired the growth of the Shine A Light initiative
Cillian was 21 years old and in his second year of studying Food Science and Health in the University of Limerick when he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder
Kathy Armstrong

Kathy Armstrong

A GRIEVING mother has told that of how within four years of her "happy, outgoing" son noticing a change in his moods he had died by suicide.

Kirstin Mac Donagh has opened up about the death of her son Cillian (25) in a bid to raise awareness about mental health issues and homelessness in Ireland.

She is speaking to highlight the Shine A Light homeless initiative - which one of Cilllian's close friends, Padraic Rocliffe, is the founder of - which collects and delivers items such as clothing, hygiene products and non-perishable food to people who are sleeping on the streets.

The next Shine A Light campaign will be meeting at The Spire in Dublin at 1.30pm on December 14, where volunteers will distribute the packages of goods directly to homeless people.

The campaign has an increasing focus on issues such as mental health and social isolation, their 'Chat and a Cuppa' initiative encourages volunteers to chat with people who are homeless rather than just give them a care pack and they have details for relevant services such as Aware and Pieta House to give anyone who may need them.

Kirstin, who lives in Westport, Co Mayo, said that Cillian was 21 years old and in his second year of studying Food Science and Health in the University of Limerick when he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

She told "He was an absolutely happy and outgoing young man.

"He was in his second year of college and he was doing really well and seemed to be enjoying it.

"Then things just started to go wrong, we didn't know what was happening really.

"He seemed pretty low and one day he said to me, 'Mum, I don't know what is wrong'."

She continued to say: "He came home for Christmas that year and he seemed different, he just seemed wild.

"He ended up being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and over time each mania seemed to be higher and each depression lower, it just seemed to get worse."

Cillian's death has inspired the growth of the Shine A Light initiative

Bipolar is a serious mental condition where people suffer extreme mood swings, ranging from extreme highs to periods of depression, which can last for months at a time.

As his condition progressed, Cillian left college and Kirstin remembers that he struggled to manage his symptoms.

"You could set the clock by Cillian, within six months of diagnosis he was depressed and another six months later he was manic.

"He didn't want to live at home so we set him up with an apartment, he had places to live but he didn't want to live anywhere, he felt that he wanted to be on the streets and to help people, but of course he couldn't even help himself," Kirstin recalls.

When asked if there are sufficient mental health services, she says: "There couldn't possibly be enough, there could never be enough, there are so many issues and so wide-ranging.

"I was impressed by what we got though and I could never knock that."

Cillian's family checked him in to a mental health facility soon after his diagnosis but it did not suit him, some time later he admitted himself into another hospital but he didn't stay long.

She notes: "The mental health services are stretched beyond their limits, like all the rest of the health system. Maybe they have to make snap decisions that don't always work out for the best but they're doing the best they can and I don't blame anyone."

Cillian spent a year living on the streets of Dublin, then he moved to Belfast for another year and he spent the last six months of his life in Galway.

Kirstin says: "There are services out there that do help homeless people be if you 'misbehave' you can't come back.

"He did also stay in some of the hostels but they can be so dangerous too."

Cillian died by suicide in March 2018, aged just 25.

Kirstin says: "It's hard, it's been very hard, you could never prepare for something like this."

Cillian was 21 years old and in his second year of studying Food Science and Health in the University of Limerick when he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder

Padraic said his friend Cillian's death has driven him to want to make the next Shine A Light initiative on December 14 bigger than ever.

The public can donate at collection points in Westport Leisure Park, Louisburgh Town Hall, Foxford and the Students' Union in UL.

Inspired by Cillian, Padraic says he is determined to raise awareness about the issues facing those who are homeless.

He told "Shine A Light embodies many of the attributes Cillian brought in to the lives of others, such as a deep compassion to help those in need.

"Cillian was a gentle soul, no doubt, who often demonstrated a zest for life and nature which was often reflected through his poetry.

"Cillian himself would Shine a Light in the lives of many and underpins the very being of this organisation as we continue to help the homeless with him in our hearts."

Padraic has also been giving talks in places like schools and town halls where he discusses his own struggle with depression.

Kirstin has said that she is pleased to see Cillian's story help others.

"It's wonderful, I feel he lives on a bit through Shine A Light.

"Padraic knew Cillian before he became unwell and he was always wonderful to him."

She also says that the issues affecting people who are sleeping rough must be highlighted.

"I have become a different person because of my son, I'm definitely kinder and more engaged now.

"Whenever I see someone who is homeless on the street I will stop and chat with them and that is because of my son.

"I've always been open about Cillian and the problems he went through.

"Conversations about homelessness and about mental health have been opened and are out there and it's better than it used to be but this needs to continue."

When asked what her advice would be to anyone who may be supporting someone who has been diagnosed with a mental health condition such as bipolar disorder, she says: "Just keep loving them and being there for them, even if it's hard."

  • If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article please contact Samaritans helpline 116 123 or Aware helpline 1800 80 48 48 or Pieta House on 1800 247 247.
  • For more information about the Shine A Light campaign or to donate please visit here or email

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