Hope returns to Midleton the Cork town shattered by suicide
Over three years, 34 people - nearly all of them young men - took their own lives in Midleton, east Cork. A decade on, we hear how the community rebuilt itself
So many of them loved sport. One even has black stones on his grave with a white 'Nike' sign inserted using white pebbles. Others have mementos of their favourite football clubs. It's dusk and the declining sun illuminates a Glasgow Celtic pendant. I find small crossed wooden hurleys at another.
In what has often been referred to as 'suicide row' their headstones line up alongside each other like a team assembling to meet the visiting dignitary before kick-off.
This is the Holy Rosary cemetery in Midleton, Co. Cork - a town which, a decade ago, made world headlines for the most tragic of reasons.
Between 2002 and 2005 a total of 34 people in the town and surrounding hinterland took their own lives. Just one was a woman. Most were young men with their whole lives in front of them.
Three were aged in their 50s, one in his mid-30s and the remaining 29 were aged 30 and under. The youngest, in a hellish 36-month period, was just 18.
The per capita suicide rate in the picturesque East Cork town was not only the worst in Ireland, but the second-worst in the world. Only New Zealand had a worse per-capita suicide rate in the early noughties.
A question mark floated relentlessly over the town - why was this happening? Was there an obvious connection between those taking their own lives? Was it the 'suicide cluster' phenomenon? How could they stop this from happening? Who was next?
"Every two-and-a-half weeks we were burying someone. The town was dazed and in shock, it broke the people left behind," recalls Pat Buckley as he stops at a grey headstone.
Here rest Mark (30) and James (22) Buckley - or Sharky and Tayta as they were known to their family and friends. Both are Pat's brothers and they died within 16 months of each other.
Mark, a construction worker, was just 30 when he died. The father of a two-year-old son, he appeared to have it all.
"He was always tidy, neat and outgoing, had a wicked sense of humour and was a right prankster.
"In his suicide note he even made a joke thanking everybody for coming to his funeral," says Pat.
He recalls the evening Mark died in June, 2002.
"I popped into our local and called a pint. I asked the barman, "any sign of Sharky?", he said he'd just left to have a change of clothes and a bite to eat at home. I thought nothing more of it. After five minutes my phone rang, it was my sister and she was in a state, she said something was wrong in the house so I ran home."
Pat found his youngest brother James standing outside the door of the house trembling and in shock repeating the name 'Mark' over and over again.
Mark had hanged himself inside the house. "His body was still warm when I got to him," recalls Pat.
"I remember apologising to a ban-garda for what they had to see that night and she told me it was her second such suicide in the area that week - it was like some kind of epidemic," he recalls.
The heartbroken family buried Mark - another family in Midleton torn apart by a tragic suicide.
"We kept an eye on James. He was the one who found Mark's body, it had a huge impact on him. We had him in counselling, he was doing well and we thought he was coping," says Pat.
James had just returned from a holiday to Turkey with friends and it appeared to the outside world as though he'd rediscovered some sense of normality.
But on a Sunday morning a knock came to Pat's door. It would bring yet more devastation to the Buckleys. James, the apple of his mother's eye, had hanged himself also.
It was September 2003 and Midleton was to face yet more tragedy. Over the next couple of years the church bells would toll for one young person after another.
One local pub lost six regulars in the space of a few months.
"We were reeling. There were so many families like ours trying to make sense of everything and struggling. Some wanted to talk about what was happening, others simply couldn't, still all these years later they can't," explains Pat.
The question of why kept coming back.
"There were lots of theories and rumours", says Pat, adding "one German academic thought that because Midleton was in a valley downwind from pharmaceutical companies and telephone masts it might have something to do with it.
"Another doctor thought perhaps there was some genetic link between the people in the area that made them more likely to take their own lives - but these theories were never proved."
In 2002 Pat, by now a local county councillor, started offering people assistance if they felt depressed or suicidal. By 2004, he and others had officially established the Let's Get Together Foundation, where they could refer people in need to counsellors.
The foundation, run by volunteers like Pat, fundraise and with that money pay the counselling bills. They need to raise approximately €17,000 a year to keep going and don't receive a cent from the state for the work they do.
Over the years they have helped thousands of people from both the local area and across the country. In one 12-month period around 2005 the foundation was contacted by 1,200 people desperately seeking help from as far away as Wexford and Louth - some reports on their work in the national media leading to a flood of enquiries.
Now it assists about 140 each year from across East Cork as well as receiving enquiries from further afield.
People in the town believe Let's Get Together was a major reason for the gradual decline in suicide rates in Midleton. While there was a spike again around 2008 across East Cork when nine people took their own lives over an 18-month period, the figures today are considerably less than they were a decade ago.
"It's somewhere for people to turn to. Back then people didn't feel there was a way they could deal with their suffering and turmoil. We're here to help and try to send people down a different path, to give them hope and light at the end of the tunnel," explains Pat.
Former Cork hurlers and mental health campaigners Donal Og and Conor Cusack, who are from nearby Cloyne, have supported the foundation for years.
"And without the loyal backing of locals, businesses and sports clubs here we couldn't keep going," says Pat.
The foundation helped rescue the likes of 21-year-old Laura*. Her mother approached Pat a year-and-a-half ago after watching her daughter spiral into the depths of depression.
"I just felt this heaviness inside me. I was heading for rock bottom and I didn't care whether I lived or died," says Laura. "In my mind I had nothing to live for. My depression had driven my boyfriend away and anti-depressants didn't help.
"At the back of my mind though I remembered the impact suicide had on this area, the devastation it left behind, and I think that stopped me from trying anything."
That phone call from Laura's mother to Pat started a process which resulted in the young woman getting her life back on track. She's working again, is back with her boyfriend and a combination of counselling and anti-depressants pulled her back from the brink.
"I'm so grateful to the Let's Get Together Foundation, they saved me, like. It's not worth thinking about what could have happened if they weren't there to help me and so many others," says Laura.
Not everyone could be saved though. In his kitchen Pat's eyes well up when he thinks of two young men he 'lost'. One was 36-year-old Patrick.
In March 2010, Patrick's brother Connie took his own life. The 40-year-old carpenter saw his income dwindle when the Celtic Tiger bubble burst and as the bills mounted up so too did his stress levels.
"He was always used to working and earning," explains his sister Patricia.
In a suicide note Connie wrote of how being out of work was too much for him to bear.
Following his death the family kept a close eye on younger brother Patrick.
"We were worried about Patrick and contacted Pat Buckley who did everything he could to help. He sorted counselling sessions for Patrick and he went to a couple," says Patricia.
But on a summer's day in 2011 Patrick, who had been in great form that morning, even eating a full Irish breakfast in his sister's home, drove to a secluded spot near a grotto in the East Cork parish of Knockraha and took his own life.
"We tried everything but ultimately you can't be with someone 24/7. The devastation is impossible to put into words. It's the last thing you think about in the night and first thing in the morning. It's a life sentence for those left behind," says Patricia.
Michael, who comes from a neighbouring village to Midleton, is currently being helped by Let's Get Together and he told me of a harrowing life.
He says he was beaten by his alcoholic mother as a child and put into care for his own safety. He struggled to forge many relationships, flashbacks of his childhood too painful to ignore.
After his father, with whom he was close, passed away in February 2002 he went off the rails and started to self-harm.
Today, with assistance for the likes of Pat and others, Michael is confronting his many issues and is living in his own apartment in the Midlands and eager to look forward from now on, not back. Pat is adamant that more work needs to be done in schools to teach children about how to look after their mental health.
"We're doing better as a society but we need to do much more, to talk more and to judge others less."
On a crisp mid-week evening in spring Midleton glistens. It's hard to believe that such tragedy could visit such a beautiful part of the world so rich in history and culture.
"Why did it happen back then, why does it happen now? If we knew the answer to that we could have put a stop to this long ago but we don't," explains Pat.
At one grave the picture of a beaming little girl and her proud father rest poignantly beside a flickering candle enclosed in a glass case.
The message on the picture is heartbreaking - 'I'll always love you Daddy, I miss you.'
To contact the Let's Get Together Foundation or to find out more about their work, visit their Facebook page or call (021) 4636634.
*Name has been changed.