Before I took a week's leave, I wrote a column on suicide, which I finished: "And since we can, quite rightly, no longer use the crude force of a pagan taboo as a control over people's lives, then we must extol the positive. . ."
The headline-writer duly summarised these words as follows: "Suicide is self-murder and must remain taboo." Well, we've all had bad days at the office, but at least most of us are then held accountable for them. But not, alas, headline-writers. Moreover, readers assume that the headline is the work of the by-lined journalists, and that it sums up what they are saying, which -- as you can see from the above -- is not quite the case.
This is something that journalists usually know. However, this did not prevent the commentator Medb Ruane from denouncing me on Newstalk radio the next day for attempting to revive the taboo on suicide, and re-establishing "Victorian standards in the digital age". My remarks were unhelpful in the extreme, she pontificated, and my language about Gary Speed and his sons were extremely offensive, especially my talk of his being selfish.
This is excellent stuff. For in addition to rejecting the taboo as a social control, I never once used the word "selfish" in that column, or even implied it. This is what I actually wrote: "I say nothing about Gary Speed. The only concerns for me now are his wife, Louise, and two sons, Edward (14) and Thomas (13), who are the very age when boys most desperately need their father." My studied refusal to make any comment about Gary Speed was then denounced as a criticism of him for being selfish by a newspaper columnist who moments before had been extolling the virtues of empathy, of listening and of understanding.
And so, the combination of the stupid headline and such lazy, provocative observations triggered the entirely predictable emails and hate-calls -- which are almost inevitable in a culture that exults in the dropped stitch in even the most perfect blanket (which admittedly, I do not weave). And lo! Another column on suicide, which I wrote two years ago, and had quite forgotten about, was gratuitously and maliciously recycled on the internet as proof of what a heartless thug I am. So why on earth would I return to this issue, when I could once again be sanctimoniously denounced for what I have not said, with a witches' chorus then joining in on the internet?
Two reasons. Firstly, suicide is a terrible scourge in Irish life, which the state has never fully acknowledged, largely because it is a predominantly male phenomenon. Had women been committing suicide at male rates, there would have been an indignant hullabaloo from half a dozen feminist quangoes, resulting in serious government initiatives. Men, however, are a largely disregarded species of victimhood for our political classes.
And the second reason was evident within the very reaction to what I was alleged to have said: the wounds caused to the bereaved by suicide clearly lie deeper and more open than amongst those who have lost their loved ones to other causes.
This is particularly so for those who have been on suicide-watch, and who have striven by might and main to keep a loved one alive. Classically, the potential suicides for whom death is such a lure are themselves kind and loving individuals, and not remotely selfish: and their very vulnerability, their inner decency, and their desperate desire to do no harm to anyone, make their death by suicide quite simply unbearable for those who have been minding them. And the emotional wound may be as open a decade on as it was the day of the funeral.
This is the only explanation for some emails which told me that my words in the old column about suicide had intensified the agony of the next-of-kin of suicide-victims. To be sure, some of the language I used in that earlier column was ill-judged, and I would not use it again. But it is a measure of the utter vulnerability of the suicide-bereaved that they could have been so clearly, and genuinely, offended by the relatively ancient utterances of a mere journalist. (And as for the delightful people who maliciously recycle such old stuff as new, words fail me).
The problem of suicide is intensifying, and now that the taboo on it is lifted, the bereaved can speak of the wounds that still lacerate their hearts and minds. These wounds are terrifyingly, shockingly open; we must do all we can to prevent a perpetuation of such suffering. And we know that amongst the many factors that facilitate suicide, one of the most potent is social emulation: mysterious mini-epidemics of self-killing can erupt within identifiable communities, doing devastating and permanent damage. So let me ask these two final questions: does a spectacular funeral for a teenager who has committed suicide, with great public displays of grief and of regard for the deceased, make it more or less likely that other such suicides might follow? And should we, or should we not, create funereal policies based on such actuarial likelihoods?