Saturday 20 January 2018

Michael's tribute to son, Philly

Michael Matthews
Michael Matthews

FOR the man responsible for bringing the Cycle Against Suicide to Skerries ahead of the Giro d'Italia on May 11, the event will be a tribute to his son who took his own life almost three years ago and has inspired a determined father to stop more young people taking that same tragic step.

The Giro d'Italia will not be the only major cycling event to visit Skerries on May 11 when hundreds of cyclists in orange shirts will arrive into town ahead of the Giro with a much higher purpose in mind than winning a race – they are cycling to save lives.

The man responsible for bringing the around-Ireland Cycle Against Suicide event to Skerries on that day is local man, Michael Matthews who has a very powerful motivation for being involved.

Michael lost his son, Philly to suicide almost three years ago – Philly was just 23-years-old and losing him has put a fire in Michael's belly that will not be put out until he can stop other young people from taking that awful final decision.

Remembering his beloved son, Michael told the Fingal Independent: 'He was a healthy young man who loved rugby and captained his school side at junior and senior level. He had a great interest in music and was involved in Sound The Alarm, a band here in Skerries. He wrote a lot of the music for them himself.

'He had a daughter with his girlfriend and they tried living together but it just didn't work out for them and he moved back home. He was mad about his daughter, Emily, who will be six in August. It feels like she is still a little bit of him floating around – she's a character too, which he was.

'He was the fun boy in our house. I have two other boys, Frank is the eldest and Eoin is the youngest.

'You miss his sense of fun around the place, he was always up to some kind of devilment. He was always the happy chap really, that is the funny thing, he was always the happy one. All his mates said he was the go to guy when any of them had problems.'

Michael said he and his family had no idea that Philly was in such a dark place and on the night he took his life, nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary.

The Skerries father said: 'He went out with his mates on a Friday night. There was some party on and he wasn't going to miss that.

'He came home to his little brother and played him some songs on his guitar, which he used to do a lot and we don't know what happened to him after that.

'His little brother went to bed and I found Philly dead the next morning. I had been at a wedding. The last words he had said to me was a favourite little phrase of his – he said he was going to 'let the handbrake off' tonight', which meant he was going to have a few pints.

'Some of the best actors in the world are people who are depressed – they won't let you see it. They go out and put on a mask but when they go home to their own little spot, it changes.

'It tore me up and haunted me for a year-and-a-half, asking why, why, why? It just eats you up and I think that's why the cycle thing happened last year.

'I met Jim (Jim Breen, founder of Cycle Against Suicide) and talked to him for about an hour-and-a-half and I wanted to get involved. I said yes, let's do this, let's try to make a difference and if we can save one life, it's worth doing. I've been involved ever since.'

Michael had some experience in working for charity as one of the instigators of the 'Gift of Life' annual charity weekend organised by Skerries Rugby Club. That event was established first to raise money for the Irish Kidney Association at a time when Michael's wife, Agnes was on dialysis. She subsequently got a Kidney transplant and has thankfully thrived since the operation.

On the tenth anniversary of that event last year, some club members suggested that in honour of Philly, the weekend should be held in aid of a suicide charity. At around the same time, Michael heard about the Cycle Against Suicide event and an idea was born.

Michael explained: 'Because it was the tenth year, and because I'd lost my son, a few people suggested we should do it for a suicide charity. I was planning this mad idea in my head that we would do a cycle event because there are a lot of people in this area who are really into cycling and I thought we could get loads of people involved.

'My wife told me that she saw a guy on television who had been on the Secret Millionaire and he was organising a cycle against suicide all around Ireland.

'She recorded the programme, luckily enough and he (Jim Breen) was on with Roz Purcell and Colm Hayes talking about the cycle. I emailed Cycle Against Suicide and asked if they could change the route from Ardee to Dublin through Finglas, to bring it through Skerries instead.

'Many, many phone calls later between me and the route director who must have been sick of me ringing every day, we got it and it turned out to be a fantastic day with 1,200 people coming into Skerries.

'We had a fabulous day in the rugby club. It was just one of those memorable days. You had the feeling that everyone was there for their own reasons but they all had been touched by suicide somewhere along the way.'

The route last year, took that leg of the cycle from Ardee where Michael was born to Skerries where he now lives, and it seemed like 'fate' that he would get involved. That year he rode just one leg of the event but this year, at the age of 60 he is taking on the full two-week tour around Ireland, riding more than 50km each day but there will be nobody more motivated to complete the trip than this man.

He said: 'Suicide takes 10 people every seven days in this country and we are spending millions on worrying about 160 people dying on the roads and we are losing hundreds more a year to suicide.

'If you are in crisis at the moment and you are really in a bad place, it is hard for people to know where to go. If you go to the health boards they will give you intervention but it's nearly always pills and then hope for the best and then you might go on a waiting list to see somebody, and you could be waiting for two years.

'We are not dealing with suicide well here. We have to try and stop it or at least slow it down.'

The Cycle Against Suicide is not about raising money, it's about raising awareness and encouraging people to talk about suicide, depression and mental health.

Michael explained: 'The basic premise of it is that it's ok not to feel ok and it's absolutely ok to ask for help – that is our motto.

'The idea of the cycling is particularly for men who are used to talking shoulder to shoulder. Women talk face to face but men stand shoulder to shoulder at the bar and talk. Shoulder to shoulder on our bikes we can break the cycle of suicide together.'

Michael is now studying psychotherapy and has come to realise that he himself, has suffered from depression all his life but did not understand it. He believes Philly felt the same way and he wants young men to talk about it so 'there's not another Philly'.

He said: 'It's a crippling disease and we just don't talk about it enough. Share the problem because a problem shared is a problem halved. We have to get young men in particular to talk to someone, talk to your best mate. You should be able to confide in your best mate if you are feeling bad.

'And if you can't then go and talk to Console or SoSad or Pieta House or any of these organisations around the country. Just don't take your life – we don't want another Philly. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. These are problems you can get over but you need help to do it.'

The Cycle Against Suicide started yesterday (Monday) in Dublin and by May 11, it will be leaving Dundalk, bound for Skerries and then Dublin City. The riders will arrive into Skerries well ahead of the Giro d'Italia peleton and will be parked up in the town by noon.

There is a big event planned at the Little Theatre in the afternoon with food and entertainment from local acts like Liz Seaver and Risky Business and some of the celebrities on the cycle like Bressie, will help deliver a talk on mental health.

It promises to be a memorable day in the town, and will end with the riders setting off for the city sometime after the Giro leaves Skerries and completing that last leg of this epic journey will be Michael Matthews, carrying the memory of his son across the finish line.

Fingal Independent

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