Donal Walsh rose to prominence after he spoke candidly of his uphill battle to cling to life after being diagnosed with cancer while other teens needlessly surrendered their own precious lives through suicide. Donal’s mother ELMA WALSH now continues to spread Donal’s message of seizing life, and ahead of next week’s talk at Kingscourt’s Lenten Novena she speaks to the Celt’s DAMIAN MCCARNEY.
When Elma Walsh takes the Celt’s call on Thursday afternoon she’s buzzing. On lighter topics her sentences are punctuated by laughs. Her clear lyrical Kerry voice turns to a soft mumble as the mouthpiece gives way for her to say something to someone else at the other end of the country. She’s distracted. The reason later becomes clear:
“And today! Do you know I got a phone call from RTÉ today? Did you see the documentary that was done on Donal, that went out on New Year’s Day - that’s nominated for an IFTA award.”
“No way, fantastic.”
“I’m delighted for the girl who produced it, Siobhan Russell, because she met Donal and she had a soft spot for him always, and she took this project on as anyone would a young puppy,” Elma says with a laugh.
The nomination is another example of Donal’s enduring legacy. Almost a year has passed since the 16-year-old captivated the nation with his determination to live life to the full despite doctors confirming that the cancer he’d fought so doggedly for four years had advanced, and extinguished all hope. It’s nine months since he passed away and drew tributes from seemingly everywhere, even the Taoiseach. Donal’s plea for young people in the depths of depression to make the most of the life they were lucky to have resonated then, as he was enduring radiation therapy and painkillers galore. It’s potency remains, in part thanks to the Walsh’s commitment.
The family receive a steady flow of requests to give talks and retreats about Donal, particularly from transition year students. They are flat out running the Live Life Foundation in Donal’s memory, while his father Fionnbar, a hotel manager, is due to publish a book to coincide with the first anniversary of his passing.
“He was always a child that would keep us on our toes but you’d think we’d get a bit of rest now,” she adds, laughing.
The reason the Celt is on the phone is that the first letter requesting Elma to give a talk, came from Kingscourt Novena. Elma, an accountancy technician, is used to giving the talks now, and the night before our interview she spoke at the Redemptorists’ retreat in Castleisland.
“It was a very bad, wet night and they couldn’t get over the amount of young people who came out. It wasn’t that full all week, they told me, but they had 1,100 people in the church.”
The Castleislanders presented her with a book of condolences opened at the time of Donal’s passing last May, and filled with messages she describes as both “heartbreaking and inspiring” - it’s a good summation of Donal’s story.
While many adults attend her talks, the majority typically age from 13 to 19, but last month she was invited to speak to kids making their Confirmation.
“When they make Confirmation they use the gifts of the Holy Spirit - wisdom, courage, awe, wonder and knowledge; a school in Killarney used Donal as their symbol. Usually they have a saint as their symbol but they were able to relate more to Donal, because he was a young person, than a saint who they didn’t know or understand. Donal wore the same clothes, he looked the same as them, he was from the same county as them, so they could relate more to him.”
Elma insists “he was like every other teenager”, and that is why he was so effective in getting across his message for youths to reject suicide.
“Donal used his opportunities,” says Elma. “He used football and rugby to meet his heroes, he used his education to write and to articulate his feelings, and he even used his illness to fund raise. It is up to young people to use those opportunities, and they are opportunities given to everybody - Donal wasn’t special. Education, football, sports and fund raising - anybody can do that, those weren’t things unique to Donal at all.”
What was unique was how the country took Donal to its heart after his incredible story in ‘The Sunday Independent’ and his appearance on Brendan O’Connor’s ‘The Saturday Night Show’. Elma recalls that Donal took the public appearances in his stride.
“It didn’t affect him in any way to be honest with you. I think sometimes the only way he looked at it was, did he look good in that picture?” she says with a warm laugh.
However the feedback from the public did affect him. Two letters in particular, one from a Cork girl who wrote with “pure emotion” about her pride in Donal having the courage to confront the issue of teen suicide, and another from a Galway woman who said that as a result of Donal’s TV appearance her son was receiving treatment for depression.
“He was amazed he could have that effect on somebody he had never met, and who had never met him,” says Elma. “Those two messages showed him how much he meant to people, so he knew before he died that he did have that effect. He was glad it was a positive, he was always worried it might come out as a negative, mentioning the word suicide.”
Donal was moved to address this most sensitive issue both by the national epidemic, and by the suicides of two young people in the Tralee area in the months before he was diagnosed as terminally ill.
“He saw the fight he had to give and he saw the futility of suicide,” says Elma.
Despite the suffering he endured from battling cancer from the age of 12, Donal retained his joie de vivre.
“He didn’t want sickness to come in his way, and in all fairness he never did let sickness come in his way either. He got out there and he did the things that his friends were doing.”
However it was still a desperately testing time for the whole Walsh family. An all time low was reached when the cancer was diagnosed as terminal in October 2012.
“I think I did most of my grieving between then and Christmas to be honest with you. Because there was no return from it. After that I just had to pull myself together for Donal’s sake,” she said.
“If he knew you were upset, anxious, worried or anything, he’d be upset - he wouldn’t want to see anything like that; he didn’t want anybody upset, his family especially because he knew things were bad, he knew himself in his heart and soul - we didn’t talk about it every day: ‘You’re dying, you’re dying, you’re dying’. Donal derived strength from his faith. He had a set routine of prayers before retiring to bed, and from Christmas 2012 on he received Holy Communion daily. However he never sought divine intervention from his suffering.
“I asked him if he was praying for a miracle for himself, and he said, ‘No.’
“And I said, ‘Why not?’
“He said, ‘Mum, look at all the kids who died in Crumlin [hospital during his many stays there], I’m no more special than any of them. If God wants me he wants me, I don’t deserve a miracle any more than they did’. That’s the kind of way he looked at things.”
In one of his Sunday Independent articles Donal recalled his confession to a South African priest during a family trip to Lourdes:
“I asked him why God could give such an illness to young infants who have not had a life. His reply gave me great comfort: we are not in this life for answers, this life is for lessons and questions, it isn’t until heaven that we receive answers.”
For the Walsh family, the practicalities of caring for a person with a terminal illness soon demanded that the emotion wasn’t all consuming: administering methodone, organising medication, ferrying him up and down to Cork for radiation therapy to try to keep the newly emerging tumours at bay.
“As a result of his fighting he got five months more than the doctors gave him, you know.
He shouted from his room, ‘Mom!’ and I thought there was something wrong and I ran up the stairs with my heart in my mouth. I said ‘What’s wrong? what’s wrong?’
He said, ‘I made it, I made it to the summer, can you believe it?’
That was on May 1. Sadly, twelve days later he passed away and a nation shared in the Walsh’s grief.
The public talks, retreats and interviews are deemed, “a healthy sort of distraction” by the Walshes, but they are still coming to terms with his absence.
“It’s only one day at a time, and that’s what keeps us going at the moment as well, I know it’s an old cliche but...
“Going around to the schools and the churches and talking does help. I had a girl come up to me last night - I think every place I’ve gone somebody comes up and tells me that Donal did great things for them and they get a good feeling from Donal and they get a great consolation from everything Donal said.
“I’m glad to see the young people aren’t afraid to come up and talk about their feelings. I think if you can get people talking at a young age they will continue to talk and they won’t be afraid to talk later on in life about the feelings they have that might be more upsetting. If we could get that across I think that would be unbelievable.”
She says that through encouraging young people to discuss their feelings and worries, the Live Life Foundation aims to “wipe out teenage suicide”.
Elma suspects that it is a recent phenomenon and doesn’t remember instances of teenage suicides in her community during her adolescence almost 40 years ago. She puts its rise down to the impact of the internet, and the pressure of growing up in the 21st Century.
“Everything is thrown at them and they bring it home from school as well - Facebook’s following them. It’s just a totally different world.”
However, there is evidence that Donal’s message is sinking in. Elma proudly outlines that on average there are eight suicides every two months in County Kerry; but in the four months after Donal’s television appearance there was only one, as opposed to the anticipated 16. Elma feels that even now her son is aware of the impact he’s had.
“I’m convinced he is, yes. Somebody asked me last night does he talk to me. No he doesn’t talk to me but I can feel a presence and I feel that he’s happier, maybe it’s a mother and son thing, but I’m not worried about Donal. I just know in my heart he’s happy with the way things are going.”
Elma Walsh will speak during the Lenten Novena in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Kingscourt on Wednesday, March 12.