Yesterday I got an email from a friend in London. It was a newsy note that ended,
“Life is fragile, give it plenty love.”
The ending struck a chord with me, because I had earlier been wondering about the fragility of life in light of two well publicized suicides — that of Gary Speed in the UK, and Kate Fitzgerald in Dublin.
Kate Fitzgerald was 25, an Irish-American, she was born in San Jose, California and moved to Ireland with her Irish parents in the 1990’s. She studied journalism at Dublin City University, and became a member of Democrats Abroad, after watching George Bush demolish Kerry in a 2004 US Presidential debate. By 2007 she was the organization’s chairperson in Ireland, and had built its membership from 200 to 1400. She was a regular commentator on Irish radio during the 2008 US Presidential election and came to the States for Obama’s inaugeration.Work stress and a relationship break-up spun Kate Fitzgerald’s life upside down and she began drinking heavy. Under the influence of alcohol and antidepressants, she signed herself into St Patrick’s University Hospital in Dublin, on July 18 of this year. St Pat’s specialises in mental-health issues, substance and alcohol abuse. After she was discharged from hospital in August, she sent an email to Peter Murtagh of the Irish Times, which was signed Grace Ringwood. The email contained an article on suicide, and Grace was insisting on anonymity should the Irish Times decide to publish it.
Mr. Murtagh wrote back and they made contact by phone. She told him her real name and he recognised it, as the Times had previously published an article by her. She was a good writer and seemed more mature and confident than her 25 years. Murtagh said he’d recommend that the Times publish her piece, but he would disclose her real name to the editor. She seemed pleased with that and followed up the conversation with an email a few hours later, in which she said she enjoyed writing and looked forward to contributing to the Irish Times in the future.
On Friday, September 9th, the day before World Suicide Prevention Day, the Times published her piece, anonymously, as she requested. A few days later her father, Tom Fitzgerald, called the newspaper and said he was certain the suicide article had been written by his daughter Kate. She had taken her own life on August 22nd, a couple of hours after emailing Murtagh. He may have been the last person she spoke to. There was no goodbye note, no explanation. She was only a few weeks out of hospital.
The fragility of life, the balancing act of the mind. Two talented people calling time long before it’s due. Two people who seemed to be in good spirits, when they spoke to others, just hours before taking their own lives. I wondered how this could be. I looked back at the suicides which had impacted my own life and still came up with no answers.
Paddy was my dad’s cousin and one of his best friends. He had a fine farm, a small shop in the village and was engaged to a local hair stylist. I was in primary school at the time, and remember when their relationship ended, because there was a lot of talk in our kitchen about the engagement ring being returned to Paddy.
One spring Sunday, he came to our house after Mass for the usual cup of tea and a chat with my dad. It was lambing season and he was going to the farm, in case foxes or carrion crows were preying on newborns. After that, he was meeting his ex in a local hotel, and she was returning the ring. He seemed in good humour and said he’d see us later, but I never saw Paddy again.
That afternoon a man came with the news that Paddy had been found dead, half his head blown off. I’ll never forget that. The man was a family friend and he was shocked and distraught. He explained that even though the news was devastating, he couldn’t stop laughing and said it was like his brain was working backwards. I’ll never forget that either, or the trouble that my dad and his friends went to, to ensure Paddy’s death would be registered as an accident, rather than suicide. It was my dad who delivered the news to his ex, as she sat in the hotel lobby, waiting for Paddy. In later years I asked dad about it. He conceeded that Paddy took his own life, but the why remained a mystery. “I suppose something snapped in the poor fella,” he said.
Jack was a grouchy old man, a life long dole recipient who lived in a council house with his son’s family. He always wore a brown suit and tweed cap and held court with other dolers in an alleyway near the post office. He was king of the corner-boys and delighted in lobbing smart remarks at decent and innocent people. I didn’t like him. One evening I was coming home from fishing and I met Jack on the road. He had a coil of rope over his shoulder and he stopped to chat with me, which I thought was unusual. He was friendly and spoke about good fishing spots and what the best flies were for that time of the year. We continued on our separate ways and I went home for my tea.
Some hours later word came to town that Jack was found hanging in Mrs. C’s cowshed. The widow discovered him there when she brought the animals home for milking. The news stunned me. I was confused and tried to convince myself that it must have been an accident, hadn’t I spoken to him earlier? And he didn’t seem cracked or crazy, if anything he was more than normal. I couldn’t reconcile things, and the image of that coil of rope over Jack’s shoulder has never left me.
Maurice was a few years older than me. He worked in London and came home for two weeks holidays every summer. Wearing the latest fashions, he cut a dash, maybe too much of a dash for our town. We hung out with him in the shoemakers workshop and he told us about a book he was writing. It was about sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, years before the cliché was coined. I was fascinated and figured the book would be banned in Ireland. At the time I was playing in a local band with a cousin of Maurice’s and we absorbed every word he told us about the London scene, the clubs, the hustlers, the whiz and the gizz. He promised to come to a gig we were playing in Lahinch at the weekend, and we were excited that he was coming to hear us.
I heard about Maurice’s suicide from his cousin. Maurice had hung himself from a tree in the Old Glen, a place he loved to walk. We were numbed, helpless and bewildered. How could he? He was in the middle of the scene in London and seemed to be enjoying life with no problems. What went wrong? We never found out. He left no note. As a mark of respect we cancelled the gig, it was the only gesture we could make.
Who we meet on the street may not be who they appear to be. Everyone suffers, everyone wants to be happy and free from sorrow. But for some, the pain gets so great that it blocks the light of the soul. Life is fragile alright, and I wish we always knew how to go with the flow, and avoid the submerged rocks and demons. As Jerry Garcia sang in ‘Ripple’, “If I knew the way, I would take you home.”
In the wake of Gary Speed’s death, Irish journalist Eamonn Maillie spoke to psychiatrist Dr. Phillip McGarry about secrecy and depression. Here’s their conversation.