'There was no understanding of suicide' - Galway star recalls cousin's death in documentary

Former Galway hurler Niall Donohue took his own life in 2013.

WHEN CONOR WHELAN was just 16, he Googled what suicide meant after his first cousin Niall Donohue had taken his own life.

joe-canning-conor-whelan-and-tex-callaghan-with-a-flag-in-memory-of-niall-donohue Galway’s Joe Canning, Conor Whelan and Tex Callaghan with a flag in memory of Niall Donohue after the 2017 All-Ireland final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

It was 23 October, 2013 when the GAA community was shocked by the tragic passing of Donohue just a few days short of turning 23. The sturdy Kilbeacanty defender had lined out in the number five jersey for the Galway hurlers in the 2012 All-Ireland final and replay against Kilkenny.

Galway would have to wait another five years to lift the Liam MacCarthy Cup, a day in which Niall would surely have played some part for his county. Instead, Niall’s presence came in the form of a special flag which Whelan — a star corner forward for the Tribesmen — lovingly carried around Croke Park to honour his cousin in the midst of the celebrations.

Captain David Burke also commemorated his friend and former team-mate in his acceptance speech.

Whelan continues to pay tribute to Niall by speaking publicly about his cousin’s story and becoming an advocate for mental health. As part of that commitment to raising awareness, he will be appearing in an important documentary on Virgin Media One this evening entitled ‘Breakdown: Ireland’s Mental Health Battle.’

But at 16, in the wake of Niall’s suicide, Whelan was on the internet, searching for something that would explain his cousin’s death.

“To be totally honest, there was no understanding of suicide,” he tells The42 about how suicide was handled in society eight years ago.

“It wasn’t something that was talked about. And the reason I was Googling it was that I didn’t actually know what it meant. I think that’s a reflection of where Irish society was at the time and where it has come to. That’s something that you look back on and wonder how it was even possible.

“As a teacher, it’s something you sincerely hope that every student has an understanding of the basic principles of mental health and wellbeing. The challenge is that you have young adolescents around 13 or 14, you’re trying to educate them on these things that they might face in the future.

“When you’re in school, you’re sheltered from a lot of problems that come down the line. That’s probably a reflection of where we’re at.”

That lack of understanding around suicide has resulted in harmful narratives, including the assumption that the person has committed a selfish act. Whelan believes that this misconception still exists today and that many lack the education to process that someone who dies by suicide “aren’t in the capacity to think” in that moment.

The Kinvara forward is in the middle of completing a PhD on this topic, focusing his work on wellbeing among third-level students. In exploring this fascinating subject, his research has uncovered a simple analogy to explain the mindset of a suicidal person.

“The best example that I’ve found in my research is that it’s like somebody is in a high-rise building and the building is on fire, and they make an erratic decision to jump because the whole building is on fire. That’s basically what goes through somebody’s mind when they unfortunately take that decision.

“I think in terms of treating it like other diseases or illnesses, it’s still a long way from that. If you’ve two people sitting down and one is suffering with depression and one is suffering with cancer, there’s instant sympathy for the person who has cancer because it’s an illness and it’s talked about a lot.

“Somebody with depression, it’s perceived differently and that’s our challenge as a generation. We remember that stigma and treat it like all the other illnesses. If you are feeling depressed or down, there are solutions. You shouldn’t be treated differently. And if somebody does take their own life, it’s nothing personal, they don’t have a vendetta against anybody.

“But unfortunately, they weren’t thinking in their right mind and had lost the ability to cope.”

iarla-tannian-joe-canning-and-niall-donoghue-celebrate Niall Donohue [right] celebrates winning the 2012 Leinster final with Joe Canning and Iarla Tannian. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Along with Whelan, the documentary features other Irish athletes including former Republic of Ireland star Kevin Doyle and Munster legend Alan Quinlan. Other people who are not involved in high-level sport are interviewed in the documentary too, all talking openly about their different mental health struggles.

Whelan feels there are vital lessons to be learned from everyone’s experiences on the programme. 

“Everyone has a story and it just highlights that everyone faces adversity at some stage. It’s important to understand that you’re not the only person who is going to face adversity.

“I think you can learn a lot listening to other people’s stories, and understanding how they cope so that could maybe work for you.

“Or maybe they did something that you can try and do if you’re facing something difficult. It’s very encouraging to be opening up these conversations.”

While great strides have been taken to provide the public with more mental health resources, Whelan points out that there are still some critical shortcomings to be addressed. 

He explains that waiting lists to access CAMS [Collaborative, Assessment & Management Suicidality] services are at around 3,500, which creates a huge barrier in providing access for those who need it urgently. 

“When you’re highlighting issues to students and you’re saying to go and seek help, and all of a sudden, you go and you’re on a waiting list for over a year. There’s a huge discrepancy there but in terms of highlighting and talking about the awareness about it, I think there’s been a lot of good work done.

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“But I think there has to be more of an onus on students to find what works for them.

“If that’s doing yoga or mindfulness, every student has different needs and different things that will work for them. We can’t put them all under the umbrella of wellbeing and say, ‘Yeah, this is wellbeing and this is the solution if you’re ever feeling down.’ It’s not, everybody has different needs.”

October is a difficult month for Whelan as he continues to mourn Niall’s loss. He never got a chance to stand side by side with his cousin in a Galway jersey, but they did embark on similar hurling careers.

Neither were really pulling up trees at U14, but went on to flourish as minors before eventually graduating to the senior ranks where they both made their mark.

And on the day that Galway ended a 29-year-wait for All-Ireland honours in 2017, Whelan ensured that his cousin was there on the pitch in some way.

“He was an idol and inspirational figure that you’re going to watch,” says Whelan. “He’s playing inter-county hurling with Galway and you’re looking at him. He was very much my idol growing up and he’s somebody who I aspired to be like. I wanted to follow in his footsteps.

“He definitely drives me and I feel that every time I hit the field, he’s there with me. We’re on this journey together.”

‘Breakdown: Ireland’s Mental Health Battle’ will be aired tonight at 9pm on Virgin Media One

If you need to talk about any of the issues raised above, please contact:

  • Pieta House on 1800 247 247
  • Jigsaw
  • Samaritans on 116 123
  • Other mental health services through the HSE website.

- Article originally published at 6.30am, updated at 10am to appear on

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