Making sense of a son's death
THE STORY of Egan Welch was always going to end badly as the compulsion to drink alcohol sabotaged his attempts to make his own way in life.
“Dear Mum and Dad,” he wrote in a note before attempting to take his life, for the third time, at the age of 26 in November 2006, “what I have I have deemed incurable; worse, chronic.” Sober for four days at the time, he said: “If I die it is not alcohol that killed me, it’s something else?” adding: “I love all of you. I hate hurting you.”
On that occasion Egan’s girlfriend found him at home in Coleraine, Co Derry, in time for the medics to bring him back from the edge of the abyss.
And by Christmas those he loved were grasping at the hope of a new beginning for him. He got engaged and managed to stay off the drink over the festivities – only to break out on New Year’s Day.
When death came four weeks later, it was by accident. He fell into the River Bann outside Coleraine, after a heavy bout of drinking on top of Antabuse, a drug prescribed to create a physical revulsion to alcohol; his body was recovered 11 days later.
His heartbroken father, Prof Robert Anthony Welch, a prominent Cork-born writer, poet and professor at the University of Ulster, has tried to make sense of the death of his son in the only way he knows – through “an arrangement of thought and language” in a book published this week.
Kicking the Mamba – Life, Alcohol Death is not, as its author stresses, a misery memoir. Instead it is a search, he says, for meaning in somebody’s life, “which looks like a complete waste”, while laying bare some of Egan’s suffering and that of his loved ones watching him.
The focus may be on the son but it is revealing about the father too. Towards the end of the book, where Welch is recounting the period between Egan’s disappearance and confirmation of what his family feared, he talks about having a long-standing invitation to deliver one of the Edith Devlin extramural lectures on literature at Queen’s University in Belfast.
At this point, I have to admit I found myself imploring: “Please don’t tell me he is going to stand up in front of an audience of 200 people and give this lecture, while police divers are searching the Bann for his son’s body . . . ”
But yes he does – and then is surprised that he stumbles at the opening of Wordsworth’s There was a Boy, about a nameless child lost in Lake Windemere. After asking his friend and fellow poet, Tess McGuinness, to read those lines, he regains his composure to finish his talk.
The bare image that I take from the pages of a slightly cantankerous and aloof academic, who perhaps developed his intellect at the expense of emotional engagement in real life, is coloured and softened when we meet in person. He told me he would be wearing a hat, so it is easy to pick him out in the concourse of Belfast Central station.
Approaching his 65th birthday, there is an air of vulnerability about him; he has, after all, endured the worst human experience possible – burying a child. And, although I had given his dark brown trilby little thought, beyond being a usefully distinctive sartorial choice, it turns out he has just finished chemotherapy treatment. He has it every six months for cancer that was diagnosed three and a half years ago as having started in his bowel and spread to his liver.
On his feelings about the impending publication of his book, he admits he is apprehensive about the questions he will be asked, like was the writing of it therapeutic?
“It was more of an ordeal, one I felt I had to go through,” he explains.
For himself or Egan? “For him,” he says firmly, which is why he regards it, “in ways”, as the most important book he has written, standing alongside his works of literary criticism, collections of poetry and two novels.
In his search for “core meaning” in Egan’s life, he draws on various other writers’ thoughts, such as St Paul and poets Wordsworth and Gerald Manley Hopkins, as they too wrestled with the enduring mysteries of life and death – and the concept of the resurrection.
“As the writing progressed, the hope deepened that this story is not finished . . . and that I will see him again,” says Welch, his voice cracking with emotion. A practising Catholic, he returned to the church in his 30s when he realised, “to my eye anyway, the triviality of life lived without some kind of level of commitment to that ‘thing’ was not worth going about”.
Although the father-son relationship is central to this story, Welch makes little mention of his own father. One of his few references, about learning his rages from a “master” – his own “impossibly angry father” – is telling.
“Oh yes – did I say that? Good God I had forgotten that,” Welch responds, confirming that he had an extremely difficult relationship with his father. It was “a typical Irish father-son relationship. He was a very angry man and let us know, as kids know, how expert he was at rage.”
His father worked on the factory floor at Dunlops in Cork and was very frustrated.
“I think he knew he was capable of a lot more. His background was minor Raj – his father was an officer with the Indian railways, having served in the British army. So he grew up with servants before the family moved back to Cork, where his mother came from, and sank back, as it were, to a working-class, semi-slum life. Once a job came available to him, off he went.”
But Welch was determined to be a very different person – and parent. He thinks he hit Egan only once in his life.
“That boy did not come up in a violent household,” he stresses. On the contrary, Egan seemed to be amused at the constant probing of his happy childhood by counsellors.
“He would come back and laugh at this and say they’re always obsessed with trying to find if I had been abused or sexually abused. That just wasn’t the case – that I know of,” Welch adds, “because of course something dark may have happened that I don’t know of.”
He believes there is a different quality of love between a mother and child and between a father and child.
“The father is at some kind of a remove; the mother is always immersed . . . ” he breaks away to characterise what he is saying as “too bloody stereotypical altogether”, but then continues: “I mean the mother is always immersed in the immediacy of the relationship; the father is more abstracted, he has other concerns, he is always thinking of something else . . . ”
I mention that I found it hard to understand how he could go ahead and give that lecture when Egan was missing and almost certainly dead.
“It was my way of coping – not just mine, but Angela’s [his wife’s] as well. She continued to go to work. What else would we do? Sit around looking at each other in the kitchen? No, we went to work and it was a kind of blessing – it absorbed you.”
He agrees, however, that he was a “fool” not to foresee that the Wordsworth poem might catch him out.
“I am very bad at reading the actuality of the way a thing is going to be. I am always imagining it is going to be much more manageable than it will turn out to be,” he says. “I think maybe that is a male trait. Angela would not have exposed herself in that way.”
Egan’s story also serves as yet another reminder of Ireland’s unhealthy relationship with drink, which Welch links to “whatever misery evolved in the 19th century”, and passes from one generation to another.
In the early 1980s, unhappy with the “boring” life of an academic in Leeds, where Egan was born, Welch moved the family back to Ireland, to put them in touch with their heritage. But setting up a home in Ballingeary, west Cork, “a culturally mutilated place”, was, he says now, introducing his family to “a kind of death valley”. They stayed there for a year and a half, while Welch commuted to Leeds, before they all returned to Yorkshire for another year; then a job came up in Coleraine.
As he enjoyed the fruits of a good salary as professor of English at the University of Ulster, and later as Dean of the Arts Faculty, he and Angela, who works in the Citizens’ Advice Bureau in Coleraine, liked to have a glass of wine most evenings. Welch asks himself now was his own drinking, and the drinking culture he created in the house, a factor in Egan’s disastrous experience with alcohol?
“The answer to this question has to be yes,” he writes. “My drinking habits created an environment in which an alcoholic could thrive.”
That is something he has to live with, he explains as we sit in the Belfast Hilton. “We are not talking here, by the way, about getting plastered. I would say I am drink dependent, in other words I would drink every day, virtually – not to insensibility, or even to drunkenness.”
He suspects now that Egan “unbeknownst to us” probably started drinking about the age of 14, and at the age of 16 or 17, was going to pubs. “I was up to the same carry on myself when I was down in Cork.”
The children began to have a glass of wine with their Sunday dinner at 16 or thereabouts. “We thought this was all incredibly mature,” he sighs. “We have four children – and only one of them is alcoholic. The other three grew up in exactly the same environment.”
However, they all have a fondness for drink, he says. But just why his second youngest child was the one who couldn’t stop is what exercises his father – as it did Egan himself.
“It is nothing to do with the drink – it is to do with the personality and the genetic make-up,” says Welch. “It is an illness and it is surprising the amount of people who will not accept that.”
Welch sifts through various episodes in an effort to trace what forces conspired to transform an exceptionally happy, “and at times staggeringly beautiful” boy into the “two Egans” of his young adult life – the loving, joyful, remorseful son and “the other manic personality that came in through drink”, not to mention other mind-altering substances he was buying over the internet.
It may have all started when Egan failed his 11-plus. “It was a formal public judgment on his performance, which was life changing,” says Welch. It meant Egan could not follow his older sister and brother into grammar school.
“Here he is, the ‘dull sod’, or so he thinks – except of course he could very well have been the brightest of the lot,” says Welch sadly.
An unhappy few years schooling followed, during which Egan became very ill with anorexia – the first red flag for his mental turmoil.
His parents eventually managed to get him transferred to the grammar school and all seemed well, until he left before his A levels.
Obsessed with computers, he taught himself to programme and to code before landing a job at the University of Ulster – “nothing to do with me”, says Welch. Egan looked after the technical side of setting up a new bio-medical science masters degree online.
However, he walked away when it was suggested he needed to curb his drinking. Instead he went full-time into a web design business he had started at night and, in his early 20s, was making serious money, that facilitated his drinking and socialising.
When he lost the business, says Welch, that drove him down deeper. It was another failure.
Meanwhile his sister, Rachel O’Riordan, was enjoying considerable success as a theatre director; his older brother, Killian, was a psychiatrist in Edinburgh and his younger brother, Tiernan, had a career in social work.
“He started to move among low life – drinkers, drug-takers. There was a bit of him that was attracted to these people.”
Egan tried a number of residential treatment programmes, the best of which was a month at a St John of God centre in Dublin, where he was a model patient by all accounts. Then he had a gin and tonic on the train back to Belfast.
After the suicide attempt in November 2006, Welch sat at his son’s hospital bed wondering “What do you say to a son whom you love but who places no value on the life you have given him?”
What he did say was something he had been meaning to say for a long time: that it did not matter to him or Angela what he did for a living, or what his income or status were, as long as he was content.
“Egan began to cry hopelessly. I took his hand and started to cry as well. And then I told him that I loved him.”
But, as a friend and psychiatrist, Patricia Noone, was later to point out to Welch, it may not have mattered to him and Angela what their son did in life, but it mattered to Egan. Expectations of oneself, moulded by upbringing, are not easily erased.
Egan’s suffering left its mark on all those who loved him. Welch believes it takes vulnerable people like his son to reveal to others “something of our moral being which we are so good at overlooking”.
Kicking the Mamba – Life, Alcohol Death by Robert Anthony Welch is published this week by Darton, Longman Todd. Price £12.99