Putting mental health centre stage at First Fortnight

‘Changing attitudes to mental health in Ireland has grown into a movement’

Ollie Cole performing during First Fortnight 2015

Breaking down the stigma associated with mental health issues is the aim of First Fortnight, Ireland’s only mental health arts festival that kicks off on New Year’s Day for 10 days of music, theatre, film, dance and discussion sessions.

Now in its seventh year, the festival is centred in Dublin but will also host events in Galway, Wicklow, Cork, Limerick and Kildare. Well-known figures from the arts, sport and broadcasting worlds who will feature at the festival include snooker legend Willie Thorne, celebrity gardener Diarmuid Gavin, actor Mary McEvoy, RTÉ's Eoghan McDermott and singer Jennifer Evans.

This year's festival, which is expected to attract more than 7,000 people, is partnered by Mental Health Reform, St Patrick's Mental Health Services, Mental Health Ireland and See Change, the National Mental Health Stigma Reduction Partnership.

Changing attitudes to mental health in Ireland has grown into a movement, says First Fortnight co-founder and project manager JP Swaine.


But the psychotherapist, who works voluntarily with the festival, says “considerable work remains to be done to make Ireland a more tolerant, compassionate and emphatic place for those living with the experience of mental ill health”.

He says the new year is a good time to host the festival because people can be a little raw at this time and audiences welcome the diversion. They also appreciate a forum where conversations about mental health occur with like-minded people.

‘Open and honest’

Swaine says there is “a growing population of people who are outspoken, open and honest about mental health and see it as an important social issue.

“That trickles across to their families and the community at large. There’s a positive contagion effect. The more people talk about mental health, the more it becomes okay to do so.”

First Fortnight is “kind of embedding itself in the cultural calendar. People are preparing for it. There’s return business. The feedback is that people who have a longstanding history of mental ill health really look forward to it. They know that First Fortnight is at the other side of Christmas and it’s a big deal for them.

“It’s great for us to know that our voluntary effort matters. In terms of attracting new people, the festival is becoming a reason for families to get together at this time of the year, particularly families who have experience of mental ill health. It’s giving people permission to connect.”

Willie Thorne, one of snooker’s best-known and well-liked players during the game’s heyday in the 1980s, was a chronic gambling addict.

By the end of his career, he had blown £1.5 million in bookmakers and casinos in the UK. As the money from snooker dried up, things spiralled out of control.

Desperation and depression took hold, culminating in a suicide attempt. He has also suffered physical health problems including prostate cancer and a stroke. Recently, he became bankrupt.

In conversation with Jim Carroll of The Irish Times, at the Sugar Club on January 9th, Thorne will talk frankly about his talent, his dark days and his recovery.

“The thing about depression is that you lead a false life,” says Thorne. “You go out to the public and everyone thinks you’re fine and then you go home and your family has to put up with you being grumpy. It’s hard to explain what effect depression has on your life. When I’m out working, I’m fine but when I’m doing nothing, that’s when I get depressed. I can have sleepless nights, tossing and turning, thinking about what could have been, what should have been and what might have been.”


Thorne says the trigger for his depression was the death of his mother 2½ years ago. “I was mentally really bad and there was also the gambling and letting people down.”

Thorne got help and now says “it’s a case of hoping for the best and seeing what happens”.

On his suicide attempt, Thorne says: “When you think about it in the cold light of day, you have family and friends who love you regardless of whether or not you’ve done anything wrong. There’s always a bit of light at the end of the tunnel.”

Diarmuid Gavin is supporting First Fortnight by taking part in the festival's New Year's Day Proclamation at Christ Church Cathedral. It's a way of remembering his father, who died in January 2011, aged 79. Jack Gavin suffered from depression.

Gavin says awareness of his father’s mental state was “always there since we were very young. I had a brother who was knocked down [and killed] on the way to school when he was five in 1971. That’s when we became aware of life being difficult.

“That would have been a trigger for a lot of my father’s depression. When he was suffering, it was a brooding presence. It dominated the house.

“My mother, a very strong person, had a very difficult time. With five kids, and then four, she had to keep the show on the road when Dad wasn’t able to work. But what I really admired about my parents was that it wasn’t hidden. I didn’t feel like my family had a big dark secret.”

Life was hard

Quick-witted, ambitious, with brains to burn, good looks and a passion for opera, is how Gavin describes his father when he recalls him at his best. Life was hard for this man of many talents.

“He gave us a great life. He grew up in inner-city Dublin. He was very strong about education and the idea of bettering yourself. We had a more relaxed life than he would have had. He didn’t have the time or the type of life where he could enjoy his talent or work in an area he loved.

"He worked as a personnel manager and then as a pensions expert. As a hobby, he used to write radio scripts for Bob Gallico in Radio Nova."

Gavin recalls cycling to psychiatric hospitals such as St Patrick’s and St John of God “and sitting at my father’s bedside for hours on end. He’d be cheerful enough in those places but it wasn’t much of a life.”

Ireland has become more open about mental-health issues, says Gavin.

“It’s one of the progressive ways in which this country is moving forward. In a way, depression isn’t something I’d generally want to talk about but I realise that if you have a voice, you should play your part.”

Medicated Milk is the title of a film about James Joyce's daughter, Lucia, which will be screened at the Irish Film Institute on January 9th. It was made by Áine Stapleton, whose training is in contemporary dance and choreography.

Working with filmmaker José Miguel Jiménez, Stapleton says she is becoming more and more interested in film as she sometimes experiences anxiety when she performs live.

She was drawn to dancer Lucia Joyce’s life story, which saw her incarcerated in a psychiatric institution. “I feel the underlying reasons for why people become mentally ill are too often ignored by society and the medical profession.

“In Lucia’s case, I’m very frustrated at how, even still, she is tagged as crazy, violent, obsessive when it came to men and that her mental issues got in the way of her father’s genius.

“I think it’s an extremely lazy examination of a woman who was badly mistreated by those around her from a very young age.

“She was moved around constantly, she didn’t receive proper schooling and her mother didn’t seem to have much time for her.

“Even after her father’s death, at which point Lucia was already in the early years of her hospitalisation, her mother never visited her or made any contact. The film tries to reveal elements of her story that have been shadowed over, as well as offering what we can still concretely know about her.”

For the full programme, go towww. firstfortnight.ie