Irish Lives: Finding the right words at the right time

Cousin’s tribute at hurler Niall Donohue’s funeral struck a chord


Two weeks ago, Níall McDonagh stayed up for most of the night to write about his cousin. He had much to draw from, for several thousand words had by then been written about Niall Donohue, the skilled Galway county hurler who had been found dead at home in Ballyturin just two days before his 23rd birthday.

However, even in his own grief and that of his family, McDonagh (29) was acutely aware of how carefully he had to choose these words, which he would deliver to more than 1,000 people, including many young hurlers, at Donohue’s funeral. Eight years previously, McDonagh had lost his brother, Bernard, in similar circumstances. His older sibling had also been 22 years of age when he took his own life.

“Bernard had studied law; very bright, very able, and he just didn’t make it,” McDonagh says. “I was finishing college, having studied construction management in Galway. I had gained experience on building sites and the construction industry was my path, but Bernard’s death changed everything.”

McDonagh returned to college to become a woodwork teacher and then trained as a guidance counsellor – a position he now holds at Tallaght Community School in Dublin. During summers he volunteered for missionary work and has spent time with the homeless in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and with juvenile prisoners in the Philippines capital, Manila.

He says his faith took on a new dimension, and his role models became people such as Fr Shay Cullen and the nuns of the Missionaries of Charity.

“When I look back on it, losing my brother turned from a challenge into a positive experience, and so I didn’t want Niall’s death to be in vain. I wanted to do him justice,” McDonagh explains.

Community hero
“Here is a guy who was a hero in his own community, having played several All-Ireland finals . . . and who was witty and laid back and carefree and not interested in the publicity around him.

“Everywhere he went, Niall was approached by young kids looking for his autograph. But how were those kids going to make sense of all this now, and how was I going to be able to give them a message of hope?”

And so, when he stepped up to the pulpit in the tiny church in Kilbeacanty near Gort in south Galway two Sundays ago, McDonagh opened with an observation that this was where his cousin should have been standing.

“This is where you belong. This is where we looked for you, to lead us, to enlighten us, to make us laugh.

“Your ability as a hurler ushered you into the spotlight, but you were more comfortable amongst a crowd . . . No matter if you were talking to a seven-year-old down the hurling field or shaking the President’s hand on All-Ireland day, you were always yourself.”

McDonagh spoke of his cousin’s own strong faith and recalled how he had been leaving church in Galway with him one summer Sunday when Donohue decided to return to confession – explaining that he “had to be more truthful”.

“It is because of Niall’s honesty that it demands that I speak of the manner of his passing. Niall spoke the truth that day in the confessional box, and if he were here now he would demand the same truth.

“The truth is Niall’s life ended in a way that leaves all of us confused and hurt as it bears no resemblance to the Niall we know, full of laughter, full of the love of life. But that same truth is that Niall’s death was not a decision, but it was a struggle. All of us carry our own crosses, and life can be hard, but we all must try to keep moving forward.

“Yet I know Niall’s second trip back to that confessional box was also an example of bravery. He went back a second time and spoke. Were he here, were he to speak to any one of you who is having difficulty in your own lives, he would tell you to go back a second time, and talk to someone about the challenges you are facing.”

Since his cousin’s burial, McDonagh has been approached by many people, for his words have struck a chord.

Speaking openly
He welcomes the fact that so many public figures – men, such as former Cork hurler Conor Cusack, writer Michael Harding, broadcaster John Murray – have spoken openly about depression and vulnerability, and firmly believes it has to be the start of “a conversation”.

“When I was working in the favelas, it was the simple things people valued – family and health – and we know here from the boom years that the car, the big job doesn’t fill a void. When I’m talking to the kids in school, I try to explain that success isn’t the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success.”