‘All you have is now’: For Niamh Fitzpatrick, grief and sport fuel the desire to live

Niamh Fitzpatrick whose the sister of Dara Fitzpatrick died in the Rescue 116 helicopter crash in 2017. Photo: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

In the hours before she met the Mayo team for the first time, Niamh Fitzpatrick cried her eyes out with the lifeboat crew who had pulled her sister’s body from the water. Captain Dara Fitzpatrick’s death had been a public one. The Rescue 116 helicopter crash off the Mayo coast had taken her life along with those of her three crewmates, a brutal tragedy that dominated news bulletins through the back end of March 2017.

Now, just a few weeks later in May, her sister met with the crew of the RNLI’s Achill Lifeboat. In her work as a sports psychologist, Niamh Fitzpatrick preaches the need for “absolute attention to the most minute detail”. So although there was no particular necessity for her to meet them, she couldn’t not either. It was a pivotal night in her life. She needed the details of how it unfolded.

“They were the ones who had taken Dara from the water,” she says now. “It was a savagely tough couple of hours. I cried my way through it but they were absolutely amazing. Amazing.

“I dried my tears and drove back to Castlebar. I cleaned myself up and went to meet the Mayo team for the first time. I’ll never forget it, Stephen Rochford met me in the reception of the Breaffy and he gave me a hug and a kiss. And I know what he was doing. He was saying it will be okay.”

Fitzpatrick has been a qualified psychologist for 30 years. She has been working with GAA teams, on and off, for most of them. She was has been the sports psychologist for the Irish team through three Olympic cycles and works extensively in mental health as well. She has given countless introductory talks to countless groups and individuals down the years. None of them ended the way this one did.

“I always do a presentation when I start off. Who am I? What qualifies me to be standing in front of these athletes? What is sports psychology? What is it not? What will we be doing? But I also had to address the elephant in the room.

“Obviously Dara had died in their county and it had been a major news story so they were going to know that. They needed to know that I would be okay. Stephen already knew it but they needed to know it too.

Captain Dara Fitzpatrick, chief pilot with the Irish Coast Guard. Photo: Valerie O’Sullivan
Captain Dara Fitzpatrick, chief pilot with the Irish Coast Guard. Photo: Valerie O’Sullivan

“So I made my speech and it was good, it was fine. And at the end of it, as the players were leaving, they got up and walked past me one by one, shaking my hand. And I said to Stephen afterwards, ‘Well, that’s never happened before. That’s a great response to an introduction to a squad. That’s one of the best I’ve ever got.’

“It was about two years later that the penny dropped with me. Those players shook my hand because they were giving me their condolences. I never got it at the time. It didn’t occur to me. But that’s what they were doing.”

Public profile

Life and death and sport. The more Niamh Fitzpatrick has learned about the first two, the better she has become at tackling the third. She had a bit of a public profile before her sister’s death. It wasn’t uncommon for her to be mentioned in dispatches over the years in connection with this team or that Olympian. She had a slot on Today FM. In the small world of Irish sport, she was known by the people who know.

Her name rings out that bit louder since the accident though. Partly, this is down to it having been such a public event. But more so, it’s because she has been brave with her grief. As she says, we’re good at wakes and funerals in Ireland but we’re not great at talking about what comes after.

She went back on Today FM within six weeks of the crash and talked plainly and honestly about how she was feeling. She published a book last September and called it Tell Me The Truth About Loss. Through it all, it would be reasonable to imagine that sport might have become a shrunken thing for her, unavoidably diminished by the loss she felt. But that’s not what living is.

In the depths of the worst weeks of her life, she found a direct message on Twitter from Stephen Rochford. She laughs now at the thought of him introducing himself as the manager of the Mayo football team. She had just spent a visceral few weeks travelling over and back to Mayo from her Dublin home, being enveloped by the community out around the Mullet Peninsula, living amongst them, drinking their tea and eating their bread, being minded by them. She knew who the manager of the Mayo football team was.

The fact that he got in touch at all appealed to her. It had only been around six weeks since the crash. He didn’t know her personally or anything, only by her reputation in the sporting world. He didn’t - couldn’t - know where she was at in her head or how she would react to someone asking her to come to Mayo, of all places. But he took the gamble and put the question anyway.

“I thought it was immensely courageous to ask,” she says. “I had been to Mayo maybe once in my life before Dara died. But that road became so familiar to me after her death. I went up to Blacksod to see where she died. I needed to do it, to just be in the place where she had taken her last breath.

“I drove over and back to Mayo every week or every second week for a couple of months afterwards. I just had to be there. The family just had to be there. And without fail, we would get messages from people telling us not to be stuck for a bed, not to be stuck for a meal, not to be stuck for anything. They tucked themselves in around us, that’s how it felt. They were just there for us when we needed it.

“And so when Stephen Rochford came looking - you say of all counties to come and ask but to me, that’s the point. It was the fact that it was Mayo. It gave me the opportunity to maybe give something back to them. I get emotional thinking about it, honestly I still do.

Stephen Rochford with his Mayo team in 2017. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho
Stephen Rochford with his Mayo team in 2017. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

“I do think on some level that I have done my best work since Dara died. I think grief brings you to the depths of yourself, depths that you maybe haven’t found before. I brought my best work to that squad. And I think somehow Stephen knew that I would do really good work for him because of grief, rather than the other way around. I wouldn’t let it get in the way of my work. I think he sensed that from the start.”

Back to the start

But why would grief help? How can something so pulverising, so stubbornly draining, be of any use when it comes to top level sport? For Fitzpatrick, the answer goes all the way back to the start.

Her first gig as a sports psychologist in the GAA was with the Wexford hurlers in 1996. She was 27-years-old, not long out of college and had done some work at the National Coaching and Training Centre in Limerick. Liam Griffin was looking for a sports psychologist to free the minds of a Wexford squad that had been in chains for so long that plenty of them had long since accepted their fate. Her name came up and instantly Griffin was intrigued.

“I love that man,” she says of Griffin. “When it was all over and we had won the All-Ireland, he told me this. He said, ‘I will know these players are serious about doing what it’s going to take to win an All-Ireland if (a) they embrace a sports psychologist in the first place and (b) I will really know it if they take a woman into the fold.’

“I’m often the only women in amongst a squad of players, management and backroom team, and rather than being a disadvantage as some might expect, my experience is that the female presence can bring a balance to the sporting dressing room. A woman will have a different outlook to a room full of men, an alternative perspective on the situation.

“Also, in their one-to-one sessions, players often tell me things that they would never say to a man, so we can get a fullness to the sessions because they aren’t minding their ego. They can feel safe enough to be truly honest.”

That’s a quarter of a century of experience talking. In 1996, neither she nor Griffin knew how it would go. She had never dealt with a team before at any level of any sport. None of the hurling counties had ever engaged a sports psychologist before. But they closed their eyes and jumped off the cliff together anyway.

“Caring makes you vulnerable,” she says. “Are you good enough? That is scary stuff. Taking life and living it. Not just existing. Not staying within the lines. Not colouring within the borders. But actually saying, ‘I am going to live my life. To LIVE my life.’ What does that mean? It means stretching and pushing and knowing my comfort zone is in one space but actually consciously going outside that space. Just to say, ‘let me see what I can do.’

“I think there’s something huge in that. There’s something exhilarating in that. It’s terrifying. But it’s that line from the Garth Brooks song - ‘I could have missed the pain but I’d have had to miss the dance’. That for me is what it’s about.

“And I think it’s something I bring to my work, that sense of, ‘we don’t have another chance.’ I’ve said that to several teams and athletes down the years. I think it’s probably a reason Liam Griffin and I got on so well, it’s something he would naturally have in his mindset.

“Understanding that it doesn’t matter if you’re only on the squad as a 20-year-old and you think you have loads of time left in your career. You don’t know that, first of all. But secondly, it doesn’t matter if you have 10 more All-Irelands. This is the one you have now. This is here to be lived. Live it.”

Wexford manager Liam Griffin is interviewed in 1996. Photo: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
Wexford manager Liam Griffin is interviewed in 1996. Photo: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

In a piece for The Sports Chronicle last year, Fitzpatrick drew the line between life and death and grief and living. Not existing. Living.

“In the last moments of her life, Dara fought to survive,” she wrote. “She got her seatbelt and helmet off. She got out of the helicopter. She tried so hard to live. She just didn’t make it to the surface of the cold, dark, night sea. How insulting would it be to her if we didn’t live the lives that we’re so privileged to have?”

Sport insists that she does just that. Sport doesn’t let you halfway in the door. She still gets shivers when she pictures Croke Park in 1996 and the Wexford team marching down to Hill 16, the purple and gold inhaling them. She gets emotional thinking of that summer with Mayo in 2017 and the extra-time against Derry and Cork, the draws and replays against Roscommon and Kerry, the greatest final of the age against Dublin. One team made it up the steps of the Hogan Stand, the other stood on the pitch as the cup was lifted. Everyone involved spent a summer living.

‘You never know’

“After Jim Gavin left the Dublin job,” she says, “I remember reading an interview with him and he picked out the Mayo 2017 team for a special mention. And when I heard it, honestly I cried. Because I know those players. I know what they gave.

“The world changed for everybody in March 2020 because of Covid-19. The world changed for my family in March 2017. And what you learn from life-altering events is that you just never know. You never know. All you have is now. You literally only have now. So flipping well go and live your now, the best now you can live.

“And I don’t mean do your best, like your mammy would say just go and do your best. No, I mean be your optimum, be the best thing that every cell in your body can add up to. There is a balm that will come from that, regardless of the result. I am still so proud of that 2017 Mayo team. I don’t know if I have the right to be - I’m not one of their parents. But I am. I am proud of everything they gave for that goal.”

Life and death and sport. In the period after Dara’s death, she was asked an interesting question by another psychologist. If grief had a goal, what did she think it would be? It took her a couple of years to come up with a good answer and in the end she settled on this: To help you achieve a balance between remembering and living. Hence, she says, the link to sports psychology.

“In 1996, our first game was with Kilkenny,” she says. “Liam asked the players, ‘What do you want to do with Niamh on matchdays?’ And they said, ‘We want her in the dugout because that will remind us of the work we have done and remind us to take a breath and remind us of the next ball and all those little things.’ You’re sort of like a walking anchor for them.

“I almost feel as if, certainly in the sporting space and particularly with Mayo in 2017, I was that reminder that you don’t get another chance at this. You don’t know what’s left in life for you. You get one shot. I think there’s something for me in that.

“It’s not about sanitising grief. It’s not about waking up one day and being totally fine with the fact that the person you love is gone. That’s not it. It’s being able to go about my life as a psychologist and model it and show people that it’s possible to be upset and be okay.”

The chaos of the Covid year has meant that though four different counties have come calling in the past 12 months, she isn’t working with any GAA teams just now. Which is not to say she won’t in time. Not by any stretch.

“What’s interesting about working as a psychologist as part of the backroom team for a county squad is that you’re in the trenches with the team. You put your own self on the line as much as they do. You become part of them. You live the glory days and the devastating losses together and it bonds you. You’re not separate from them in a way that you are in other areas of psychology.

“It can honestly feel like family. Some of those moments I’ve shared with players from Wexford and from Mayo are among some of the most rewarding and powerful days of my life. And these feelings aren’t conditional on getting over the line for the ultimate win, they’re about the togetherness of the experience. Everyone knowing that everyone else, psychologist included, is in the trenches working towards the same goal. It’s very cool stuff to be a part of.”

Some life, in other words. Long may she go on living in.