Life after death: Remembering Galway's Niall Donohue
Four years after taking his own life, those who knew him best talk about the impact of his death
Niall Donohue in action for Galway in 2013. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
“One other person that I can’t let today pass without mentioning. He was soldiering with us for years. A good friend of mine, a first cousin of Conor Whelan. He passed away in 2013. Niall Donohue – we’ll never forget him and we’ll remember him today. We’ll give a small shout out to The Charity Chariot and Pieta House who are doing great work for people who are in depression. And hopefully they will help many more.”
- David Burke, All-Ireland final speech, September 3rd 2017
Shane Donohue was in the Lower Hogan when he heard his brother’s name, surrounded but alone. In the truffle dig for All-Ireland tickets, he had ended up getting separated from the pack. His father Francie was over in the Cusack Stand, his mates and clubmates dotted all around. You know the way it is for a final – you take what’s going and the stranger at your elbow is a friend for life for the afternoon.
So when the Galway captain paid tribute to Niall, Shane stood there with thousands of Galway fans around him feeling as if he was in an empty room. In the days that followed, Burke was praised the length and breadth of the country for his speech, for the first ever mention of depression from the steps of the Hogan Stand especially. Standing there, a dot in the thousands, Shane Donohue was an audience of one.
“Croke Park was full but you’d nearly feel alone in it,” he says now. “Especially when Davy Burke was talking. I could hear people talking around me, not knowing who I was obviously. It’s a funny feeling. I was crying with joy that they won, but there was something in my stomach, in the back of my throat. When Davy mentioned Niall, you could hear people around saying, ‘Oh Jeez, he was a great hurler, pity he wasn’t here.’”
Out on the pitch soon after, his cousin Conor Whelan dug out the flag. Maroon and white, naturally, with the Galway crest to one side and the GAA logo to the other. In the middle, a picture of Niall, back when he was young and vital and never more alive. Standing on the pitch in Croke Park with his white helmet raised in one hand and his hurley aloft in the other. He took it with him on the lap of honour, holding it up, posing for pictures with it. With Niall.
Francie Donohue was in the Cusack Stand waiting on the party to reach him. A day like this was never going to be easy but he didn’t want it to be an ordeal either. He’d seen more than enough tragedy in his life to know the worth of a good, joyous day.
He’d had to bury his young wife when Shane, Niall and their sister Orla were still only kids. Niall’s 23rd birthday had come and gone in the bleak weekend between him taking his own life and being shouldered to his grave by some of the players who were jigging around Croke Park now, four years later. Liam MacCarthy didn’t wipe any of that away, didn’t even smudge it. But you have to take the good where you find it.
“It was great that he mentioned Niall,” says Francie. “He was involved straight away. I remember Conor having the flag, he was right in front of me. I got a photograph of it. I was delighted. You wanted to really enjoy the day but you felt like something was kind of holding you back.
“I did enjoy it to a certain extent. Absolutely delighted they won. I went out to the banquet in Citywest that night, came home the next day and went straight to Salthill for the celebrations. I’ve seen a lot of losses.”
Everybody moves on, though. From good days, from bad days. They go about their lives and leave you to yours. Niall Donohue ended his on Wednesday, October 23rd 2013 and left behind a family, a community, a hurling club and a county team, each of them bewildered in their own way at the loss.
“There is no easy day,” says Francie. “But you have to continue on. It’s always at you. There’s always something in here [points to his head] that never leaves you alone, but you have to get on with it. Normally parents are not meant to bury their kids. They are supposed to outlive you. But that’s the way it goes.”
Niall Donohue was from Kilbeacanty, a bend-in-the-road parish about five miles out from Gort, skirting around the top of Lough Cutra. There is a pub, a school, a church and a hurling pitch, along with houses for a population of 381 people, by the last census figures. They’re usually a junior club, occasionally intermediate when the numbers hold up for a couple of years. But they have the same problem keeping players around the place that every rural club does.
Lads get up and get out in their 20s and if the club is lucky, they only go to Galway or Dublin, from where the elastic might be strong enough to get them back for championship. But they go to London, to Sydney and beyond as well, an unfair share of their talent scattered in places that wouldn’t know what to do with it. And so Kilbeacanty run in quicksand most of the time, fighting for momentum but sinking all the while.
In that world, coming across a Niall Donohue is like striking oil in a bog. He was playing U-11 hurling when he was seven, himself and nine-year-old Shane shoring up the backline for Ballyturin National School. He hurled for Galway at every age group from U-14 to senior and was the first Kilbeacanty player on a Galway senior panel since Steve Mahon in the 1980s.
“Where we’re from, being a hurler is the most pride you can carry,” says Shane. “It’s the highest level you can get to in life nearly. We’d have more pride in a hurler than a solicitor or a judge. We’re just ordinary hurling people and hurling is everything when you are growing up.”
Niall had a roving eye for all sports but hurling was the only one he ever considered for a steady line. A rugby man from Gort asked Francie one time would he be up for trying out for the Connacht academy but they could never find a date that wouldn’t clash with a hurling match. He qualified for Mosney one year in athletics but again, the calendar said one thing and the hurler said another.
“He never left a hurl out of his hands,” says Francie. “He’d have a hurl in his hands every day of the week. He’d get a new hurl or a new sliotar and he’d be out at the gable wall with it. It could be 11 o’clock at night. I was sitting inside watching television one night, nice and quiet, a lovely calm night. I heard a bang off the gable end of the house. I thought it was thunder hitting the house or something. I’m not joking you!
“He’d be belting it and controlling it, belting it and controlling. Full wallop! I said to him when he was small, ‘One touch into the hand, because the second touch is gone’. I told him if you’re not able to do that he won’t play for the county. Next thing he wouldn’t catch it at all and he’d be doing it as fast as he could, left and right.”
He was wing-back on the Galway minor team that somehow left the 2008 All-Ireland final behind them to a late Kilkenny goal. By 2011, he was full-back on that team as they made amends at under-21, collecting Galway’s first All-Ireland at the grade since 2005. When Anthony Cunningham set about freshening up the Galway seniors in 2012, Donohue’s was one of the faces he threw into the mix. Between league and championship that year, Galway played 12 matches and he started them all
“You could see he was getting better all the time,” says David Burke, who played on Galway teams with him all the way up from Tony Forristal at under-14. “I often say that the performance he gave in 2011 in the U-21 semi-final against Limerick, that was him at his best.
“He was unbelievable that day against Limerick, playing at full-back and under the cosh for the whole game. It went to extra-time and I’d say he was the only lad who could stay going. They were bombarded with ball in the full-back line that day but he just kept coming out with it. We went on to win it afterwards but it was that day that got us over the line.
“Progressing onto senior then straight away the following year. He was the type of lad who would stay back from the limelight. He’d be working away in the gym or getting fit or getting fast on his own. He just wanted to prove to himself that he was good enough to play at that level. And he was. It’s just unfortunate that he didn’t get a couple more years at it because he was definitely going to be a pivotal player.”
A small-parish hero is something to be. In Kilbeacanty, they revelled in him. Club chairman Justin Fahey remembers thumbing through the programme in Croke Park before the 2012 All-Ireland final against Kilkenny and smiling when he saw their club under Niall’s name. Portumna, Ballyhale, Kilbeacanty. He was their place among the nations of the earth.
“We have maybe about 100 members, that’s about it,” says Fahey. “We knew there was something unique about him and we expected him to get there but it all came so quick after they won the U-21 All-Ireland. It was unheard of that a county team after winning a cup would come back to Kilbeacanty, such a small parish. That was such a special night for the club.
“And then he just took it from there and he was performing in the two All-Ireland finals the year after. It just brought a whole new meaning to the club. We had a leader now. He was the future of our club really. It was special. For such a small club to have someone like that. When he scored that point in the 2012 final, that was as good as comes for a club like ours.”
‘That point’ was Niall’s first and last in championship hurling. It came after 28 minutes of the opening half of the drawn game, with Galway in full shock-and-awe mode over Kilkenny. Andy Smith won a puckout, Cyril Donnellan dished off a pass, Donohue jinked away from TJ Reid, burst forward to the Kilkenny 45 on an angle under the Hogan Stand and split the posts. Galway 1-7 Kilkenny 0-3.
“This guy has had a brilliant year, for me” said Michael Duignan on commentary. “He’s been outstanding in every game.”
That was the day Henry Shefflin hauled Kilkenny back from the brink, carrying them to a draw before they outstayed Galway in the replay. Donohue went off injured just before half-time the second day but when the All Star nominations came out the following Thursday, his name was among them. By any reasonable measurement, his debut season had gone promisingly well.
Depression isn’t reasonable. It is impervious to logic. Oblivious to the bigger picture.
Everyone’s illness is their own, unique to each individual’s context and make-up. What they share is a gradual whittling down of the sufferer’s world, a closing-in of the frame surrounding the picture they see of their life. When they can’t or won’t share that picture with those around them, they feel themselves running low on options.
Niall Donohue wasn’t a source of worry to his friends or family during 2013. If there were signs of a problem, they’ve only been able to pick them out in hindsight. And even then, they’re reaching, trying to retrofit some sense of what was going on in his head.
Shane was living in Australia at the time, himself and 10 other lads from Kilbeacanty. He came home that August to christen his son and got Niall to be godfather. No bother to him. In general, all seemed well. Francie says that he was meeting friends, that he had girlfriends, that he was being social. He didn’t seem closed off or isolated. He was quiet at times but not unusually so.
“He wasn’t nervous,” says Francie. “He was nearly too easygoing in one way. But he took hurling very seriously, probably more serious than he should. He was hard on himself I thought. He didn’t want mistakes. He all the time wanted to be at the top. He wanted to be winning. And I think it kind of got on top of him at the finish. He was hard on himself. That’s what I thought at the finish.”
His second year on the Galway panel didn’t go as well as the first. He had plenty of starts in the league that spring but few enough finishes. Twice he got called ashore before half-time. By the time the championship opener against Laois came around, he’d been shunted back to corner-back. He was injured for the Leinster final defeat to Dublin and didn’t make it back in afterwards. Clare sent Galway packing and Donohue’s year was over before July was out.
Was that enough, though? Could he really have taken it that badly? Can the relative failure of his second year in inter-county hurling really have weighed so heavily on him as to skew his world so completely?
“That’s the thing, you don’t know,” says David Burke. “You look back on it now and you question things. Having won the under-21 All-Ireland in 2011 and then come into the senior set-up in 2012, he was probably still on a high from it all. His performances were going so well, he was fit, he was training away.
“Then in 2013, he probably struggled a bit. So there was pressure there that nobody would have known about. He’d still be coming with this sort of poker face and still saying he’s alright. But probably, looking back on it now, probably he wasn’t. That’s the biggest regret you would have. You’re thinking, ‘Should I have sat down with him more?’ You’d eat yourself inside about it now.”
“It’s probably more a bubble of being in the final, then losing and getting back to earth,” says Conor Whelan. “You put so much into it. Niall was that type of lad that he would be watching back the matches and wondering if he did this or that. If your mind is under that much stress all the time, it’s going to impact somewhere.”
Nobody has any concrete answers. Their best guesses all wend a path through hurling – although nobody imagines that was enough on its own, they all agree that he let it crowd him. But it’s all guesswork. The only person who knows isn’t here to enlighten them. He mightn’t even be able to if he was.
“I think it was more anxiety than depression,” says Francie. “I think he used to get panic attacks at times, he was anxious a bit. The harder the training would be the better he liked it. For it to happen to a fella who could be so strong that way, you know? That you can be so strong and so weak. But anyway, that’s life. It’s happened to enough people. It’s just an illness and we don’t understand it.
“People should be taught how to deal with it. I think that anyone who has a son or daughter or brother or sister suffering from depression, they should be taught how to deal with it. If someone sat down in front of them and said, ‘Your son is suffering from depression – this how you deal with it, these are the signs to look out for, this is how to cope,’ that would be an awful help. But I don’t think anyone really knows what to do.”
Shane was in Australia when he got the call. Each of the 10 Kilbeacanty lads who were out there with him dropped everything and came home on the plane there and then, leaving jobs and wives and lives behind them for a spell. Shane went back the following year to collect his stuff but he was in a daze for most of it.
“I was two years in disbelief,” he says, “Endless what-ifs and buts and maybes. It starts to drive you mad in the end and there just came a stage where it had to finish. It was his second year anniversary mass and the priest just said it aloud at the altar – ‘Niall Donohue’s second anniversary mass’ – and it took until then for my trail of thought to change, to accept it happened and start moving the other way a bit. It took a full two years.
“You just have all these questions. Why? Why me? Why my father? Why my sister? Why us again. Why did my mother die? The scenarios just go on and on, beyond normality. You think when your mother dies with three young kids, you don’t think it is going to get any worse for you.
“I was young, a bit naïve to life. You think you have had your fair share and then something like this happens and you are left sitting there. Life comes to a standstill and you are left to deal with it. Nothing else matters – money, work, nothing. We get so caught up in the other things, that mean nothing.”
A few weeks after he died, Kilbeacanty had a junior final to play, a game that had been postponed due to his death. Justin Fahey fielded calls the week of the game telling him he should pull the team out, that they had no business hurling when such a pitch-black cloud was sitting on the parish. He couldn’t do it. They’d lost enough already.
“That game was the one thing that brought the community together,” says Fahey. “Francie came to that match. Shane played in it. His cousin played in it. It was only three weeks after the funeral and it just brought everything back together. We had to play that match. If we didn’t play it, we might as well have folded in altogether. We were beaten in the match but that day did so much more for us. You look for a meaning in life but the one thing that brought us back together was sport.”
The winter was exactly as bleak and empty as you’d imagine. Francie is a self-employed plumber but he couldn’t bring himself to open the toolbox for the rest of the year. They were barely able to move out of the house.
“You lose interest in life,” says Francie. “I had no interest in anything for three months. I wouldn’t even go to the pub for a pint. I used to go two nights a week, down for the chat as much as the drink. It takes time, you recover bit by bit. I found it was important to keep involved with the public, try to get out as much as you can even though it’s not easy.
“People would be avoiding you. I remember being in the pub one night, there was something on, and people were afraid to talk to me. They were afraid to approach me, what to say. You wouldn’t blame them.”
When Conor Whelan had his turn at the Tony Forristal under-14 tournament, he rang his mother one of the days in bad form. He was brilliant for his club Kinvara but was stuck on the bench for Galway. “Don’t worry,” Caroline Whelan said. “Sure Niall was a sub when he played in it.”
All his hurling life, Whelan saw the path to the top laid out for him by the footsteps of his cousin. There were six years between them. His mother and Niall’s mother were sisters. Anything Niall had, Conor wanted. Everything Niall was, Conor wanted to be.
“I would bring up a jersey to their house and swap it for his one. I’d be wearing the number five jersey around as if it was my own. I’d be taking a hurl off him past its sell-by date and it would just be an honour to have it. So he was really a role-model for me and someone who I aspired to be like. It was massive for me to have someone like that in my life. I was awful young at the time.
“I carry his legacy and traits with me and I’d try to bring them with me every time I’m out there. I have no doubt that in that first Sunday in September he was smiling down. It was emotional. He could have been there, in the prime of his life. Something I always dreamed of growing up watching him play with Galway was to get the honour of playing alongside him. It’s an awful pity that never came to be.”
This year’s final wasn’t the first time they’d been back, of course. Before the 2015 decider, Francie was talking to Conor’s mother outside Croke Park. Conor was 18 years old, starting an All-Ireland final a month short of Niall’s second anniversary. They couldn’t but dream of what might have been.
“Imagine Niall driving a ball into Conor and Conor sticking it in the net,” Francie said. “If Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh could get a hold of it he’d do a great job of it.”
When David Burke was made Galway captain at the start of 2016, he made himself two promises, one general, one specific. In general, he wanted to make sure that the Galway dressing-room he led was going to be a place where players talked more to each other. Actual conversations, not the same old ding-dong on social media.
“I definitely wanted to look at this thing of WhatsApp groups and, you know, are we just communicating for the sake of it? This year, definitely the older lads in the team were sitting down with lads and just talking to them. No matter what it was about – work, home, family, anything. Just talking to them about something. Doesn’t have to be about a match.
“They might be feeling down about their form, whatever. Because that’s the biggest thing for a GAA player – if they’re not performing well, they’ll eat themselves. So it was just for the older lads to have a chat, whether it was eating dinner after training or even just in the shower. That’s the sort of thing that has been developing now but looking back now it would eat you that we didn’t do it before.
“If you take any player at that top level, the worst thing we do is scrutinise ourselves so heavily. We give ourselves far worse scrutiny than anyone else does. And that’s the biggest problem we have, guys are not building up enough confidence in themselves. I would say that was a thing with Niall. He knew himself that he was good enough for the top level and that maybe he wasn’t performing that well and it could have been eating him up inside.”
The second thing, Burke kept to himself. He promised that if they ever won an All-Ireland and he ever got to make a winner’s speech, Niall Donohue’s name would ring out.
“When we won the league and the Leinster this year, I didn’t want to mention him in those speeches because you win them, you move on and the year is not over yet. You thank whoever at that stage but you move on. I wanted to do it in an All-Ireland speech. It was something that I felt I had to do, for Kilbeacanty, for his club for his family, for everyone who would have known him.
“I always had this thing written down as well that if we ever won Liam MacCarthy, in the weeks after I would bring it up to the house. That was a driving factor for me. They deserve that, that it be brought into the house. When we lost games in 2015 or 2016, it would be eating away at you a small bit. You’d have it in your head that, ‘Well, I’ll call up to Francie sometime.’ But you don’t want to call up without the cup.”
A few weeks ago, around the time of Niall’s fourth anniversary, on what would have been his 27th birthday in fact, Conor Whelan took the Liam MacCarthy cup and went up to the grave in Rakerin cemetery. On a mild October day, he stood at his cousin’s side and thought about life and death and the ruined possibilities buried there in the ground.
“It was emotional enough,” he says. “I couldn’t help reflecting on what might have been. I brought the Bob O’Keeffe Cup up as well and the last time we won that he was on the team. That kind of hammered it home, really. His whole legacy rubbed off on the team. I know David Burke was up there the night before the All-Ireland and left two sliotars by the graveside. Then went out the next day and gave an exhibition.”
What they’d give to have Niall back, giving that exhibition himself. Or not giving it, whatever. Just here, a person in the world. A hurler if he wanted to be, something else if he didn’t.
Here. Alive. Here.
They’d give everything.
If you have been affected by issues in this article, help and support is available from the Samaritans on freephone 116123 or or email firstname.lastname@example.org or Freecall Pieta House at 1800 247 247