'I knew it wasn't going to be okay. It couldn't be' – former Tipperary hurler on the loss of his mother to suicide
Seamus Hennessy can turn an almost sanguine gaze to his mother, Josie’s, passing now.
But in grief, a child lives by inches and minutes and he was just 11 that February day in 2000 so many well-meaning adults suddenly began reaching towards him, telling him that “it” would be ok. He saw through their lies immediately, of course. A child’s intuition can be scalpel sharp when grown-ups take refuge in the abstract.
Josie was gone. Never again to sit on the end of his bed, reading Roald Dahl until his eyelids grew heavy. Never to be seen behind the bar, the Clough Inn, they ran and lived over in Cloughjordan. Never again to smile. He was only talking about this recently in Tralee, to students at Gaelcholaiste Chiarrai.
About that moment of desperate, human scrambling that instantly follows tragedy.
Josie had taken her own life and Seamus, an only child, fell inevitably deaf to all the kindness splashing around him now. “I knew I’d never be able to speak to her again” he remembers. “I never said it to anyone at the time, but I knew it wasn’t going to be ok.
“It couldn’t be!”
It was maybe six months after the funeral that his dad, also Seamus, enrolled him in a 12-week Rainbows counselling course at Borrisokane Community College. And that Tuesday evening course, overseen by Sister Nora Hartigan, somehow got him talking about his heartbreak. How? To this day, Hennessy’s not entirely sure.
He just remembers that first night in the hall and maybe “nine or 10” kids looking across at one another like self-conscious aliens. And a full decade later, he still hadn’t yet quite processed the heavy blind lifted on his emotions by Sister Nora. Suffice to say, Seamus Hennessy just took to opening up about human fragility during those twelve weeks in Borrisokane.
And he hasn’t stopped doing it since.
On December 13 next, the former Tipperary county hurler will run the Antarctic Ice Marathon in memory of his Mam. The ‘Running for Josie’ tagline has already caught sufficient purchase for him to have reached close to €156,000 of the €200,000 he hopes to raise for two Irish suicide awareness charities, Pieta House and the Nenagh-based Living Links.
If his father hadn’t had the prescience to send him to Borrisokane 18 years ago, there’s really no knowing what scars Josie’s death would have left, long-term, on her son.
This very thought struck Seamus most forcibly about five years ago in Nenagh’s Abbey Court Hotel when, having delivered a talk as part of the local Eire Og’s healthy club project, he felt a gentle tug on his sleeve. The tug came from former Tipperary great, Mackey McKenna.
“You have to keep doing this” McKenna told him “because I remember times in the 60s and 70s when people who were struggling emotionally were just taken away.” So much of Ireland’s history with mental health communicated only ignorance and denial.
And, in Hennessy’s case, the loss of his Mam at eleven might have been ruinous if left unaddressed.
Silence was the enemy.
“I understood immediately what Mackey meant and the general psyche that existed at the time” he says now.
“I mean I’ve no way of really knowing if this is true, but I think that I’ve picked up some of my mother’s vulnerabilities or worries that maybe caused what happened to happen. But I’m channeling them in a different way. Taking them and trying to bring them to life in the area of prevention.
“I’ll always understand the devastation that suicide brings because I saw what happened in my own family. I mean I got told pretty quickly. I remember vividly being in the house on the floor directly above the pub and just knowing there was something very, very uneasy about everything.
“You hear, anecdotally, the devastating impact losing a loved one can have on children and on their behaviour. Because there might be a lot of unexplored grief there. And I could easily have become an angry young man after Josie died. I mean I was an only child, so I didn’t have the crutch of an older brother or sister to look up to, or even the distraction of younger ones to look out for.
“And I think it took me 11 or 12 years to figure out what those 12 weeks meant and how that course equipped me. Probably the most impactful twelve-week course I’ll ever do, because I learnt the importance of speaking out.
“To believe that ‘Yeah, I’m struggling here…I should talk about it!’
“It took me a while to learn that the vulnerability to do that can be a strength, not a weakness. That it can be a ferocious sign of love and care for yourself. Like I never really caused a day’s trouble as I grew up. I never rebelled. People who didn’t know me would have struggled to see that story in me of the loss of a parent to suicide.”
Instead, they’d have seen a gifted young hurler emerging through a golden generation for Tipp.
Having lasted just two days when sent to board at Colaiste na Rinne in Ring, Co Waterford, he subsequently settled much more serenely into life at Cistercian College Roscrea where – as a callow Second Year in ’04 – Hennessy was a sub on the team that won an All-Ireland ‘B’ Colleges title.
That same year, he won a junior ‘B’ county title with his club Kilruane McDonaghs and, one year later, a county minor. By then, he was already lining out for the club’s seniors too. Like his father before him, Hennessy was a left-sided midfielder and decent free-taker. He would win All-Ireland minor titles with Tipperary in ’06 and ’07 before reaching that magical, illusory week in 2010 when it seemed that hurling’s marquee silverware would spend its immediate future adorned with blue and gold tassles.
He was a scoring substitute for the senior team as they ended Kilkenny’s five-in-a-row bid and, six days later, a pivotal figure for the under-21s as they ripped Galway to pieces in Semple Stadium.
Seamus remembers coming down out of the Hogan Stand after the senior victory and, momentarily, wishing Josie could have been there to see him. Just a fleeting moment that quickly passed as the revelry swept them all away.
And that would be the high arc of Hennessy’s time in a Tipp jersey.
He’d joined the senior panel in ’09 and, in his own words, “barely kept my head above the water”. Now, as senior All-Ireland winners, the expectation would have been that Tipp’s new generation would kick on. And some of them did.
Hennessy, though damaged knee cartilage in February 2011 and, having played the second-half of Tipp’s National League game against Kilkenny, did not make it back again until a Waterford Crystal game against UCC two years later. The knee issue, though, just wasn’t being resolved.
He underwent four operations, one involving Mosaicplasty (the taking of cartilage from one part of the body to another), before realising that his days as an elite athlete were over.
“To be honest, even in 2010 when I was getting some game-time, I was still looking in from the outside a little bit” he says candidly now. “I mean you had lads like Padraic Maher, Brendan Maher and Noel McGrath breaking through, lads who’ll be remembered among the best of any that played for Tipp.
“I was still only 20 in 2010 and knew nothing if I’m honest. Then the knee issue arose and, once it broke down again after the fourth operation, I knew I was finished at that level. I just couldn’t step up to take the intensity of the training. And, around that time, I started to work in the UK too, so I knew it was over.
“It was a tough blow, but I took solace from the fact that it hadn’t been down to my behaviour in any way, to me wasting the opportunity. And I suppose, somewhere in the back of my mind too, was the thought ‘Well, you’ve met worse before!'”
He’d been still trying to win that battle in January 2013 when watching The Late Late Show at home with his father. The programme featured an interview with entrepreneur, Jim Breen, in which attention was drawn to the dreadfully high rate of suicide in Ireland, particularly among young men.
Essentially, 10 people were taking their own lives in Ireland every week. That night, Hennessy wrote a blog ‘Thoughts of a Curious Mind’ about how his mother’s death affected him, showing it to his dad the following morning before releasing it to the outside world. And the response, in a sense, set him on the path he’s still on today.
He made a point of accepting invitations to give talks in schools, yet it was after one such talk at Thurles CBS at the end of 2016 that Hennessy began to question the value of his words. And it was over the subsequent six months, on a career-break while traveling through India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Columbia, Equador, Peru and Bolivia that the idea of ‘Running for Josie’ came into his head.
Specifically, it came high up in the Andes on the second last day of a trek with friends to Machu Picchu. “We’d been walking along this train track for a couple of hours when the idea came to me” he remembers now.
“I just felt it was time in my life to do something difficult, something in which I’d have to suffer physically to make it worth peoples’ donations.” To begin with, that “crazy” idea was 18 marathons in a single year on seven Continents.
But commonsense, mercifully, prevailed, the craziness reined back in.
So next month Hennessy will fly out of a town called Punto Arenas in South West Chile to Union Glacier in the Antarctic to run that ‘Ice Marathon’ in temperatures that may dip lower than -30. With his compromised knee and a hatred of long distance running, it promises to be an ordeal.
So why do it?
“I’m running not just for the people who have donated or who’ve taken part in other fund-raising events on behalf of it” he says. “But I’m also running for the people who are going to benefit from this, many if not all of whom I’ll never meet. I’m running for those people individually, but also their families and communities.”
And running in memory of a mother who will never be forgotten.
For help go to Samaritans.org or freefone 116 123. To make a donation, you can go to the ie.gofundme.com/runningforjosie
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