There was a lot of ‘rubber necking’ along the Muff-Moville road earlier this week when some motorists had to do a double-take when seeing a man with a white horse strolling along the road. It really wasn’t a mirage - Steve O’Connor has been walking the roads of Ireland since May, and he reckons it will be October before he calls a halt.
Steve is walking around the entire Irish coast to raise awareness about suicide. He walked from his home in Tipperary to Dungarvan - that was the nearest coastal area to his home - and set out on May 14th from there.
Speaking with the Journal yesterday he explained his personal reasons for the long walk: “I lost my daughter, Jessica, to suicide in 2010.
“I had lived in England for many years and Jessica grew up there. She was a bright, intelligent girl who at the age of 25 decide to go back to university and become a teacher. She got her degree and we thought that’s it - she’s on her way. She loved what she was doing, Earlier in life she had bouts of depression, then she had an unexpected relapse and by the age of 31 she was gone. It was devastating.”
But Steve knows the feelings Jessica was dealing with - he describes himself as a ‘suicide survivor’.
“I really shouldn’t be here today. Only three years ago I should have succeeded in taking my own life but for some reason I didn’t. I have suffered from depression too.”
This walk is Steve’s way of coming to terms with the pain and grief. And the reception he has received has been has proved something of a healing process.
“The response is beyond belief. The minute we crossed the border it has been phenomenal, I have been blown away. I was in the North for the ‘12th’ and I was treated with amazing kindess. This morning (near Moville) a young girl stopped her car and came over to give me money. She told me of a tragedy in her family. Everyone has been brilliant.”
Steve says that while this is a charity walk and he is attempting to raise funds he is much more concerned about raising awareness of sucide.
“We are living through an epidemic. Last week a government report revealed a seven per cent increase in our suicide rate which is already one of the highest in the world. It’s not enough any more for individuals and concerned groups to get involved in this issue - the government has got to get real too.
“One of the biggest age groups of concern is the 15-24’s so it’s quite obvious there is a role for schools and teachers here. People have got to get educated, they have got to learn to accept that they need help, that help is out there and that they do have options. Another group who need our help is the farming community, particularly farmers who are isolated. Many of these people, because of things like the drink driving laws, no longer even drive in to the village pub. They sit at home every night, isolated from the community.”
Steve, who is 59, says he is supporting the Irish Institute of Natural Medicine, run by Nia Mulligan, which embraces a holistic approach to the problem of suicide.
“Nia is raising funds for reasearch. Her approach has won approval nationally in that she is now a regular visitor to the prisons. I have thrown my lot in with her in that I believe that this is the right road to go down.”
Overall, how was he finding it?
“To be honest this has turned out to be a totally different trip to the one I had expected. I have done charity things before but this is way different than anything before. There is a healing process going on for me. And it has been so good. If what I’m doing saves even one life by raising awareness and getting people to go for help I will have considered it a worthwhile journey.
His final words: ” I spent eight years planning this trip. I planned to walk the whole way using the horse to carry my belongings. But to be honest I think people respond more to Jess (named in memory of his daughter) than to me; they just love to come up and pet her!”