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Kevin Spurgaitis

Northern Ireland’s troubled generation

A decade of peace has coincided with a disturbing spike in suicides among Catholic and Protestant youth

By Kevin Spurgaitis

Philip McTaggart carefully removes the contents of his wallet and spreads them across the table. Among his belongings are old fuzzy pictures of his son Philip. The first one shows Philip at an early age resting on his father’s shoulders. In another, he’s holding his baby sister during his 15th birthday celebration. He’s smiling widely in all photos but one — the last one ever to be taken of him. “You see, there was something wrong with him there,” a broad-shouldered, broad-faced McTaggart points out. “He just wasn’t happy. He was disconnected.”

On April 23, 2004, Philip McTaggart Jr. hanged himself in the middle of a monastery garden, in the community of Ardoyne, North Belfast. He was only 17.

Following Philip’s death, police, coroners and insurance agents investigated McTaggart and his Catholic family. Says McTaggart: “If someone dies of natural causes, from disease or because of an accident, people say, ‘Oh, this is terrible. God help the poor family.’ But the attitudes are somehow different if someone completes suicide.”

In the weeks and months following his son’s death, McTaggart wanted to be of some comfort to other Belfast families who had lost loved ones to suicide. Together with social worker Jo Murphy, he began hand-delivering pamphlets, and the positive reception led them to establish the Public Initiative to Prevent Suicide and Self Harm — known simply as PIPS — a project dedicated to the memory of McTaggart’s son, who was nicknamed Pip. The organization helps young people contemplating suicide or self-harm and supports families who have lost someone to the same. McTaggart, at 44, is the chair of PIPS and volunteers his time as a counsellor. It has meant giving up his day job in the building trade.

Like many other parents of children who have taken their own lives, McTaggart refuses to believe his son set out to kill himself that day. “I’m not trying to make him out to be saint, because he certainly wasn’t. He had a lot of drink in his system. In the end, my Philip was just trying to find his way through life and yet somehow he got lost.”

Lost, perhaps, but not alone. Philip McTaggart Jr.’s suicide was the first in a cluster of suicides in Ardoyne. In all, 13 young men took their own lives in six weeks — events that still linger over the row houses like black plumes. Philip is also one of hundreds of young people in Northern Ireland who have taken their own lives in the past several years, part of a suicide epidemic that has spiked since peace broke out in the bitterly divided country a decade ago. Grieving parents have been left to ask a question that is neither Protestant nor Catholic: why?

Philip McTaggart, chair of the Public Initiative to Prevent Suicide and Self Harm in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photo by Kevin Spurgaitis

Wondrous crags, luminous greens and wildflowers — Northern Ireland’s landscape has an almost mystic resonance. The capital city of Belfast also holds dear its rich heritage, with muck-and-brass architecture and moss-covered stonework. Former Catholic bishop  William J. Philbin once described Belfast as “a city walled in by mountains, moated by seas, and undermined by deposits of history.” The sectarian conflict — the Troubles — raged here and in other parts of Northern Ireland for 30 years, resulting in more than 3,600 deaths and some 40,000 injured. It has now been 10 years since the Good Friday Agreement, which saw the formation of a joint Catholic-Protestant administration, including the nationalist party Sinn Féin. It has been one year since British troops withdrew from the country’s border area, completing a 38-year mission to keep watch over the Irish Republican Army.

Today, more than 1.7 million people live in Northern Ireland. Of the estimated 45 percent who are Protestant, the majority are loyalist, preferring that Northern Ireland remain a part of the United Kingdom. About 40 percent of the population is Catholic, many of whom identify themselves as nationalist and strongly favour a united Ireland.

The country is further down the path of reconciliation than many could have imagined, but the healing is far from complete. Suicide rates here have skyrocketed. A total of 242 people completed suicides in the country last year, according to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA). In 2006, almost 300 people took their own lives — the highest number ever recorded in Northern Ireland’s history — compared to a low of 47 people in 1972, one of the bloodiest periods of the Troubles. But the numbers are likely greater because, as researchers point out, police in rural areas often report suicides as “accidents” to protect the privacy of relatives. NISRA also reports that suicide and self-harm in the country are most prevalent among young adult males. A higher number of deaths happen in urban areas, especially in the predominantly Catholic parishes of North and West Belfast.

To hear of suicide is chilling, numbing. The stubborn core of suicide in Northern Ireland is as troubling as it is perplexing. This is a society that has been brutalized and traumatized by years of violence. Depression and anxiety are widespread. And for all the success that peace and power-sharing have brought, they haven’t completely exorcized the North’s sectarian demons.

Deirdre O’Neill’s brother John had been going through a rough patch. It wasn’t a simple case of the blues; nothing could cure the charcoal mood he was in, not even anti-depressants. Before taking time off for stress, he had been a call-centre employee who garnered all sorts of prizes for hard work and leadership, says O’Neill.

On Aug. 5, 2006, during a visit with his mom and siblings, John suddenly left the house, promising to return within an hour. But that hour turned into an entire evening, prompting O’Neill and her mother to go looking for him. Driving up his street, they found a flashing ambulance in front of his home. John had hanged himself from the handle of a door leading to an attic space. Tucked away in his wallet were two handwritten notes: one for his partner and four-year-old daughter, and the other for his parents and siblings. He wrote that he didn’t feel happy and that he wasn’t living up to what he should be. He mentioned that he loved everyone and was very sorry.

“Johnny died just two days before his 24th birthday, and it seemed he had his whole life ahead of him,” says O’Neill, her shoulders slumped and eyes softened.

O’Neill, now 32, still counts the months since John took his life. She joined PIPS in February as an administrative officer. “To be honest, we don’t know what happened with John; there was nothing specific we could pinpoint,” she says. “One thing is for sure: what happened changed our lives. . . . It created a huge hole in our family that will never go away.”

“Why?” is always the hardest question to answer. In some cases, suicides can be linked to drugs, alcohol and solvent abuse. But in Northern Ireland, that’s the tip of the iceberg.

Deirdre O’Neill lost her brother, John, to suicide in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photo by Kevin Spurgaitis

A 2005 survey produced by Queen’s University in Belfast found that a “considerable proportion” of the population experiences “significant mental health problems” that are partly linked to Northern Ireland’s troubled past. Post-traumatic stress disorder is twice as common in Northern Ireland as it is in bordering counties. During the conflict, people’s coping mechanisms included a combination of “habituation, denial and distancing,” researchers noted. However, since the decrease in violence in the country, some people have become less resilient to trauma.

A “national disaster” is how Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Féin and MP for West Belfast, describes suicide. “In my constituency, especially, recent suicides have convulsed local communities, exacerbating the sense of powerlessness that people may feel in their present realities,” Adams says. “Part of the problem is that here in the north of Ireland, with the war over and people coming out from the trenches, there is less cohesion in particular communities. No longer facing threats and heavy militarization, neighbourhoods aren’t as tightly knit together as they were before.”

People living in the most economically deprived areas are most at risk, he says. “Those academically unqualified have a greater difficulty accessing jobs in this new climate. . . . In Northern Ireland, like any other country where there has been great societal change, there is a widening gap between the haves and have-nots, the blue-collar and white-collar workers.”

Churches, once pillars of sectarian identity, are also caught in the currents of change. A decline in religious practice and a string of sexual scandals have helped to collapse what religious commentator Sean MacReamonn described as the “cultural scaffolding,” made up of “habit, assent, consensus, obedience [and] tradition,” within which churches thrived. A much more complex Ireland has emerged, one that is increasingly multicultural, diversified and secular.

Yet the churches still hold sway. Rev. Aiden Troy, the rector of Belfast’s Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church and a well-known civic peacemaker, is turning more attention to the problem of youth suicides. He has experienced it first hand. In February 2004, 18-year-old Barney Kearns attended the requiem mass and burial of his friend Anthony O’Neill, also 18 and a victim of suicide. After the funeral, the Kearns and O’Neill families went to a local club for food and drink. From there, Barney Kearns crossed Crumlin Road and entered the Holy Cross grounds. A passing taxi later discovered him hanging from scaffolding atop the church tower.

“I quickly climbed up the scaffolding as soon as I was told about a body hanging on high,” Troy remembers. “All that could be done was to call out to the person in the hope that he might still be alive and assure him that help was on the way. . . . The emergency services arrived and with some difficulty recovered the body. On coming down from the scaffolding, a man approached me and asked what colour top the young person was wearing. I told him, and his reply was, ‘That is my son.’”

In the year before their suicides, Kearns had been shot in both legs and O’Neill was beaten and forced down a manhole for several hours by nationalist gangs. Former paramilitaries on both sides are now known more for violence and drug trafficking than advancing any political cause. Though they operate along sectarian lines, their victims are Catholic, Protestant or anyone else who stands in their way.

During the Troubles, the church helped to prevent society from going over the brink, but suicide and self-harm are different pastoral challenges, according to Lindsay Conway, the director of social services for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. He says churches have moved on from the days when suicide wasn’t worthy of a sacred burial. The fear of eternal damnation that may have deterred suicidal people is waning.

Young adults today “reach crisis an awful lot sooner than in previous generations,”  Conway observes. “When something bad happens to them, when somebody rocks their boat, it’s not chalked up to experience. It’s considered tragic in their minds.”

He continues, “This generation e-mails and texts until their thumbs wear out. But they’re not talking. They can’t say aloud, ‘I’m struggling’ — with school, work, relationships, sexuality. So there’s a desperate hopelessness there.”

Northern Ireland’s four main Christian denominations have started to work together on the problem. In February, church leaders discussed suicide with the country’s Assembly Health Committee. In a statement, they acknowledged that “churches have a clear role in the managing of this major social problem.”

Says Conway, “If the church has any rightful place as a social monitor and conscious, we’re going to have to get right the pastoral care for survivors of suicide.”

Kevin Spurgaitis

Rhonda Hill’s daughter, Denise, took her own life in September 2004. The 14-year-old overdosed on prescription pills. Her death came as a total shock to her parents.
“We had no warning, no tell-tale signs,” Hill told the Irish News. “Following Denise’s death, we went through a phase of asking questions: Why did she do it? Why did I not see something? Why did she not tell us? What do we do now?”

Within months of her daughter’s burial, Hill’s 16-year-old son, Joe, attempted to kill himself three times. She says, “Our son couldn’t cope with the loss and felt he should have noticed something was wrong. It took us eight months to persuade him to go and see a psychiatrist. . . . We then kept constant watch, not living day by day but minute by minute.”

Frustrated with the lack of support services in the Greater Shankill Area — a predominately Protestant community — Hill and her husband, Michael, helped to set up the Greater Shankill Families Support Group. It was good to talk about her loss with people who understood. Only then did Hill realize that it was okay to laugh and not feel guilty. And most importantly, she knew her family wasn’t alone in a city — and a country — preoccupied with keeping the peace.

The spectre of violence is certainly not as stark as it once was, even in the blatantly sectarian “marching season.” Yet barbed wire remains, as does the 40-year-old Peace Line, a six-metre-high wall of corrugated steel, concrete and chain that zigzags through Protestant and Catholic communities of West Belfast. Along the Falls Road (Catholic) and Shankill Road (Protestant), nationalist and loyalist icons are immortalized and political virtues extolled in the huge murals that remain the hallmark of the Troubles. Slowly, though, the paramilitaries’ hate-filled paintings are being replaced with advertisements for football clubs, black taxis, home heating and, more recently, suicide awareness.

In September 2007, Northern Ireland’s Department of Health allocated nearly $6 million to a regional prevention strategy. More recently, the department put its weight behind a 24-hour suicide helpline. For those in danger of taking their own lives, change hasn’t come soon enough.

Mental health sectors have traditionally been the Cinderella of the health services, according to Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams, and more progress has been made at a grassroots level. “Those affected directly by suicide, and those who work with people at risk and bereaved families have a great deal of experience to share with others. Groups like PIPS have saved hundreds of lives by their campaign work, by their education and by just being there for families in Northern Ireland.”

Paradoxically, while the Northern Ireland Assembly goes through its growing pains, the issue of suicide is bringing Protestants and Catholics closer together. Squeezed between the two enclaves in North Belfast, PIPS provides counselling, family support meetings and self-harm workshops to people of all religious backgrounds and political stripes. As McTaggart puts it, “We’re in the right place and everyone feels PIPS is theirs, which is important. Religion and politics is left at the door.”

McTaggart remembers giving solace to a former member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), which was the police force in the country until 2001. British security forces praised the RUC for keeping order during the Troubles, but the nationalist community accused it of one-sided policing. On that day, the RUC man was simply someone needing help for a close relative. He wandered into PIPS carrying two big boxes of chocolates.

Atop a hill, in the rearward grounds of Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church, the winds come howling through the undergrowth. With a meditative gaze, McTaggart stands before his late son’s memorial, a shrine of withered bouquets, weather-beaten plush toys, holy candles and pendants, and faded pictures. A simple plaque is screwed into the chestnut tree on which the young man hanged himself.

“These days, I feel a little happier with myself,” McTaggart says. “I have to be as cheerful as I possibly can in order to make my wife and other two kids happy.”  His son’s old chums seem happy, too. Some of them are married with children. Some still go to the discos and bars. Inevitably, McTaggart wonders what Philip would be doing today. Barbering? Bartending? Would he have a wife and children of his own?

“However much I’ve accomplished, I don’t think I’ll ever have complete closure. I don’t think anyone can after the suicide of a loved one because you’re constantly asking why and what if . . . those big questions. I’ll be doing that for the rest of my life, I suppose.”

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