Tomás Mulligan - gone, but never forgotten
By John Harrington
On the 28th of June, 2003, the Sportsfile photographer Damien Eagers captured a moment in time.
He zoomed in and focused his lens on Dublin footballer Tomás Mulligan as he paraded around St. Tiernach’s Park in Clones with his team-mates before their All-Ireland SFC Qualifier against Derry.
The faces of Alan Brogan in front and Ray Cosgrove behind him are slightly blurred which draws you into Mulligan’s world all the more.
He is a study in focused concentration for the task ahead. Eyes staring forward, brow slightly furrowed, mouth pursed as he regulates his breathing.
What was he thinking in that exact moment?
Today, an artist’s rendering of that photograph hangs on the sitting-room wall of the Mulligan home-place in Walkinstown, Dublin.
Below it, Tomás Mulligan’s father, Tom Senior, sits on a couch and reflects on the painful fact that almost ten years have passed since his son Tomás took his own life.
What was he thinking in that exact moment?
There’s no way of knowing, of course. The tragedy for the families and friends of a suicide victim is that they’re forever left with questions that can never be fully answered.
It must take an unimaginable level of pain to persuade someone their only recourse is to take their own life.
But the sad reality is that they do not end that pain by making such a final decision, they simply pass it on to others.
“I don't think you ever get over a suicide,” said Tom Mulligan when he spoke to GAA.ie in 2017. “Somehow you get the strength that you can live with it, but the questions are always there.
“You'd look at Tomás and you'd see a fine, handsome fella. He seemed to enjoy life. He seemed to be happy. He had a partner, a child, a house, a job.
“It was such a shock. If a fella is sick because he's drinking too much you'd know it.
“Whereas Tomás seemed to love life, he loved fun, he loved his style, he loved socialising. He loved being with the lads. He just loved life. There were no signs.”
Ask Tom Mulligan to describe his son, and the picture he paints is of a loving person who in turn was very much loved by those who knew him.
From a young age, there was something special about Tomás that drew others to him like iron filings to a magnet.
Most days he could be found kicking a ball in the front garden of his house on Balfe Road East, and before long every kid in the area would gather to join him.
Sport was always at the centre of Tomás Mulligan’s universe. From the time he could speak, he would go around the house singing the Match of the Day theme-tune.
His interest in football was matched by a flair for playing it, which almost bemused his father as much as it pleased him because Tom never showed a similar aptitude himself.
“I was always a big young fella but I was a soft young fella,” he says with a chuckle.
“The (Christian) Brothers were trying to get us to hurl and were telling me to get close and swing, but I was windy! After one session I wasn’t called back out!”
Tomás, in contrast, was a natural at whatever sport he turned his hand to.
One of his first notable achievements was to power his primary school Drimnagh Castle to a Cumann na mBunscol football Final, but he missed out on the big day himself because he injured his shoulder in the semi-final.
Unfortunately, injuries and bad luck would remain a constant theme throughout his playing days.
As a teenager he made the Dublin minor football panel, but never quite broke onto the first-team. Deep down, he felt the fact that he played for a Junior club like Good Counsel put him down the pecking order in the mind of inter-county managers and selectors before a ball had been even kicked.
Tomás was ambitious about making the grade at the highest level which was why he eventually transferred to Ballinteer St. John’s.
After knocking at the door for a long time he eventually forced his way into the Dublin senior starting team for the 2003 Championship, but a series of knee and ankle injuries meant he never really managed to really fulfil his potential as an inter-county footballer.
Gaelic Football remained a constant in his life right to the end, though. By then he had transferred to Round Towers after moving house to Clondalkin, and the day he died he played one of his best games for them as they pulled off a surprise win over Kilmacud Crokes.
His father Tom went to watch him play that morning like he usually did with Tomás’ mother Frances and younger sister Dervla.
Afterwards they waited for him to emerge from the dressing-room, and, as ever, he was one of the last out. It was August 26th, 2007, and later that day Dublin were due to play Kerry in the All-Ireland SFC Semi-Final.
Tomás had already arranged to meet some friends before the match so told his father to go on without him.
Dublin lost the match, and afterwards Tom tried to persuade his son to drop in home afterwards with the promise of bacon and cabbage.
But Tomás decided to stay in town with his friends for a few hours before eventually making it back to his own house in Clondalkin at around 9pm. Not long afterwards, he took his own life.
“On Sunday night at 10pm we got a call saying that he was in Tallaght fighting for his life,” says Tom.
“Naturally, there was all sorts of shock. We were trying to round up the family and get his sister who was out with some friends, and we made our way up to the Tallaght hospital and the poor fella was gone.
“You were in shock. You wanted to scream and shout, but you couldn't get any sound out.”
‘Why?’ That was and remains the first question for the Mulligan family and so many other families in this country who have been through the same heartache.
Why would a 30-year-old loved by so many and with an 18-month-daughter he adored decide to end it all?
There were no overt signs he was suffering any extreme mental turmoil. Or were there?
That’s the gnawing doubt that eats away at the hearts and minds of loved ones left behind by someone who takes their own life - were there any red-flags they missed that if heeded could have led to a different outcome?
“Yeah, that's the killer for parents and siblings and lovers,” says Tom.
“'How could I have missed it?' I think a lot of it is missed because there was certainly a culture of not talking about your problems which thankfully seems to be improving.
“I would have been aware growing up that 'boys don't cry' and you should 'be a man' about things. Men didn't share. They certainly didn't share if they had troubles. They might share their joys, but not their troubles.
“So you grew up in a culture of not having the tools to deal with these things. If people had the tools to deal with these things, then there’s a better chance they’ll cope.
“If for a split second you could take Tomás in that terrible time and say, 'look at your lovely baby', which we know he loved and adored…
“And if he could see that maybe when she's 10 or 11 or 16 or 18 and someone asks her who her Dad is…
“Do they think about that? Would that stop them? Would that ease the pain? Or at least make them think, 'Well, this pain is bad, but the pain I'm going to give to someone else is worse'. I don't know. The honest answer is I don't know.
“I'm a firm Catholic. I believe in the here and after and that life is precious. So that's where I'm coming from.
"But, at the same time, I do believe that whatever torment is in a person's mind or whatever is in the make-up of that person's mind, that if they feel that that's the only out for them and they decide to end their life, I can't be the judge and jury or condemner because I don't know what torment brought them to this.
“But, at the same time, I can say to anybody and I feel like I have to say it to people, it's not the answer. If you take the other road, chances are there's help there.”
Tom Mulligan knew he had a popular son while he was alive, but it was only after Tomás’ death that the extent of that popularity was fully revealed.
Countless tales were recounted of how he had touched the lives of so many in so many different ways, and the Mulligan family realised they hadn’t just lost someone special, a much wider circle of people had.
A family friend suggested it would be a good idea to set up a charity cycle in Tomás’ memory, and the Mulligans immediately got right behind the project.
The motivation wasn’t just to do something in his honour, but to also raise awareness that there were supportive charity organisations out there like Pieta House that could help prevent such tragedies.
The first Tomás Mulligan memorial cycle took pace in 2008 and went from Belmullet, the home-town of his mother Frances, to Dublin. Tom Snr was in the lead car for that inaugural cycle, but decided to cycle himself the year after.
As he trained for the undertaking, the irony of the situation was not lost on him. An infrequently-used racer bike had been gathering dust in the house for a long time, and whenever he’d threaten to cycle off to Bray or Blessington on it his son would laugh and say, "Da, you couldn’t cycle up to the shops!"
Tom found training for the cycle a therapeutic experience. While he was on the bike on those long spins he’d be thinking about Tomás, talking to Tomás, and occasionally giving out to Tomás for what he’d done.
And, along the way, there were moments that made him believe that Tomás was there with him.
Once, while coming back from a cycle to Blessington, the realisation dawned with Tom that he didn’t have a spare tyre tube if he had a puncture, or even the knowledge how to change one if required.
So he begged Tomás not to let him have a puncture, and the words were scarcely out of his mouth when, ‘BANG!’, one of his tyres burst on the hill up to Brittas.
Another cyclist on the road was soon on the scene, produced a spare tube and changed it, all the while tutting at Tom’s naivety.
We want to tell other people about Pieta House and all the other organisations that are there to help
A friend of this cyclist pulled up in a car and the cyclist suggested Tom should throw his bike in the back of it and get a lift home in case he suffered another puncture on the road and was stranded.
On the drive back to Dublin, Tom explained who he was and why he was out cycling.
Not only did the driver know of Tomás Mulligan, he was a gaelic footballer himself, and admitted he was having problems of his own. Tom explained how he could get all the help he needed from Pieta House, and couldn’t but think his son had put him in the right place at the right time.
“Doing the cycle was a wonderful experience,” he says. “We set out a simple template for it. We wanted to celebrate Tomás because he was a good guy. We love him and miss him and want to celebrate his life.
“And we want to tell other people about Pieta House and all the other organisations that are there to help people. Because if we can let people know that there is help available, then maybe we can prevent some others going through the heartache and suffering that we went through.
“We have a good weekend, a bit of fun, a few drinks, a sing-song. Then, if we can, we financially help Pieta House as much as we can. And we've stuck to that. No-one has ever drawn anything from it, it's been all voluntary.
“There's a great camaraderie and bond there now between everyone involved, and we've great fun too.”
The TM (Tomás Mulligan) cycle in aid of Pieta House is now part of the charity’s Pieta 100 series of cycles which last year expanded from three locations to 10.
It saw almost 1,500 people take part and raised nearly €100,000, funds that help to keep Pieta’s life-saving counselling services free.
Pieta House is currently one of the GAA’s official charities, and Tom Mulligan thinks the partnership is an apt one.
His experiences on the road every year with the TM Cycle have underlined for him just how important a role the GAA plays in the emotional health of its members and community, and why it has the potential to help even more.
“The GAA is such a fantastic organisation for support for families in all sorts of difficulties, tragedies, and life generally,” he says. “The fact that it's in every parish is huge.
“When you'd cycle from Dublin to Belmullet or Wexford or Cavan, you'd meet people in all the GAA clubs. You meet a huge array of people who are all in the GAA who have suffered themselves, know someone who is suffering or have had a tragedy in their family or area.
“There was a certain amount of emphasising about the help that Pieta House can give and it also helped develop a support network for people.
“I would like to thank the GAA in all its forms, all the clubs and all the individuals I have met.
“And encourage them to use that wonderful organisation, which they are doing, but to use it more actively at a local club level to encourage lads to be there for each other.
“And not just to listen, but to really hear what their mates are saying.
“If their friend breaks up with their partner, if they lose their job, if they know that their mate is gambling for instance and hasn't a euro in their pocket, that they might keep a special eye on them and try to be there to support them.
“And to also be aware that there are people out there they can put their friend in touch with who can help them through those problems.”
Pieta House information
Pieta House was founded in 2006 by Joan Freeman and offers counselling to those suffering from suicidal ideation, those who have been bereaved by suicide, and people who are engaging in self-harm.
Everything is free of charge and their staff are fully qualified and provide a professional one-to-one therapeutic service. A doctor’s referral or a psychiatric report is not required.
In the bereavement centres, Pieta provides counselling, therapy and support to individuals, couples, families and children who have been bereaved by suicide.
Pieta House has centres across Ireland and all of the services can also be accessed by phoning the free 24-hour suicide helpline 1800 247 247.
For more information, visit www.pieta.ie