Irish suicide prevention center Pieta House held its first Darkness into Light 5K walk before dawn last Saturday at Gaelic Park. Debbie McGoldrick was among the participants.
The light of day shone brightly – eventually – for nearly 1,000 early risers who made Saturday’s inaugural New York Darkness into Light walk in aid of Irish suicide prevention center Pieta House a huge success.
Supporters of all ages wiped sleep from their eyes and started filing into Gaelic Park in the Bronx before 4 a.m. to take part in the 5K event, a two-lap walk – or run, for the more energetic – around nearby Van Cortlandt Park, with NYPD patrols providing traffic control as walkers made their way onto Broadway.
The annual pre-dawn walk is Pieta House’s largest fundraising initiative. Some 100,000 participants wearing bright yellow Pieta House t-shirts took part in various locations throughout Ireland alone and were joined by thousands more in the U.K., Canada and Australia.
This year New York, Washington, D.C. and Chicago hosted Darkness into Light events for the first time. Pieta House is scheduled to open its first U.S. office at the New York Irish Center in Queens in September, with a funding grant of €70,000 from the Irish government for the initial 12-month pilot program.
“We are in awe of the support. It’s unbelievable,” Caroline O’Connell, a native of Co. Cork who chairs the committee charged with bringing Pieta House to New York, told the Irish Voice as she surveyed the crowd at Gaelic Park.
“There are 10 suicides a week in Ireland. Eight of them are males. Everyone here knows the crisis we are facing, and they all want to play their part in helping those who need it.”
The atmosphere at Gaelic Park was buoyant despite the early hour. People traveled from the five boroughs, Long Island, Westchester and beyond to walk in solidarity with Pieta House, founded in 2006 to combat the dreadfully high rates of suicide in Ireland, particularly among men. Those working in U.S. Irish immigrant communities say that suicide, self-harm and depression are rising problems here as well.
“There’s certainly a need,” Paul Finnegan, executive director of the New York Irish Center in Long Island City, Queens, told the Irish Voice while waiting for the walk to begin.
“With some people suffering from depression, the tendency can be to lose hope. We need to let them know that there is hope, and we also need to break the trend of people being afraid to ask for help. They’re afraid of the stigma attached to suicide, but they shouldn’t be.”
Attorney Sean Downes agreed. He and his wife Marianne, a high school nurse, traveled from their home in Queens to participate in the event.
“The work of Pieta House is something that we should all take to heart. My wife works with teenagers and she sees a lot, particularly with kids who try and self-harm. We’ve got be there for people who need help,” Downes said.
Ken Natton came to New York from Ballymahon, Co. Longford 50 years ago. He’s involved with the New York Irish Center and felt a duty to rise early and show his support for Pieta House.
“One Friday a long time ago, a co-worker of mine shot himself. Suicide is so tragic,” Natton said.
No one knows the horror of self-inflicted death better than Shirleyann McIntyre. Her beloved brother David, only 23, jumped to his death from Wexford Bridge in 2002. On Saturday morning she wore the imitation brown plaid Burberry cap her brother purchased on his final trip to New York, only two months before he took his life.
“We had no indication at all,” Shirley recalled. “He was fine, or so we thought. And he loved this cap. He was going to tell everyone at home that he got a real Burberry hat when he was in New York.”
The family tragedy was compounded because it took nearly one month to locate David’s body. He went missing on November 18, and wasn’t recovered until December 11.
“We were just devastated. It took a tremendous toll on my parents,” said McIntyre, who now helps to raise money for Wexford MarineWatch, a group that provides suicide prevention patrols along Wexford quays and harbor.
Irish Minister for the Diaspora Jimmy Deenihan, who was in New York for a series of engagements, was happy to return to Gaelic Park for such a worthwhile cause.
“I played football here 42 years ago,” Deenihan, a star Kerry Gaelic footballer in his day with five All-Ireland medals to his credit, told the Irish Voice.
Clad in a tracksuit and sneakers, Deenihan looked as fit as ever and was ready to walk. “I’m not sure about running with my Achilles tendon,” he laughed.
“But one thing is for sure – Pieta House is a fantastic organization that is saving lives. This morning in my town of Listowel, 3,000 people took part in the Darkness into Light walk. Everyone wants to be supportive.”
Deenihan and the New York GAA’s development officer Simon Gillespie, who served as chairman of the event, gave brief speeches before the walk kicked off after 5 a.m. Caroline O’Connell then read a message from Joan Freeman, the visionary founder of Pieta House who created the organization after a close family member committed suicide.
“If you are about to set off from a little village in the west of Ireland, or you are stepping out in New York – you and thousands of Irish people across the world are sharing this journey together. You are leading the way in this war against suicide,” wrote Freeman in her message that was read at all the Darkness into Light walks on Saturday morning – more than 80 worldwide.
“The theme this year is connecting. Of course we are connecting to all the villages, towns and cities across the world walking on this day. But we also are connected because of the reason of suicide. For the last few years the voice shouting against the tragedy of suicide belonged to Pieta House. Now this voice belongs to the Irish people, and this shout has turned into a bellow. We will win this war because of you.”
The participants headed out of Gaelic Park and turned left for Broadway and nearby Van Cortlandt Park, which glistened under a thin coat of mist and a peek of the emerging dawn. Members of the Irish Business Organization were out in force, including president Sean O’Neill and former leaders Martin Dunne and Sheila Lynott. Many other Irish groups also had representatives rise before the dawn, and most if not all had in some way been touched by the heartbreak of suicide or self-harm.
Organizers plan on building on the success of the inaugural Darkness into Light events for next year, increasing the number of venues in New York to include all five boroughs, Long Island and Rockland County.
Visit www.pieta.ie for more information on the work of Pieta House.