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A martyr to the drink

15 February 2013

Robert Welch tells the tragic story of his son's lost battle with alcohol

Lost youth: Egan Welch

Lost youth: Egan Welch

WHEN Egan attended counselling and addiction sessions, he would nearly always be asked about his childhood. "Was there a dark secret lurking? Did something catas­trophic and vile happen to him? Was he subjected to some hideous abuse?"

He'd come back and tell his mother this, and how he'd surprise his, no doubt, well-meaning coun­sellors by saying that he had a happy childhood, and so I think it was. Of course, you can never be entirely sure; but, still, he was a blissfully happy boy, often singing to himself in his cot or in his room.

But, as he grew older, life dark­ened for him. There was a period of the most frightening anorexia in his teens. He hated school - so much that he begged, literally begged, me to allow him not to take his A levels, a request I gave in to, probably wrongly, looking back.

Yet, he was brilliant, gifted with the most amazing speed of intellect, and with instincts as sharp as a tack; so that it was not long before he was working at the university, totally self-trained, formatting materials for a revolutionary MA on the internet in Biomedical Science.

And it was around then that he started to drink. I mean really drink, not just the glass or two in the evenings, but real heavy-duty stuff. He began to be recognised as somebody "cool", and became a well-favoured patron of the VIP lounge at one of the local night­clubs, where he was also their webmaster. He was earning a lot of money - probably too much for a young man.

He fell in with an older business­man, who, to put it bluntly, ripped him off. And this experience, com­bined with an increasing sense of self-contempt, meant that he turned more and more to alcohol for solace, to relieve what were be­­coming intolerable levels of stress. One very wise Indian doctor at the Causeway Hospital said to him, as he was beginning his decline, that he was "self-medicating" with alcohol, and that, though he was not yet an alcoholic, he was headed that way. She was proved right.

There is a factor here, which should be mentioned, and that is the kind of example he would have had from me growing up. Our house­hold was one in which drink - with the initiative always taken by yours truly - was consumed pretty much every night: a couple of glasses of wine before dinner, and then more with the food.

It was all very middle-class, all very common in academic circles - where, if I'm not mistaken, the degree of alcohol dependence is very high. Think of those Fellows at the Oxford colleges, sitting round High Table, knocking back the finest wines, bottle after bottle, and then the port, and then the brandies.

I was once a Visiting Fellow at one of these places, and have seen this at first hand. In any case, I have no doubt that the attitude to drink in our house - where its consump­tion was taken as absolutely normal - was a very dangerous environ­ment for someone with alcoholic tendencies.

I know that, to some extent, my drinking has contributed to the circumstances that led to Egan's illness and death and that is some­thing I have to live with.

SinceKicking the Black Mamba, the book I wrote about Egan, was published, I have had many letters saying that I am being too hard on myself, that alcoholism is genetic, that I must not blame myself. And these, especially a thoughtful and profound letter from Sister Kathleen of Cuan Mhuire, an alcohol treat­ment centre outside Newry, where Egan was treated, have lightened the burden. But, still, I am aware that damage was done.

This is perhaps one of the reasons why I wrote the book, out of re­­morse at the suffering I may have brought into the life of someone I loved. But it was not the main reason. The driving impulse for the book was my determination to reveal the sorrow and sadness of a life going astray, and hopelessly out of control; but also that such a tragedy can have some kind of meaning in it, that at the heart of sorrow and pain and distress a dignity and grace survives.

Egan was 26 when he died. By this stage, he had struggled for three years to become free of his addic­tion. He had gone into Saint John of God Hospital, in Dublin, and had been in Cuan Mhuire in Newry twice. He was prescribed Antabuse (the drug that is given to alco­holics who are certain that they want to quit, because if you drink on top of it, the body goes into complete revolt: sickness, vomiting, panic, thundering heartbeat).

At any rate, this night in January 2007, his fiancée (he had become engaged to a beautiful girl from Portstewart; so he had everything to live for) had planned to go out to dinner with her mother; so Egan set off, we believe, to rent some DVDs. But, God knows on whatever im­­pulse, and even though he was on the Antabuse, he turned into a bar in Coleraine.

One thing led to another, and he ended up in the small hours of the morning drinking in a chalet on the banks of the River Bann, with a group of like-minded individuals. After some altercation or other (there was no foul play, just some drunken argument), he left, but instead of heading towards the exit, he walked towards the river, into which he fell. With all the alcohol in his system, and the drug, death, we are told, would have been instantan­eous.

His body was recovered 11 days later by a team of divers. When they pulled open the zip of the body bag, so that I could identify him, he looked at peace. There was even a trace of that unforgettable smile of his on his stained face.

And what meaning is there in all of this? I say in the preface toKicking the Black Mambathat it is not a religious book. I do not have the training, or the capacity, to write in theological terms about death and love. And yet I found myself going back to the Gospels all the time, for the language to help me to cope with, and write about, sorrow and human loss.

A great deal of what I dimly understand about what it is to be human, and vulnerable, and in despair, I learned from Egan. But I learned, too, about courage, and about love. Courage in facing the weakest parts of what we are; and the love that survives all the dis­appointments and failures. I think, for me, he was - is - a kind of Christ.

Since the book was published, it has been widely reviewed in Ireland, which reflects, I am sure, an entirely problematic relationship with alcohol in that country. But there is not, it seems, a single society in the troubled capitalisms of the West that does not have such difficulties.

At the heart of this craving (and it is, as I have seen in my son, a craving for oblivion) lies a pro­found emptiness, and a desperate con­fusion. Our inner derelictions are unfolded for us in the despairing narratives and raddled characters of Samuel Beckett. This is "how we are", and it is no wonder that our sensitive and vulnerable young people drink too much.

Kicking the Black Mamba: Life, alcohol and death, by Robert Anthony Welsh, is published by Darton Longman & Todd at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70 - Use code CT181 ); 978-0-232-52895-4.

Since writing this piece, Professor Welch has died after a long illness. He was Professor of English and Dean of Arts at the University of Ulster. The Church Times thanks his family for their permission to print the article.

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