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,
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
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
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
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.