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Annual holiday to idyllic Ireland overshadowed by town’s grief for mothers

Mary McGinty arrives for the annual break in the picturesque Westport to find a town in mourning.

While it was taps aff in the London Underground in the blistering heat, we were in the wilds of the west of Ireland where it was squally showers and blustery winds, interspersed with a few periods of glorious sunshine.

We went prepared for the unpredictability of the climate. Along with sturdy shoes and oilskins, we packed our swimming togs. Ever hopeful, we brought a tube of factor 50 and our optimism was rewarded with some fine days.

While some of the gang climbed Croagh Patrick, I was content with a dip in the sea. This year, including the two wee boys, there were 12 of us. That wasn’t counting the two babies which, God willing, will be born either side of the New Year.

A fine town

To my mind Westport, Co Mayo, is as fine a little town as you’re ever likely to find. The tree-lined North and South Malls border the Carrowbeg River as it flows gently through the town. The old stone bridges which cross the river are bedecked with floral baskets all summer.

The entire town is an extravaganza of tenderly cultivated flower beds and window boxes. It has been a worthy winner several times over of Ireland’s Tidy Towns Award as well as holding the accolade of Best Place to Live in Ireland.

Westport is one of Ireland’s few planned towns. Walking round the four sides of the town centre is known as doing a ‘lap.’ When I arrive, I like start on the South Mall with a visit to St Mary’s Church. Then it’s up Bridge Street and a wave into Seamus in the bookshop before leaving Himself at Johnnie Moran’s for a pint of the black stuff. From there, I turn into Shop Street and down James Street. My first lap complete, I feel quite at home.

Welcoming community

It is not just in its appearance that Westport is so welcoming to the visitors who are, in large part, the townspeople’s livelihood. Somehow this bustling little town of just over 6,000 inhabitants expands to contain all the summer tourists and the pilgrims for Reek Weekend at the end of July without the locals becoming the least bit phased.

Nor is it one of those places where you could live for decades and still be thought of as a blow-in. Newcomers to the town soon find themselves immersed in the community and its activities. We’ve been visiting Westport for too many years to think of ourselves as tourists. In any case, my grandmother hailed from the nearby village of Aughagower.

Romanticising

Still, though, we romanticise and idealise the place, when the truth is it has its problems just like anywhere else. When we arrived on holiday the town was still reeling from the death of a mother of three and the subsequent arrest of her husband on a murder charge. Such tragedies are rare events.

However, what is less rare—and is increasingly described as a ‘near epidemic’ in Ireland—is the scourge of suicide.

Although men are four times as likely to take their own lives as women, the victims of a spate of suicides in Westport in the past month have all been women, all of them mothers.

A town in mourning

Within days of each other a young mother of one and a woman with three young children, who was the heart and soul of her local football club and an award-winning musician, took their own lives. Even in the excitement of the preparations for the Croagh Patrick pilgrimage, there was a pall of sadness in the air.

Then, just before we arrived, Natalie Berry, who, along with her husband, ran the local newspaper, The Mayo News, and the mother of two daughters, had been buried from the church.

At Natalie’s funeral, among the gifts in the Offertory procession presentation was a scallop shell to represent her love of nature. The parish priest drew the analogy between Natalie and the shell.

Vulnerability

Within the tough shell—a thing of beauty and strength—which is projected to the world, is an unseen softness and vulnerability. He urged the people to remember her by her living and not her dying.

None of these women wanted to die, their only wish was to stop the pain. In the midst of the summer sunshine their hearts and souls were enveloped in darkness.

Many of their families and friends would be making the ascent to the little chapel on the summit of Croagh Patrick on Reek Sunday. In the Masses which are celebrated hourly, they would be remembered, their loved ones praying their souls were at peace, a peace they could not find in life.

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