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The death and life of Pat Tierney, the Bard of Ballymun

Twenty-five years ago, poet and activist Pat Tierney died on his 39th birthday. Fionnuala McCarthy remembers a life story overshadowed by a controversy in death.

Fionnuala McCarthy

THE PHONE CALL came to the Sunday Tribune newsroom on 28 December 1995 from a flat in Ballymun.

The caller, Pat Tierney, explained he was planning to take his life the following week, on his 39th birthday. Before he died, he wanted the opportunity to tell his story and explain the reasons for his decision.

He wanted friends around the country to be reassured he was okay, that he was in control. He needed a promise that nothing he said would be published until after his death. He also wanted a commitment that the authorities would not be alerted to his plans. 

Pic 2pat tierney grafton street dublin 1990 On Grafton Street

Pat was a community activist and poet. He was a contemporary and friend of fellow poets Brendan Kennelly and Theo Dorgan, and then-Minister for Arts Culture and the Gaeltacht, Michael D Higgins.

Every Friday and Saturday, he stood outside Bewley’s cafe on Grafton Street, reciting his own prose and those of his favourite poets Durcan, Yeats and Kavanagh.

After much deliberation at the Tribune, the decision was made not to ignore the request to speak to someone.

Reporter Brenda Power was sent to meet Pat. She travelled to the Ballymun Shopping Centre on Dublin’s northside the following Tuesday and Wednesday, spending hours sitting in a coffee shop listening to his story.

Pat had AIDS. He was now in stage four, the final stage of the virus, and believed the virus would kill him within the next 12 months. He wanted to die on his own terms, he explained to Power.

An infected thumb nail refusing to heal, and a recurring chest infection were weighing heavily on him. He had witnessed the death from AIDS of his friend and fellow Grafton Street performer The Diceman, Thom McGinty, earlier that year.

Pic 3 Pat and Diceman Pat and the Diceman

Pat was a campaigner around the issue of AIDS awareness. He protested outside St James’s Hospital in Dublin on Christmas Day 1993 against the then hospital policy of putting the bodies of those who died as a result of AIDS into plastic body bags.

He walked from Galway to Dublin to highlight the need for a helpline to offer support to those with the virus.

President Michael D Higgins who launched the walk with Pat recalls:

We shared the difficulties put in the way of those such as Aids Alliance West who were trying to give information, advice and support. There were those who opposed the giving of a phone number or installing a phone for that work which we both supported.”

The body bag protest at St James's Hospital in December 1993

Pat was on unemployment benefit and living on the seventh floor of the Eamonn Ceannt Tower in Ballymun. He had no parents, no siblings, no family. He was worried about how the final stage of the virus would play out for him.

He explained to Power: “I feel spent, finished, and it’s time for me to go. I see it as a positive thing, of me taking control of my life and my death and people who know me, though they will be grieving, should try to see it like that. I don’t want to go on climbing mountains, I don’t want to fight any more.”

He said that when the sun came up the following Friday morning, his body would be found somewhere on church grounds in Dublin or Galway.

“I have never had a day’s peace in my life,” he reflected, “always living in fear of these figures in black, beating with leather straps”.

Pic 6 pat tierney cafe

Tierney was a Galway man. He was born in 1957 to 17 year-old Bridget Tierney from Connemara. She was one of 11 children, employed as a domestic worker at St Mary’s Boys Secondary School in Salthill, when she became pregnant.

After giving birth, she was sent with her newborn to the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam.

After seven days, a decision was taken to return Bridget to her employer, and her infant son was brought to his grandparents in Connemara, to live in their two bedroom cottage along with his 10 uncles and aunts.

Pic 7 pat tierney hugs fundraiser gpo

At eight months, Pat was placed in the Sisters of Charity home for orphans and abandoned children in Galway. Years later he accessed his files and learnt this followed a request from his grandmother, and a visit from an inspector from the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

He was moved to St Joseph’s Industrial School in Salthill when he was seven. Thirty years later, in his self-published autobiography, The Moon on My Back, he would recall the terror of being forced by a Christian Brother to stand in the dormitory, holding his soiled underpants over his head.

Slaps were followed by a leather strap, raining down blow after blow.

“My friends, like little pyjamed soldiers, stood in pale faced attention and did not dare to protest or turn their heads for fear they would be made examples of.”

Hunger bookended their days. Boys would rummage in the class bin to eat the peel from an apple discarded by a lay teacher.

Pic 8 pat tierney walk oranmore galway

The publication of his book which detailed the pain, suffering and sexual abuse he suffered in the care of religious institutions, generated much media interest and Pat was in demand.

He appeared with Pat Kenny on Saturday night’s Kenny Live show.

Poet and friend Theo Dorgan recalls: “We had some pretty serious conversations in the lead-up up to the publication of The Moon on My Back, and more after it did appear and he was struggling to cope with the impact the book had made.”

Pic 9 Pat Tierney smithfield Pat in Smithfield

The book didn’t sugarcoat any aspects of his life. It detailed periods in detention centres including three stints in two years at St Pat’s centre for young offenders in Dublin for car and house break-ins.

Months spent in a cell afforded time to wonder about his family.

“I used to lie in my bed at night crying and hugging my pillow as I imagined it was my mother. I developed a strong urge to know who she was.”

Through a chaplain in St Pat’s his family, who had emigrated to England, were informed of his whereabouts. He received a letter from an aunt, inviting him to visit.

On his release, he took the ferry to England and made the journey to meet the wider family who had settled in Rochester, in Kent.

He recalled the journey spent praying, “I imagined I could somehow be a child again, that everything that happened would be wiped clean, and day one of my life would begin when I met my mother.”

Pic 10 east coast radio On East Coast Radio

Bridget, now married with two children, was not aware he was coming. She refused to meet him. Nineteen years later, when writing his autobiography, he tried again.

This time he was invited to her home, but it was not to be the reunion he had hoped for.

His mother told him she hadn’t known she was pregnant until she gave birth, and did not know how she had become pregnant. They were not to speak again.

Following the first failed family meeting, he took off for North America, spending most of the 1980s drifting around North America. It was also where he began using drugs.

He later described to Pat Kenny how that unfolded.

“I was working in Detroit in the production line of a newspaper and one evening another employee introduced me to a joint, I was hooked straight away. I started smoking marijuana, I then went on to snorting cocaine, and I then went onto LSD. When I was in the Wyoming oil fields, I was introduced to crystal meth and this was delivered intravenously.”

Sharing needles during this time led to a HIV-positive diagnosis seven years later in Dublin.

Pic 11 save aids alliance Save Aids Alliance

Pat returned to Ireland in 1988, under threat of deportation from Canada. After applying to go on Dublin Corporation’s housing list he was offered a flat in Ballymun. The following eight years in Eamonn Ceannt tower, were to be the most settled and rewarding of his life.

He threw himself into the community, joining the Residents’ Association and becoming an anti-drugs campaigner, setting up a drugs watch team in the tower block where he lived.

Having quit drugs, he tapped into his passion for poetry that had begun in national school in Galway.

As a child he was taken by the story of Anthony Raftery, a blind poet, who in the bardic tradition travelled the roads reciting poetry in the 19th century.

Pat recalls being asked to write a little verse and the headmaster asking if he had written it himself.

“That was significant for me that he had said that.”

Pic 12 iceskating ballymun kids Ice-skating in Dublin

Back in Ballymun, refused a place on a FÁS course, he headed to Easons and bought books in the bargain basement and sold them door to door. With the small profit he produced a poetry pamphlet. He had a focus and he was feeling fulfilled.

“Poetry had a way of putting me in touch with the humanity that had perhaps been suppressed from childhood. It made me strive for personal dignity,” he explained.

He began to recite poetry at festivals around the country. He took up residence on Grafton Street, having moved from O’Connell Street (too much traffic), Henry Street (harrassed by Gardaí), Nassau Street (too much pollution from the buses), but his pitch on the pedestrianised street at Bewley’s was perfect.

Poet Theo Dorgan became a friend at this time.

“I met Pat when he was declaiming poems on Grafton Street. I took an instant liking to him, to his unforced graciousness to passers-by, especially children, and to his air of dignified composure,” he recalls.

“We would often head in to Bewley’s for a coffee if I happened across him when he felt he was due a break. He was a marvellous talker, always striving to see the best in situations and in people, dignified and stoical.”

He continued to immerse himself in the community of Ballymun, later writing that the people there were the first family he had. 

Pic 13 Pat writing

He established the Eamonn Ceannt Rhymers Club, encouraging kids to come and write and recite their own poems. Numbers attending the weekly sessions swelled and three times the group had to relocate to a bigger venue.

Many of his poet friends visited the club, including Michael D Higgins and Theo Dorgan who recalls: “He invited me, as a poet and as Director of Poetry Ireland, to come and listen to the young poets of Ballymun recite their poems, in class, as a kind of audition.

“Those children took it all so seriously because Pat had, somehow, impressed on them that to make a poem good enough to earn you membership was a serious business.

I’ll not easily forget one young lad’s pure shock of joy when Pat, having listened with considered attentiveness to the boy’s poem, after a few moments’ deliberation pronounced him fit to be admitted to the Rhymers.

“An All-Ireland medal could not have meant more to the boy. It took a good soul to do all that, and the children knew it.”

Pic 14 poet class pat tierney Poetry class

In 1991 to mark Dublin’s year as European City of Culture, the Rhymers group produced a book of poetry penned by the children.

Pat took 50 of the children to the launch by the Lord Mayor in the Mansion House. The book won the Ford European City of Culture Award and Pat brought the children for a day out in Dublin Zoo to celebrate.

Pic 15 nuns island art centre Nuns Island Arts Centre

One person who was a member of Pat’s club posted online one of many tributes that appear whenever a photo of Pat gets shared.

“Pat Tierney was a huge influence in my life. He taught us how to write and spent many hours with us. I remember he took us to the horse fair and to Howth on summer days. There was many an evening we would sit in his flat with him and count out his money in his poet’s pot and he would teach us how to cook his favourite dinner, steak with mashed spuds and onion and white sauce, it’s funny the things you will remember.”

Pic 16 st james hospital

After receiving a HIV diagnosis in 1991, his primary concern was how his Ballymun community would react to the news.

“I drew up a newsletter and sent it to all the parents in the block, stating I was HIV positive and probably going to develop AIDS in the future,” he told Pat Kenny.

“I said I felt they should have this information and for the following two weeks I would stay away from all youth activities to allow them to absorb the information and to come and ask me any questions they might have.

“I also recommended that they tell their children. The day after I delivered the newsletter several parents came to me and were pretty upset that I had decided to move away from youth activities. I received absolutely no negative reactions whatsoever.”

Pic 1 coffin on balcony ballmun Pat Tierney's coffin on a balcony in Ballymun

The virus began to progress and by Christmas 1995 he was in stage four.

John Kelly, a photographer who had documented Pat’s life for two years could see the shift in him.

Community work had always taken his mind off things and kept him busy, but now he was losing energy and struggling. He just did not want to lie in bed.”

John spoke with Pat on the phone on New Year’s Day.

“It was a short conversation. He said he had no energy and had been feeling very tired. He had to go and put the phone down. He had told me in the past that he could not face getting to the last stage of AIDS with no energy. He didn’t want anyone to have to look after him.”

Pat had written in The Moon on My Back, that were euthanasia an option in Ireland, he would take it.

“Unfortunately the laws and the constitution demand that I die in as slow a manner as medical science can make possible. Fortunately, however, the state cannot prevent me from taking the matter into my own hands, should I choose my own method and time of death.”

Pic 18 coffin ballymun Carrying his coffin through Ballymun

That time came on Thursday, 4 January 1995.

That night was the first full moon of the year, and it also coincided with Pat turning 39.

A man walking through the grounds of a Dublin church on his way to work the next morning came upon Pat’s body. 

Pic 19 open coffin

In the days before he died, Pat paid off debts he owed around Ballymun, and held a small party in his flat to say goodbye to friends, whom he had asked to respect his wishes and not try to stop him.

A previous suicide attempt had been thwarted when a friend in whom he had confided alerted Gardaí, after which Pat was taken handcuffed to St Brendan’s psychiatric hospital where he was sedated and placed in a padded cell wearing just his underpants.

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Pic 20 glasnevin coffin

Writing in The Irish Times, Paul Cullen described how Pat was waked with a vengeance in Ballymun’s tower block for three days and three nights. A number of notes found in Pat’s pockets gave detailed instructions on his wishes.

People waking him in his flat should use the phone to call relatives in Australia and America, as he would not be around to pay the phone bill.

He was to be laid out on the balcony of his flat, beside the Palestinian keffiyeh head scarf.

His coffin, adorned with the red ribbon for AIDS awareness, was to be carried into Glasnevin cemetery first by six women, and then by six men.

There was a samba band in attendance, but no clergy.

The children of Ballymun Rhymers Club would read their tributes at the service.

Michael D Higgins was there as a friend. They had spoken just before his passing.

“My final conversation with Pat has to be private with sensitivity respected,” the President of Ireland now recalls.

“Somewhere in my papers is a photo of a walk from Galway to Dublin that we both spoke at as we launched AIDS Alliance West. Pat got affirmation from his writing but he wanted to share it. Behind it was a life recovered again and again from circumstances and institutional authoritarianism.”

Pic 21 michael d 2 eyre sq

Two days after his funeral, The Sunday Tribune featured Pat Tierney and the interview he gave to Brenda Power, across pages one and two.

However it was the Tribune’s decision to interview Pat and publish his story that became the talking point.

The paper was accused of glamourising suicide. Prominent opinion writers weighed in, from Fintan O’Toole to Dr Anthony Clare. Eamon Dunphy in The Sunday Independent described it as ‘snuff journalism’, alongside a cartoon of Pat Tierney taking a bow beside a hangman’s noose.

Psychiatrist Patricia Casey wrote: “Mr Tierney was presented as a man who died with dignity in the face of an uncaring world. There is no dignity in stringing oneself up on a tree in a churchyard on a cold winter’s night. He was pathetic in life and has been presented as a hero in death.”

RTÉ pulled a drama on the theme of teenage suicide, releasing a statement saying the decision was made following the death of Pat Tierney.

Somewhere in the media scrum, Pat’s story was overlooked.

Looking back today, Brenda Power says she would not have done it differently.

“I don’t believe that if I had told the Gardaí of his plans, had him arrested and sectioned for his own safety, that he would necessarily have survived. On the contrary, I often think that if I had done so – and later heard that he had gone on to kill himself anyway, I would always wonder whether my betrayal was a final straw for him: another person considering he was not worth their trouble.”

Pic 22letter

In 2009, Pat’s role as one of the first to speak publicly of the abuse endured by children in residential institutions was acknowledged, as the Ryan report on the commission into child abuse was debated in the Oireachtas.

Green Party TD John Gormley noted the debt owed by the country to Pat and other survivors: “We must also pay tribute to those whose perseverance led to the establishment of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse. We should recognise the bravery of survivors like Christine Buckley and the late Pat Tierney, who came forward to tell their stories publicly in the 1990s.”

Brenda Power believes Pat would have had a pivotal role in the unfolding abuse revelations that were to follow.

“None of us could have foreseen that if he’d only stuck around for a few more years, until the whole institutional abuse story finally broke, it would have given Pat a renewed purpose in life.

“He would also have benefited from advancement in treatment of HIV/Aids, which was still a very serious illness and one he believed would kill him at that stage. I believe he’d have become the Simon Wiesenthal of the abuse survivors, hunting down and helping to prosecute the offenders.” 

Words: Fionnuala McCarthy; formerly of the Sunday Tribune and current editorial director at Lonely Planet; find Fionnuala on Twitter here.

Photos: John Kelly

The Journal has made a donation to Pieta House in lieu of payment for this article.

Need help? Support is available:

  • Aware – 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Samaritans – 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.ie
  • Pieta House – 1800 247 247 or email mary@pieta.ie (suicide, self-harm)
  • Teen-Line Ireland – 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 18)
  • Childline – 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

About the author:

Fionnuala McCarthy

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