When 12-year-old Irish boy Donal Walsh complained of a painful knee in 2008, his parents naturally thought their rugby-mad son had suffered a sports injury.
But it wasn’t a torn cartilage or a pulled ligament… Donal had an aggressive bone cancer and the diagnosis was the start of a harrowing journey for the entire Walsh family from Blennerville in County Kerry.
Donal would win many personal battles and thousands of hearts over the next four and a half years, but he finally lost the war against cancer in May last year.
However, his passing was by no means the end of Donal’s story… his bravery, unquenchable spirit and firm faith live on through those who loved him, and through a campaign he launched against the suicide epidemic in young people.
And still grieving for the loss of his brave and beloved son, Fionnbar Walsh has now written a heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting memoir to give Donal a living legacy and to support the Livelife Foundation (www.donalwalshlivelife.org) which was set up in his memory.
Donal’s life might have been short but in sixteen years the boy from an ordinary Irish family who, until his illness were living an ordinary and contented life, overcame daunting hurdles to achieve seemingly impossible goals and an acceptance of his fate.
Facing a cancer that ultimately he knew was terminal, Donal campaigned until his death to increase an awareness of suicide among young people – a scourge of the modern social media age – by trying to communicate to others the sheer joy of being alive.
Donal first came to international attention in Ireland in the months before he died when a letter he wrote, speaking out against suicide in young people, was published in the Irish Sunday Independent.
By this time, Donal had endured years of invasive and painful chemotherapy treatments and operations. He had no choice about dying but he wanted others to see that death is not an answer to problems and with only a few weeks to live, he went on television to speak again about the importance of living and of finding help in times of trouble.
In Donal’s Mountain, his father reveals the boy behind the illness and tells us more about the close bonds he shared with his parents, Fionnbar and Elma, his sister Jema and young friends, his unique outlook on life, how he came to terms with his illness and how he spent his last weeks making as much of a difference to other people’s lives as he could.
All Donal asked before he died was that his parents continue to impart his message about the importance of living life.
A boy with the gift of words and wise beyond his years, Donal wrote: ‘I’ve climbed God’s mountains, faced many struggles and dealt with so much loss. And as much as I’d love to go around to every fool on this planet and open their eyes to the mountains that surround them in life, I can’t. But maybe if I shout from mine they’ll pay attention.’
When Donal died, almost 7,000 people, including the Munster rugby team, attended his funeral in the town of Tralee where every business closed its doors and people got off buses to pay their respects.
Donal’s powerful missive on suicide is now used in schools around Ireland as part of a mental health and suicide prevention programme and his dad has taken up charity cycling – including gruelling mountain rides – to raise money for the foundation set up in his son’s honour.
The book, he says, is Donal’s legacy and a tribute to his brave son ‘who became a man as he journeyed along his road less travelled.’
Reading the book and sharing that journey with Donal and his dad is heart-wrenching… but it is also filled with accounts of amazing people, breathtaking courage and a truly inspirational young man.
(Sphere, paperback, £12.99)