Conor O'Hagan (foreground) as a child in West Cork
As the Offaly Express reported, Conor O'Hagan was just 25-years-old when he died last week in Tullamore, and now his father, Kieran O'Hagan, has spoken to us to share his son's story.
Conor had been seen in Tullamore in the last few months of his life, and the talented musician often busked in the town centre and at open-mic nights. Sadly, he had been hospitalised due to the effects of sleeping rough, and passed away early last week.
His father, however, has said Conor “hated being called homeless.” “Conor was not a typical homeless person, if there is such a thing. There was far more to it than that. He was a travelling man,” Kieran O'Hagan said.
Mr O'Hagan also cast doubt on the adequacy of services that would have been required to deal with his son's situation. “As a family, we all agree that homelessness is a scourge, as is the lack of resources for mental health, education, hospitals, etc.”
“We live in a very wealthy country, in a very wealthy world,” he stated. “However, until the model changes, or is changed, and we move to a society that cares primarily for its people, and is based on human decency and kindness, then I suspect there will be many more people who die on our streets or take their own lives,” he added.
He went further in saying, “and maybe, if we lived in that world, back when Conor came to Ireland, and all of the supports were in place from day one, and he was not made to feel different to others, then maybe the outcome would have been better.”
Despite this, Kieran O'Hagan said that his son was “unique,” and that he “strongly suspects that Conor would still have been a nomad, with his own view on things and a lifestyle that many of us would not want or understand.”
Conor spent much of his youth growing up with his family in Cork during a typical family upbringing, and indeed, the photograph accompanying this article is Conor O'Hagan playing with his twin brother, Owen, in their bedroom at home in West Cork in the 1990s.
Owen was born first but Conor was a difficult birth and didn't arrive for two more hours. "Within a few more hours, it was clear something was not right and very soon after, Conor was diagnosed with what was then called Di George Syndrome, a very complex genetic condition. This would be a significant factor during the rest of Conor's short and more latterly, turbulent life," his father explained.
Conor had some severe physical issues that kept him in hospital for much of time during his early months, culminating in open heart surgery when he was just 6 months old. He also had a cleft palate, which meant he could only be fed by tube, and this also had to be repaired with an operation when he was very young and "it is fair to say that his early years were very tough for him," his father said "Despite all of that though, he was a happy little boy and there is no doubt there was a charm there and everybody just wanted to cuddle him," Mr O'Hagan continued.
"In 1996, when Louise, the boys' sister, was 7 and the boys 5, we decided that we would move to Ireland and bring them up in the beautifully countryside of West Cork. We moved from a terraced house, with a small back yard, to a 4 bedroomed bungalow, with an acre of land, a huge playground for 3 young children," Kieran remembered.
"Conor was showing no ill effects from any of his surgeries, though there would continue to be relatively minor issues with his teeth and ears, again related to 22Q11. The school had said he did not need extra assistance and though we were sceptical, I guess we were also pleased that his life was now very normal. He still had regular hospital appointments, speech therapy, the odd minor operation, but he played just like his brother and sister and had as many friends and whilst his homework always took him longer, with a fair bit more input from his mum and dad, he appeared to be holding his own in that respect. Those were happy times for them - a new adventure, new school, new friends."
"The boys were just the best of mates, thick as thieves, and a sister to tease and torment to boot! Conor had developed a really cheeky sense of humour and it was difficult to ever be cross with him for long if he had been bold. There are so many photos albums from those times that clearly show a very happy, playful and normal boy," Kieran recalled fondly.
Conor's new school soon pointed out that Conor was falling behind his peers, and a meeting to discuss extra tuition was set up. Although full-time support was recommended, Conor received five hours one on one tuition per week, his father said. "Unfortunately, by this point, Conor had become aware that he was struggling in lessons, he had formed friendships in classes he did not want to leave, he was more grown up and independent, and most of all, he did not want to be treated differently to his peers.
Whilst Conor did not want to have the support, it definitely helped him from the point of view of his education. He performed above expectation in his Junior Certificate, getting 5 passes if my memory serves me right. The following year though, he barely participated in the Transition Year activities," Mr O'Hagan stated.
"From that point he spent less and less time with his family and his friendships began to dwindle. He became almost obsessive about Heavy Metal Music and stayed in his room as much as possible. He started to care less about himself and his personal hygiene. All of these things could be seen as 'typical teenage' behaviour, but with Conor having Di George, where there is a higher prevalence of mental health issues amongst adolescents and young adults, there was perhaps more to it," he continued.
Things came to a head late in his 5th Year at school and Conor had a mental breakdown, according to his father. "We decided to take him out of school and through the HSE, we set up regular appointments with a Psychiatrist and Psychologist. The consensus there was that Conor was certainly different but that he showed no signs of serious mental health problems. I must admit, we found that hard to comprehend."
His father says that when Conor turned 18, he refused to continue to attend any therapy and he left home, "though we still remained close and in constant contact," Kieran told us. "We were able to set him up for Disability Allowance (due to Di George) and Rent Allowance and he rented a room in Cork City. He began to drink heavily and soon, it was rare to see him or talk to him when he was not very drunk. His life descended into chaos and it was not possible to get him to see where it was heading."
In the following 2-3 years, he was evicted from one bed sit after another before deciding that he did not need a home. "Not long after making himself homeless, the Occupy Cork protest commenced and Conor spent many nights with the people there and undoubtedly enjoyed the camaraderie and friendships he made. After that campaign ended, whilst he really missed the kinship, several people who also lived 'alternative' lifestyles stayed in touch with Conor and I think influenced his thoughts to be 'under the stars.'
UNDER THE STARS
Conor then started to move around the country and spent time in Galway, before returning briefly to Cork around Christmas 2014, and his father admits at that time, he "was shocked at how much he had deteriorated" since last seeing him but "he was adamant he was going to continue his life as a travelling man." Conor also spent time in Wexford where he was picked up under the mental health act. When he was "let out" in April 2015, he took a bus to Dublin and a boat to England.
"After arriving in England, Con met up several times with his mother, brother and sister, who had all now moved back to Manchester. He then decided to travel down to London and then on to France, Belgium the Netherlands and finally Germany. We still spoke on a regular basis, though he was nearly always incoherent," Kieran O'Hagan recalled.
On Holy Thursday of 2016, Kieran received a phone call from a hospital in Bochum (near Dortmund) in Germany. Conor had been in ICU for two weeks with heart problems and pneumonia. "I travelled to Germany the next morning and was horrified to see him in such a poor state of health. I was told by the doctors that he was lucky to be alive and that he needed to spend several weeks in hospital and needed MRI scans to assess the full damage."
"After a couple of weeks, I was able to bring him back to Cork, where he was admitted to the Coronary Care Unit in the Mercy Hospital. All of the relevant scans were done and the news was not good. He was in heart failure. He was told, in no uncertain terms, that he would be dead within a year if he did not change his lifestyle."
Knowing that Conor needed a huge incentive to stay in Cork and to change his lifestyle, his uncle Geoff, who was single, was also a musician and fellow smoker and who had a recording studio set up at home, stepped into the breach. "The only rules that were laid down were: medication every day, regular showers and NO drink. If Conor followed them and put his songs to paper, he would be recorded. Things went well for a few weeks but he then started to become restless. He waited for an arranged visit from his family in England and very soon after he took off again," his father revealed.
"Within two weeks, he was back in hospital again, though this time with very severe psychotic episodes, believing he was being attacked by various people from his travels, which must have been very dark at times. It was truly awful to see and must have been terrifying for him. He was once again detained under the Mental Health Act, only to refuse to co-operate again. Every day I had heartbreaking conversations with Conor. Every day his answer was the same. He wanted to be free. He wanted to have his whiskey and live under the stars, to 'follow the sky', which as anyone who knows Conor also knows, was his mantra and one of the lyrics in many of his songs."
HIS FINAL DAYS
Kieran O'Hagan continued to outline the last few heartbreaking months and days of his son's life, the months that saw him eventually find "his spiritual home" in Tullamore:
"He struck off again, heading initially to the town that my own family were from, Lurgan, Co. Armagh, where he was hospitalised again, this time in Belfast, then he returned to Galway City and then Gort again. He went back to his old house for a couple of months but got itchy feet once more and headed to Tullamore to find 'The Dew.' He spent his last couple of months there, met some obviously very decent people, was shown amazing kindness and found his spiritual home under The King Tree."
"Once again, I got a call to say he was in hospital, this time from a Sergeant at Tullamore Garda Staion. When I arrived at the hospital the following morning, I knew he was living on borrowed time. Again I had the same conversation. He had to change. He said to me, 'Dad, go and see where I live, I wake up every morning and see the sky. I have my guitar, I have my whiskey, why would I want to change that.' Conor was a free spirit, he lived life the way he wanted to live it."
"Sadly, that was my last real conversation with Conor as very soon after, he was sedated and placed on a ventilator. But, having visited 'The King Tree' and met some of the people of Tullamore who had spent time with him, especially those that looked out for him, I can see what he meant."
On February 20 at 12:30am, Conor died peacefully in the ICU at Tullamore Hospital, after two weeks on a life support machine. His family were with him and his guitar lay by his side.
"Whilst he came across some very kind people during his travels in Ireland and Europe, as a family we were all extremely touched by the enormous kindness shown to him by the people in Tullamore. There will always be a sadness when I think of the town but it is also one that I will always hold close to my heart."
“He was unique. He was our beautiful son, brother, nephew and cousin,” Conor's father concluded.
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