‘I wake up every morning and see the sky’

Last month in Tullamore Conor O’Hagan died aged just 25, a musician who had been described as living rough in the town. As his father, Kieran, outlines to Noel Baker, there was much more to his nomadic son...

‘I wake up every morning and see the sky’

CONOR and his twin brother Owen, were born on May 3, 1991, in Manchester, England.

Owen came first but then Conor was a fairly difficult delivery for his mum (Sandra), taking a further two hours and perhaps that was a sign of things to come. 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 (see 22q11ireland.org for more information). This would be a significant factor during the rest of Conor’s short and more latterly, turbulent life.

In Conor’s case, he had some severe physical issues that kept him in hospital for much of the time during his early months, culminating in open heart surgery when he was just six months old.

A cleft palate, which meant he could only be fed by tube, 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.

Despite all of that, he was a happy little boy and there is no doubt there was a charm there and everybody just wanted to cuddle him.

Due to all of his time in hospital and his condition his development was slow. He was at least a year behind in the major milestones, such as walking and talking and there were worries that there would be “learning difficulties” going forward.

After an educational assessment process (“Statementing”), it was decided that Conor could attend a mainstream primary school, but that he would need a full-time teaching assistant. Once at school, he participated in full and was very much a normal boy and had as much fun as his brother and older sister Louise.

In 1996, when Louise was aged seven and the boys five, we decided that we would move to Ireland and to bring them up in the beautiful countryside of West Cork. We moved from a terraced house, with a small back yard, to a four-bedroomed bungalow, with an acre of land, a huge playground for three young children.

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 et al. 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.

When the time came for the boys to go to secondary school, they had to undertake a morning of tests to see what level they were at. Unfortunately, that is perhaps where things started to go wrong.

The new school contacted us to say that Conor was a long way behind his peers and that we would need to meet to discuss a plan of action and additional supports. That meeting took place very quickly but it took two years of stalling, procrastination and inaction by the educational authorities before a decision on the actual support was made and despite a recommendation of full-time support, Conor was allocated just five hours of one-on-one tuition per week.

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.

A recent photo of Conor and his brother Owen.
A recent photo of Conor and his brother Owen.

He performed above expectation in his Junior Certificate, getting five passes if my memory serves me right. The following year though, he barely participated in the Transition Year activities.

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 among adolescents and young adults, there was perhaps more to it.

Things came to a head late in his fifth year at school and he had a mental breakdown. 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.

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.

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 two to three years, he was evicted from one bedsit 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”.

He moved to Galway and spent probably the happiest year of his adult life there, still homeless, still with a major alcohol addiction but I think he was something of a novelty there, with his distinctive hairstyle and guitar by his side. It was a lovely hot summer that year and so it was easier to be outside, he began to busk and he found several people of a like mind to spend his time with.

Later in the year, he managed to find a gaff somewhere near Gort, sharing with a few fellow musicians and drinkers.

However, as his drinking got worse, people began to find him more of a nuisance and the gloss began to fade. From the regular phonecalls and occasional meeting I had with him, I was fairly sure there were mental health issues impacting on his life now too.

At Christmas 2014, he came back to Cork for a few days, leaving the day after St Stephen’s day, this time to travel up the East coast, to find “the love of his life”, who he had met once whilst busking in Galway. I 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”.

In early January 2015, Conor was picked up on the streets of Wexford and was detained under the Mental Health Act. I was able to request for him to be treated at the mental health unit in Cork University Hospital, where he remained for several months.

During his time in CUH, he was visited every day by a member of his family and, given there was such a long time without alcohol and sleeping rough, we saw his physical health improve significantly.

However, his mental state did not. He did not want to take any prescribed medication and would not co-operate with the staff for any of the therapy. In the end, it was decided that short of keeping him permanently restrained and drugged, he could not be helped.

On the day he was let out (April 2015), he took a bus to Dublin and a boat to England. At the time of leaving Ireland, his drink of choice was strong cider. 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. It became clear during this time that he had now moved on to drinking whiskey. By all accounts, he was busking and earning enough to buy himself at least a bottle day.

ON HOLY Thursday of 2016, I received a phonecall 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.

Twins Conor and Owen O’Hagan when they were children. Conor is in the foreground with Owen behind..
Twins Conor and Owen O’Hagan when they were children. Conor is in the foreground with Owen behind..

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. He would need to be on medication for life.

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 started to become restless.

He waited for an arranged visit from his family in England and very soon after he took off again.

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.

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 Station.

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.

As a family, we all agree that homelessness is a scourge, as are the lack of resources for mental health, education, hospitals etc.

We live in a very wealthy country, in a very wealthy world.

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.

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.

I strongly suspect though, 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. He was unique.

Our beautiful son, brother, nephew and cousin.

If anyone wishes to make a donation in Conor’s memory, the family’s preferred charities are 22Q11 (22q11ireland.org) and the Cork Simon Community.

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