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Book Review

Kicking the Black Mamba: Life, Alcohol & Death by Robert Anthony Welch

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Publisher: Darton, Longman & Todd, paperback

1 of 1 Disturbing but transcendant
Disturbing but transcendant

Named after the Kerry poet Aogán Ó Rathaille (1670–1728) Egan Welch was a charismatic and talented young fellow, and one of four children of the late Robert Anthony Welch, or Bob Welch, who was Professor of English at the University of Ulster in Coleraine. An authority on Irish and Anglo-Irish literature, on George Moore and on WB Yeats, he was a teacher, poet, playwright, arts activist and novelist in English and Irish. Bob passed away in early February, aged 65, after battling cancer since 2009.

Some weeks before the author's death, this compelling 200-page story of his son’s short life appeared. 26-year old Egan died by drowning in 2007 in the River Bann, near Coleraine, following a heavy bout of drinking on top of Antabuse. Antabuse is the prescription drug which causes very unpleasant after-effects if alcohol is taken following its ingestion.

Things had gone seriously wrong in Egan's life. He had endured an unhappy time at school, and failed to be accepted when he tried to change to another school. He also suffered from anorexia. But his life was also about touching instances of generosity, good vibes and talent, as a guitarist and member of a rock band. He excelled at science and was a wizard with electrictiy and computers, he was a mischief-maker and joker too.

After initial success with a web design business, serious business problems arose. He began to feel that his siblings - two brothers and a sister - had done much better in their careers. He broke up with a girl to whom he had been particularly attached, although he was engaged to be married at the time of his passing. There were three suicide attempts. What seems to have particularly shook young Egan to the core was the loss of his best friend, beaten to death outside a nightclub in County Derry.

In his frequently moving 200-page account, the father author takes his son's experiences and tries to make sense of them, by exploring beliefs from different cultures, be they Celtic, Christian, Buddhist or Sardinian. He quotes Coleridge and Wordsworth and his reflections on such quotations show what a great teacher he must have been.

The memoir was not written for therapeutic reasons, but as "a search for meaning in the death of a greatly-loved son." But he also questions and posits answers too as to the reasons why so many young men commit suicide.

Cork-born and raised, the son of a Dunlops worker, Robert Anthony Welch was, by his own admission, fond of alcohol himself. Indeed he doesn’t rule out the possibility that he may have unwittingly encouraged his son in drinking. But he was clearly a deep thinker, a man with the keen, striking perceptions of a poet, as well as being a beautifully-expressive writer.

Alcohol - and a certain amount of drug use too - gripped Egan and wouldn't let go, and the details are heart-breaking. Berating himself for `a self-absorbed and thoughtless life', Bob compares his son’s awful sufferings to those of Christ.

“ I want to say this as simply as possible. I was shown the actuality of Christ in what Egan went through; he was the means whereby the fullest possible clarity of love was revealed to me, in the fullest possible clarity of realisation.”

Some pages earlier, Robert Anthony writes: “And my son felt everything, blamed himself for misfortunes that befell others. He did not, like so many do, play at emotions. He had them. His feeling capacity had the total purity of a saint. Many of us dispose our emotions according to a calculation that we make in which our own advantage gets figured in. There was no trace of that in Egan.” Kicking the Black Mamba is a masterpiece of memoir-writing and the depiction of Egan is one of the greatest memorials a son could have.

Paddy Kehoe

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