THE brothers in arms had been through thick and thin together, they had each other’s back, they had each other’s undying friendship. They were tight.
And then Laurie Holton died aged 36.
“Laurie and I were best friends,” says Joe Butler, who lives in Claycastle, Youghal.
“We met through the army. We just clicked straight away because we had so much in common. We did everything together.”
The Cork besties were action men.
“We saw a lot of action in Chad, Liberia and in the Lebanon while serving in the Irish army,” says Joe.
“We had great times and we got to see a lot of places over the years.”
Joe and Laurie had a rare friendship.
“We had a bond. We had great memories.”
Joe lost his best friend and his comrade when Laurie died through suicide on May 17 three years ago.
“I think about him every day,” says Joe.
Now he is taking part in the 70.3 Ironman event in Youghal in August, 2021, for Pieta House.
The new race will join the Ironman event and the Ironkids starting on August 13. The triathlon event is a first for Youghal, with the three events being hosted by the town in one weekend.
“I lost my best friend, Laurie, three years ago, and two very close friends, Stephen and John, to suicide six years ago,” says Joe. “I think about them every day.”
What else does Joe think about?
“I think, how could I have not seen it coming, could I have done more? And why didn’t they come and talk to me?
“These are questions that people like myself ask themselves every day.”
There are more questions than answers.
“With no answers, I am doing Ironman and completing it for everyone who just needs to talk or who needs help.”
We all need a little help from our friends at times.
“It is OK not to be OK,” says Joe, who is a firefighter with the fire service in Youghal and who has good advice to offer people.
“Talk to a friend or a relative; we all need a little help sometimes.”
Joe has signed up for help in his quest to raise funds and raise awareness for Pieta House, which provides free therapy services, counselling and support for those suffering suicidal distress or bereavement due to suicide.
“I am 42 years old, can’t swim very far and I’m unfit! I need a bit of help. I have a coach training with me.”
So the 70.3 Ironman is a big ask?
“It is!” says Joe, laughing.
He is a tough cookie.
“I know I will do it. I take on impossible tasks and somehow get to do them!”
And he has someone on board to row in to help him complete the 70.3 Ironman.
“I’ve got coach John Innes, part of i-Try coaching and course director, on board to help me train for the event,” says Joe.
“We’ve begun training already, concentrating on different zones.”
Will Joe be Ironman-ready next August for the 1.9km swim, the 90km bike ride, and 21.1 run, which make up each segment of Ironman 70.3?
That’s the plan!” says Joe, who is married to Sarah and who is dad to Evan, aged 18, Kayley, aged 14, Ruby aged 13, Tirna, aged 10 and Joe, aged five.
His wing-woman is on board too.
“Sarah is bulking me up with bacon and eggs and chicken. She’s doing all the prepping and the cooking.”
Losing three friends to suicide was never in the plan.
“You tend to blame yourself, but you shouldn’t,” says Joe.
“I miss Laurie and I talk to him every day.”
He misses his dad too.
“Losing dad was tough. Tough on us and on my mother,” says Joe. “I had a rough month losing dad and then losing Laurie. May was a bitter-sweet month.”
“Mam and dad were best friends. They were very fond of Laurie.”
Joe hopes his dad and his friends are in a good place.
“I hope our friends that we lost are all up there together.”
Joe talked to an understanding counsellor in Pieta House when he was hurting after losing his loved ones.
“I rang Pieta House and spoke to a lovely woman who gave me her time for two hours. She helped me through. Pieta House has saved so many people behind the scenes. If he’d known about them, they could have saved Laurie.”
Joe wasn’t aware of Laurie’s problems behind the scenes.
“I was taken up with dad and while I knew Laurie was drinking more than usual, I wasn’t really concerned. Laurie never drank at home and then he began that habit. He might say to me, ‘let’s go to your place and go drinking’, or come to Cork city and we’ll get a few cans’. That wasn’t his usual form.”
Joe, having a strong bond with his best friend, was lying in bed one night when he realised he’d missed some phone calls from Laurie. Something was amiss.
“I was lying in bed after being away with the army in Kilkenny and I got the feeling something was wrong,” says Joe.
“I saw about 100 missed calls from Laurie. My phone had been on silent.”
Joe never spoke to Laurie again.
Laurie was a typical macho man.
“In the army, there is a big macho culture,” says Joe.
“While we had great times in the army, it is a given that you ‘man-up’ — that is the culture. You’re not encouraged to speak about your feelings. You ‘cop on’ and deal with issues yourself. Men can tend to wallow and lock things up.”
How did Joe cope after losing his best friend so soon after losing his beloved dad?
“I went to the gym,” says Joe. “That was the turning point.”
He revisited his past life.
“I became a body-builder in five months four years ago and since I left the army I haven’t really trained. And training for Ironman is a completely different programme to body-building. So I’m starting from scratch!”
But he’s not unfamiliar with Ironman?
“No, I was involved in marshalling for the fabulous event last year and I was honoured to present medals to some of the athletes. That was amazing.”
And he’s familiar with the fitness regime required to go the distance.
“I’ve done a half marathon and a duothlon, a bike and a hike for the Heart Foundation, cycling up Carrauntoohil on the same day.”
And Joe has made his mark before.
“I came second in Mr Cork!”
Ironman 70.3 is a different kettle of fish.
“I have to build up some distance training in the water!” adds Joe.
To be an Ironman, if there is no pain, there’s no gain.
“Yes, there’s a bit of pain involved but that’s OK,” says Joe.
“The first 5km I did on the treadmill, I thought I’d have a heart attack!”
He lives in a beautiful part of the world out in East Cork.
“I’m doing small runs on the beach. I have a training bike and I’ll get a new road bike in January.”
Joe has big plans for his big gesture for Pieta House.
“I’m getting swimming lessons in too. There’s a lot of pool work to be done. It’ll be like winning the Lotto if I come out of the water after the 1.9 km Ironman swim!”
He’s pushing the boat out in his home town.
“I’m thinking of running through town to the Clock Gate in my fireman suit,” says Joe. “I think that would be epic!”
It’s epic that one man’s efforts are going to help so many people.
What do his children think of their mighty Ironman dad?
“My young fellow says, ‘Ah, dad, would you ever stop!”
There is no stopping Joe Butler, who is stepping up to the plate, showing his mettle for a cause close to his heart.
Joe is making a big sacrifice on behalf of Pieta House and on behalf of his friends.
“There’ll be no partying for at least seven months. One party can put you back two days!”
Joe knows that even the impossible is possible.
“In January, I’ll be going hell for leather!”
His wing-man would be proud.
Pieta House provides free therapy for those engaging in self-harm, with suicidal ideation, or bereaved by suicide.
Ireland has the 17th highest rate of suicide in Europe and the fourth highest in young men aged 15 to 24.
Pieta House, Shanakiel, Sundays Well Cork
Phone: 021-4395333. Open Mon-Fri 8am-6pm. Saturday 9am-2pm.
To donate: https://www.gofundme.com/f/suicide-awareness-and-pieta-house