Cork mother who lost three sons to heroin speaks about the drug that 'poisoned' her family

Cork mother who lost three sons to heroin speaks about the drug that 'poisoned' her family
Carmel Kidney at her home in Ballincollg. Carmel lost three sons to heroin. Picture Dan LInehan

Carmel Kidney sits in the front room of her Ballincollig home, beside photos of three of her sons, who have all lost their lives to heroin.

It is the same room where the three men were laid out in their coffins after each died from heroin overdoses.

The mum of six is haunted by the memory of having to wake all three sons in her home because the family could not afford to use a funeral home.

Today, all three — twins Fergus and John, and her eldest son Alan — lie in one grave in St Oliver’s cemetery.

The grave is just five minutes’ away from the home they grew up in with their parents, two sisters and one brother.

The three died in less than three years, all from heroin overdoses.

John was the first to die, on September 10, 2014 at the age of 37.

John Kidney.
John Kidney.

Less than two years later, on June 26, 2016, his twin Fergus died at the age of 39. Carmel says he had been swamped with grief for his beloved brother.

Almost a year later, Alan died on June 13, 2017. He was 44 and had been her firstborn child.

She is speaking about her heartbreak in a bid to help prevent other deaths from the deadly drug.

She says: “I call it (heroin) poison. Do not take poison because it will poison you. They (heroin users) think they are fine but it is their breakfast, dinner and tea — it becomes their food.”

When she looks at photos of her boys after they had become users of heroin, she is keen to point out how unwell they looked.

Each death was a bolt from the blue for Carmel, who never expected that she would survive three of her six children.

As a result, the financial costs that accompanied her grief were also unexpected as she had not contemplated ever having to put aside money for funerals for not just one of her sons, but for three of them.

The bereavement grant was discontinued in 2014 and could not be claimed for any deaths after January of that year.

Alan Kidney.
Alan Kidney.

Low-income families may be able to claim an Exceptional Needs Payment for funeral costs. All applications are means-tested.

Funeral debt

Carmel did get €1,500 for each funeral but said it did not cover much of the overall costs, including the grave and the coffins.

She says: “I got into debt for the three funerals. I had to wake them all at home in my sitting room.”

When they died, all three were living in Bandon and bringing each of them to Ballincollig for their wakes and funerals was bringing them back home.

She recalls the sight of each of their coffins being brought in the pathway to their childhood home — a sight unnatural to see once, never mind three times.

Carmel is extremely grateful to a Dublin businessman, Tony O’Brien of Irish Crafted Headstones, who she never met but who heard of her sons’ deaths and donated a headstone for their grave in St Oliver’s cemetery.

She says that when the grave was bought for John, it was never imagined that he would be shortly joined there by Fergus and Alan.

After the deaths, she also had to attend inquests to determine how they died. Alan’s was the most recent, held in Bandon in February 2018.

At that hearing, coroner Frank O’Connell said he had never seen “anything the likes of this”.

He had seen Alan give evidence at the inquests into his brothers’ deaths. He had identified both of them after their deaths. The twins’ inquests were held together.

John and Fergus had been sharing an apartment in Bandon while Alan had been staying with an aunt in the town when he died.

Fergus Kidney.
Fergus Kidney.

At Alan’s inquest, the pathology report revealed the presence of methadone, heroin, alprazolam and carbamazepine in his system.

The report highlighted that heroin had been present in a potentially lethal range. A syringe was also found near him.

Despite the pain of losing John, Fergus and Alan, Carmel smiles often when talking about them.

Proudly, she says the three of them worked for the same meat company. The twins were boners and Alan was a delivery man for the company.

She says: “They were hard workers.”

Carmel is strong in her belief that heroin ruined not just their lives and their commitment to family and work, but it also ruined the lives of those around them.

Every day, as she goes around the home in which she reared her family of six children, she still feels the presence of her dead sons. Even though she grieves so much for them, she says there is almost a relief that they are no longer in the throes of drug use.

She says she knows where they are and they are safe.

Carmel adds: “They are out of their pain. They used to get seizures from withdrawal from heroin but they are not getting any more of them and they can wake up with God.”

She believes strongly in God and hopes she will be reunited with her beloved sons again one day.

And she says: “I know I get my strength from my boys and from God. I know they are around me.” She adds: “I talk to them all the time.”

But for now, she misses them terribly.

The memory of seeing them dead will never leave her.

The grave of brothers John, Fergus and Alan Kidney, who all died of heroin overdoses
The grave of brothers John, Fergus and Alan Kidney, who all died of heroin overdoses

She prefers to be able to look at the photos of her three boys and remember the closeness they all enjoyed.

She wants to ensure that no other family has to endure what the Kidneys have gone through because of heroin.

Carmel is horrified at the thought of supervised injecting facilities being introduced in Cork, believing that harm reduction measures such as those, and needle exchange programmes, make it easier for addicts to continue to use heroin.

She recalls finding a needle kit belonging to one of her sons and was horrified to see instructions with it on how to safely inject heroin.

She believes that if needles were not readily available to heroin users, Alan, Fergus and John would all be still alive.

Carmel says: “I feel strongly against the provision of needles. I believe I would have my boys if they did not use needles.”

She is adamant that money spent on harm reduction would have been better spent on tackling addiction and on helping families like hers when they are hit with sudden financial hardship arising out of drug-related deaths.

Carmel also feels there is a need for the education of young people about the dangers of drugs, especially heroin.

In the time since her sons have died, she has seen abandoned needles near her own home, and is horrified by how many people are using the drug, despite its deadly and addictive nature.

She is angry that children are being tempted into drug use at a very early age.

She says children need to be taught in schools about the dangers of the drug, adding: “Let them see what it is doing, and how young boys and girls are being damaged. The younger they are educated, the better.”

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