September 2, 2014

He was suicidal, threatening to jump from a roof in College Green, and he was taunted and baited for five hours by a crowd that encouraged him for its own amusement.

By Caroline O’'Doherty

First published Irish Examiner 30-08-2014

One fabulously hot morning last month, a man stood on the roof of a building in Dublin City centre, indicating, by his actions if not words, that he planned to throw himself off.

He was at a height of 60 feet, perched precariously on the apex of an ornate ridge, holding onto a flagpole, but occasionally shaking it as if to stop himself getting too comfortable.

He'd lean forward and look to the ground below, before straightening up again, and checking his footing on a ridge so narrow it forced him to tiptoe.

Then, suddenly, he turned his back to the street and let go of the pole, standing like a high diver ready to perform a backward flip, only the grip of his toes keeping him from the drop.

The heat went from fabulous to uncomfortable, the sun burning down with a ferocity that the shirt- less man — whose pale, lean form stood stark again the brilliant blue sky — must have felt intensely.

Below him there were pointed railings, sharp, cornered steps and the cold, hard path. If he came off the roof, there would be street cleaners working overtime to remove the evidence from a wide area.

And yet, that terrible, grisly thought was not the most disturbing aspect of the drama that unfolded over five, tense hours at College Green.

The most disturbing aspect was the crowd that watched.

Not all came of their own free will. There were toddlers in buggies, and schoolchildren led by the hand, presumably because it's a formative experience to watch some-one throw themselves from a building with death as the outcome.

And not all of them stayed very long; some, once they had learned why the crowd had gathered, left.

But there were hundreds who stayed, recording the events on their smartphones, uploading the pictures and video on social media to let friends know they were missing all the excitement, or perhaps keeping them as a memento, of what, exactly, it is hard to say.

There were others who came to advise the assembled emergency services — gardai, fire brigade and ambulance crews — on how to handle the situation.

'Why were there no inflatable rafts on the ground below', they wanted to know? 'There should be inflatable rafts'. 'Or a trampoline'.

'Or nets'. 'Why don't they string nets around the front of the building?' One man clearly had a doctorate in rooftop suicide prevention, and it was very kind of him to take time away from his distinguished academic career to come and assist the clueless crews in the high-visibility vests.

'They need to get a sniper, from the army rangers, up on the Bank of Ireland roof, he pronounced loudly to all who would listen and to some who tried not to.

'You hit him with a plastic bullet or a stun gun and he falls backwards, safely, onto the flat of the roof and then you grab him. It's so obvious. Of course, knowing our army, they'd probably miss.'

At times, the mood grew ugly.

One middle-aged man, who'd manoeuvred his way up close to the garda cordon, took exception when a younger man started filming the crowd.

He wanted to see the action, but apparently didn't want to be seen seeing it. There was a heated, and bizarrely ironic, exchange of views about personal privacy.

The owner of a gruff, slightly slurred voice and a freshly plaster-casted arm joined the crowd and directed his tuppence worth to the man on the roof.

"You owe me for a score last week," he roared. "If you don' to come down, I'll f******g kill you myself." The gruff voice claimed to know to whom he was talking — he knew the man from a spell in Mountjoy, he claimed. On further probing, it was clear he had no idea and was agitating for the sake of it.

He resumed his roaring, prompting another man to suggest that he might not be helping the situation.

The gruff voice took exception to the suggestion.

A garda shouted at him to shut up. Mercifully, he did.

But others didn't, engaging in an admittedly lower-decibel,but-no-less-hateful discussion about the likely motives behind the man on the roof's actions.

He was homeless, seemed to be the common view, and was looking to be housed.

'He'll get a free gaffe, and every-thing, out of this'.

'He'll have an appointment with a counsellor in the morning and doctors for whatever he thinks is wrong with him, and he'll be well-looked-after, while everyone else has to wait their turn.' 'He's holding up the whole city,looking for attention. If he was serious about this, he'd be up the cliffs at Howth.' They stopped when the man, who had taken to pacing the roof, took a determined stride towards the edge and seemed set to jump. "Don't do it," a few anxious voices pleaded.

The rest of the crowd raised their smartphones.

It was a thoroughly depressing experience, notwithstanding the fact that the man on the roof eventually agreed to come down safely.

But it might help silence critics of Joan Burton's plan to introduce short-form death certificates that simply state a person has died.

There will still be long forms for everyone, so there's no intention to hide the number of suicides, or to backtrack on our apparent new openness and understanding of the subject.

But the move will allow a grieving wife, who has to face a bank clerk, the hire-purchase manager down the local car salesroom, a credit union official or a mobile phone shop assistant, with the task of canceling her late husband's accounts and subscriptions, to provide legal proof of his demise without having to meet shocked or awkward eyes that see he died by suicide.

But she shouldn't have to worry about what anyone thinks, the critics argue. We're open and understanding about suicide now. Society doesn't judge any more.

Sadly, that's not what five hours on College Green proved.

It is really frustrating to see so many of our young people emigrating. All these problems, the neglect and exploitation of our young people is now the greatest national scandal of all. Immediate action is called for if major social problems are not to affect many households Letters: Monday » Joan Burton's plan to introduce short-form death certificates will allow grieving families privacy when processing paperwork.