District of Mayo coroner Patrick O’Connor. ‘Deaths by suicide are extremely difficult but all too common in Ireland today.’ Photograph: Michael Mc Laughlin
Patrick O’Connor, Solicitor and Senior Partner at our firm recently featured in The Irish Times. You can read the below or read the original article here.
With families and gardaí needing answers, Patrick O’Connor conducts several inquests a day to determine how people died
A sombre atmosphere prevails in the coroner’s court in Castlebar, Co Mayo, as coroner Patrick O’Connor conducts several inquests, including into the separate deaths by suicide of two young men and the death of an elderly woman of pneumonia who, a doctor suggests, may have been dead in bed for one or two days before her husband learned she was not just sleeping.
Operating alone without a registrar due to staff shortages, O’Connor, the Mayo county coroner, introduces himself to each bereaved family as they arrive at the time allotted to them for inquests relating to deaths that occurred between six and nine months earlier, and outlines what will be involved.
A pathologist and a Garda Sergeant are present for all inquests with more gardaí and other witnesses attending for the specific death with which they are concerned.
One inquest concerns a man in his early 30s who died by suicide a few days after Christmas 2021. In a statement, a friend said the man had asked him days earlier: “What’s the point of living?” The man had been told by his landlord he would have to leave his accommodation within six months and that came as “a shock” to him, his father said in another statement.
The coroner records a verdict of death by suicide and expresses his sympathies. “Suicide is a great tragedy, it leaves unanswered questions.”
A separate inquest concerns a woman aged in her late 70s found dead in her bed at home on an afternoon in February 2022 by a couple, friends who regularly visited.
The woman’s husband of some 50 years was out shopping when the couple called but, aware the back door may not be locked, they entered the house, went to her bedroom and phoned gardaí when they realised she was dead. Her husband was very distressed when told that news on his return home shortly afterwards.
In a statement, the husband said his wife had been “up and down” for a while, “lived on tablets”, such as codeine and Nurofen, and slept a lot. When he left home that day, he thought she was asleep and had not noticed anything unusual, apart from her having a cold and tummy bug.
He could not recall the last time his wife had spoken to him but said they slept in the same bedroom up to her death.
Dr Fadel Bennani, a pathologist, said a postmortem showed early decomposition and a large bed sore on the woman’s back indicated she had been in the bed for a long time. She had pneumonia and could have been dead for one or two days but it was difficult to pinpoint the time of death.
The coroner found lumbar pneumonia was the medical cause of death and returned a verdict of death by natural causes. Sympathising with the woman’s family and friends, he expressed hope her husband would get whatever services he required to help him cope with the bereavement.
On a number of occasions during the inquests, he remarked it is “long past time” for the HSE to appoint bereavement officers to assist families. Gardaí sometimes have family liaison officers for cases involving trauma such as road traffic accidents but the HSE needs to have bereavement officers for families, he said.
The next inquest relates to a young man, aged in his 30s. Single, employed and described as “very outgoing”, he was found dead at his home, with a handwritten note nearby, after his mother became concerned she had not heard from him for a few days.
His mother was clearly distressed as her statement, which notes her son’s death occurred on the same date of his father’s death some years earlier, was read.
To the sound of muffled sobs, the coroner returned a verdict of death by suicide. Such deaths are “extremely difficult but all too common in Ireland today”, he said. “Suicide leaves an enormous vacuum and enormous questions in people’s minds, I don’t have any answers.”
He sympathised with the family and friends, adding he hoped they will make use of whatever counselling services and help is available and will remember the man “for the good times, not this tragedy”.
Another inquest relates to an elderly retired farmer found by another family member lying on ground close to his home. The man had not been in great health but would not attend the doctor, the coroner is told.
A verdict of death by natural causes, due to cardiac issues, was recorded. The coroner noted people sometimes wonder why an inquest is necessary in such circumstances and explained it was because the man died in a field and not, as most people do, in bed. He observed the importance of people having regular medical check-ups and extended sympathy to the family.
The next inquest concerns a man in his 70s who suffered cardiac arrest some months earlier while attempting to park his car. Family members alerted the emergency services almost immediately and he was rushed to hospital where he was pronounced dead shortly afterwards.
A postmortem found the primary cause of death was a heart attack but the man also had an advanced cancer. A verdict of death by natural causes is returned, with heart attack, not cancer, the medical cause of death.
Expressing sympathy, the coroner told the family: “He would have died quickly with no suffering.”
As he proceeded to the next inquest, the widow of the deceased warmly thanks him for holding it within months of her husband’s death in June 2022 so she could get a State death certificate as the authorities in her husband’s native Romania would not accept an interim death certificate.
“It means a lot for me to the get the inquest completed,” she says.
The inquest is told the woman found her husband, a factory worker aged in his early 40s, barely conscious on the kitchen floor of their home in Ballyhaunis about 1.45am.
She called an ambulance and tried compressions on him while waiting for it to arrive. His last words were: “I can’t breathe, my chest is painful,” she said. The ambulance arrived about 40 minutes later but paramedics could not revive the man.
Her husband appeared fit and healthy but was a smoker for a time and sometimes complained of pain, she said. She made an appointment for him to attend the doctor to have cholesterol and blood tests but he refused to go. In tears, the woman said she was very disappointed the ambulance, coming from Tuam, Co Galway, took some 40 minutes to arrive. “Maybe he could have been kept alive.”
Dr Bennani said a postmortem found the cause of death was ischemic heart disease due to an occluded artery. This was an early death for this condition and raised issues about family screening and checking for cholesterol, he said.
The coroner returned a verdict of death by natural causes as a result of ischemic heart disease due to an occlusive coronary artery.
Whether or not the delay in the ambulance’s arrival would have made a difference, he told the widow that she had done all she could to keep her husband alive, as he extended sympathy to her and the family.
Her children, and perhaps her husband’s siblings, should have cardiac monitoring regularly over the coming years, he suggested.
The next inquest concerned the death in June 2022 of a farmer, a single man aged in his 70s, whose body was found in a water tank on his farm after another family member alerted gardaí when they saw the lid of the tank had been taken off.
The coroner said the medical cause of death was asphyxia due to drowning and the verdicts open to him included accidental death and suicide.
As there was no evidence the deceased intended to take his own life, he concluded the appropriate verdict was an open one and sympathised with the man’s family and friends.
A solicitor for the family thanked the coroner and said they were very thankful to have the inquest held so early in terms of achieving closure.
A DAY IN THE CORONER’S COURT IN CASTLEBAR