Nunday or: In Praise of Listowel

I was hoping to have a piece about Nunday published, but writing it after the event made it unlikely. Lesson learned I suppose, but I was there to make a video, which I’ll post soon. This is an opinion piece, I don’t do many so it was fun, such a different style to my usual articles. Hope you enjoy it.

It’s raining, that song about going to Amarillo is booming out over a loudspeaker and a strong wind whips around Emmet’s GAA ground. There are also some 1,600 people dressed as nuns. Listowel does a fine line in the surreal.

Hours earlier the same nuns, male and female, made their way around the town, preparing for a world record attempt, most nuns in a single place at the same time. The rules are strict, by the end of the attempt almost two hundred are turned away.

The reason for all this strangeness is a couple who lost their son. He took his own life. Cora and Martin O’Brien have taken what must be the most awful thing to happen to a parent and issued a call to arms, or habits. The entire town seems to have taken to the idea with gusto.

Watching men not only don habits, but wear lipstick and eye shadow, the fun of dressing up and gathering together is obvious. Harder to quantify is the support for Martin and Cora, but it is there. One man seems irked when asked if he’s just using the event as an excuse to dress up. He proceeds to talk at length about mental health. The message has gotten through.

For Cora, that support wasn’t always there; “I did find that people walked away from me, but after a while I put that down to issues that they might have had. I don’t take any notice of it anymore.”

Cora puts the stigma surrounding suicide down to the fear people have of the subject. “I think they’re afraid that if they talk about it it’ll encourage somebody else to do it. There are a lot of taboos that need to be broken. Just because you talk about suicide doesn’t mean that somebody is going to take their own life. I think talking about it might help people not to do that.”

Days before the event local publican and journalist Billy Keane confessed to his own suicidal thoughts, which he came close to following through, twenty years ago. He took up MC duties for Nunday, but felt that before participating he should be honest about his own experiences.

Keane spoke about how difficult it was for him to talk about considering taking his own life. “I found it very hard and I’m used to the public eye. It’s tough, it would be tough no matter when.”

His confession, to having prepared the means for his own death before backing out at the last minute, is testament to the effect of Nunday. Around the country other events in aid of suicide prevention and breaking the stigma surrounding mental illness have been happening with increasing regularity, but Nunday stands out.

It’s not the outfits, nor the silliness of it all, because it is rather an absurd idea. It is the incredible response. With the record being shattered by over 1,400 nuns, over 200 being turned away and a few hundred others in plain clothes, at least half the population of Listowel arrived to show their support.

As the media outside the community revel in the absurdity, and Anna Nolan questions whether dressing up as nuns is a feminist issue, perhaps the point is being missed. The habit may be a fun idea, there may be music and dancing and joking, but there’s also talking.

People are talking about suicide, about mental illness, about why they think it is so important to be part of Nunday. Not just the fun of the occasion, it is because the event is in aid of Pieta House, a free crisis centre and counselling service for people feeling suicidal.

The hope is that Pieta House will open a centre in Kerry. Two centres currently offer counselling, in Dublin and Limerick, with a third due to open in Cork. This means a person feeling suicidal in Kerry has to travel quite far to find help, Cora explains.

This is an entire town, an entire community united with a singular goal, and really, it’s nothing to do with breaking a world record. People have embraced the event to show that suicide prevention is something they feel is incredibly important.

Listowel, Cora says, is a town which has been affected by suicide and self-harm; much of rural Ireland has been. “We’ve had huge community support; they’ve donated time, money and energy into this. I think it’s because of the charity, they’ve really come out to try break the taboo of the subject”

She just wants to make a difference, and hopes that what happened to her son doesn’t happen again to anyone else.

Her efforts may just achieve that. While every suicide is different, Nunday has at least shown that the people of Listowel are receptive and understanding, that they care and most importantly, that it’s ok to talk. It is an example that the rest of the country would do well to follow.

Contact Pieta House on (01) 601 0000 or email

2 Responses to “Nunday or: In Praise of Listowel”
  1. I must go and see the video now. This is a great entry, James. It’s wonderful to read about Martin and Cora and the determination of the community to open their hearts and fight stigma and fear. And of course getting to dress up as nuns. What a beautiful idea.

    There is a small rump of society that would still enforce stigma but concept art like this (and it sounds like great fun!) is a powerful way of saying NO to stigma, fear, prejudice and repression. Congrats on a great idea and respect to Martin and Cora and so many other parents and families for their courage.

    • James says:

      It really was a wonderful sight to see a community come together like that. Genuinely moving, and I hope a sign that taboo and stigma are being left in the past where they belong.

      And yes, it was great fun. But they were out of habits long before I got to Kerry so I missed out on dressing up!

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