'The joy is gone . . . every single thing is a memory, and it hurts': Derry Clarke opens up about his son's suicide
The top Dublin chef opens up for the first time about his heartache over his son's suicide, and tells Andrea Smith how he, his wife and daughter take every day as it comes
'WHEN Andrew was born 17 years ago, it was a wonderful day. I realised that we had our girl and our boy, Sallyanne was well and happy, we had a nice house, and the business was going great. Sure what more could you want from life?"
We're having tea in L'Ecrivain, the gorgeous Michelin-starred Dublin restaurant owned by Derry Clarke and his wife Sallyanne, and the genial chef is looking back on his life. Still reeling from the suicide of his 16-year-old son Andrew, who died on New Year's Eve, Derry is reflecting on how your life can irrevocably change in an instant.
"Sallyanne and I never looked for the big house, flash car or luxury holidays," he says. "We were simple enough, really. We had two great children, and were very happy with our lives, our family and friends, a holiday once a year, and looking after the people who worked with us.
"You try to give your children the best you can in life, and the very last thing you'd want is that they die before you. You'd take anything else. If I went bust tomorrow morning and lost all my money, I'd get over it. The way it is now, half of our main thing in life is gone, but we still have our girl, our Sarah May, and she's really important to us."
Derry (55) grew up in Clonskeagh, as the second youngest of May and Dermott Clarke's four children. His dad was a delicatessen food importer, and his parents separated when he was 10.
He boarded at St George's, a school in Tipperary, now closed, from the age of 12, and used to bring some of the foods his dad was importing back to school and sell them to the other kids – ever the entrepreneur.
"I was almost completely independent from the age of 12," he says. "Back then, there was no contact between school and home during the week, and I went to work in Kinsale every summer, as my aunt Carrie had a shareholding in a restaurant called The Man Friday. I washed up, cleaned the loos and looked after the rubbish for a couple of summers. Then the late Peter Barry, the main owner, got me to wait tables, and I went into the kitchen at around 15. I took to it like a duck to water."
After his O-levels, Derry went to work full-time at the restaurant, where he began acquiring the skills that have made him into the celebrated chef he is today. He would eventually move to Dublin, where he worked in places like Le Coq Hardi, and met his lovely wife Sallyanne Parker through friends in the bar of the Westbury Hotel. She was 22 and he was 27 and he was attracted to "her beauty, her style, her energy, her good humour and her kindness".
They were married in 1987, and opened L'Ecrivain in 1989. Sallyanne left her job at Johnson & Johnson and went to work in the restaurant early on. It was hard work, but they were a winning combination, as Sallyanne's charming front-of-house manner was the perfect complement to Derry's innovative and acclaimed menus.
Their daughter Sarah May was born in April 1990, and Sallyanne worked the lunch shift the day before her birth."I don't know how we managed to start a family at all," laughs Derry. "I used to go in at 8am until midnight, six days a week. We were delighted to have Sarah May, and she was a great kid – very clever and extremely intelligent. She's a mixture of the two of us, I think, as she is very organised, like Sallyanne, and easy-going like me."
With the long hours involved in the business, Derry and Sallyanne had to have live-in help at times. Sarah May always says that her parents had three kids – herself, Andrew and the restaurant. They tried to be there as much as possible though, stealing quality time to spend with their children, and Sundays together were sacrosanct.
Andrew came along six years later in March 1996 – Derry must have had another day off, we joke – and he was another great kid. His passion was cars – he bought his first one at 14 to restore and sell, and he was into rally cross driving and boats. He was a boarder at Clongowes Wood College, and would come home on Sundays, usually with a group of lads in tow to enjoy the benefits of his dad's cooking. He was outgoing and gregarious, challenging at times, like any teen, and full of fun and devilment.
"Andrew had a few 'pow wows' while racing, and Sallyanne used to worry about him," says Derry. "He also smashed his shoulder playing for Clongowes, and that was the end of his rugby career."
Thursday December 27, 2012, is the day that the Clarkes' lives changed forever, when Sallyanne went out to the garage at their Saggart home and found her 16-year-old son unconscious following a suicide attempt. The family and ambulance crew restored his heartbeat, and he was transferred to the ICU in Tallaght Hospital, where the staff were amazing.
Over the following days, his shocked and devastated parents and sister prayed that he would pull through, but sadly, Andrew was officially declared brain-dead on December 31 at 2pm. He was brought down for organ donation at 11.45pm, just as the country was ringing in the New Year. Saying goodbye there to their 6ft 4in fit and healthy baby was the hardest part of all, says Derry, although it is a comfort that his organs were used to help others.
The Clarke family initially said that Andrew had been injured when a car he was working on fell on him, but for two very good reasons that anyone with an ounce of compassion will understand. The story of his suicide was subsequently revealed in the media, shortly after the funeral.
"The headmaster of Andrew's school felt that he couldn't control the situation with his pupils if it got out when they were all scattered," Derry explains. "It wasn't that we were trying to hide what Andrew had done, because we knew that it would all come out in the inquest anyway. I wanted to hold off until the school got back and organised themselves, as I didn't want anyone following him, but unfortunately some of the press wanted to go faster on it.
"The other thing was that, if he had survived, I didn't want a stigma over him, because no matter what people may say or think, there is still a stigma around suicide."
Andrew's death was a devastating blow for the Clarkes, especially as their popular, funny son knew how dearly loved he was. A couple of weeks earlier, his parents had been invited to write letters to him at a Kairos retreat he was attending through school, and Andrew laughed when he saw how many pages were in Sallyanne's letter telling him how much he meant to her. Talking to his dad later, Andrew was still on a high from the experience, and said that he had gone away with his classmates, and they had come back "as brothers". He was aiming to go to Carlow IT to do mechanical engineering, was doing his driving theory test the next day, and had booked to travel to Birmingham to pick up a trophy he won for coming third in the Ginetta Junior, an under-18s' racing championship.
"It makes it all the more mystifying that he did it," says Derry, adding that it seemed to have been an act conducted in a moment of madness. "I think it would have been easier to take if he had died in an accident. Andrew was a well-rounded kid, but it's just that the whole thing went skewed for him in the last couple of months of his life, which is unfortunate. Of course, you only find out these things out afterwards. He met up with the wrong crowd through the motor cars, and that was the problem, basically. It only came to light afterwards, and if we'd known then, we would have had a different way of approaching things."
He adds: "My brother-in-law said to me that Andrew was like a bomb. Five or six things happened to him all in one go, and then ... bang! These things were the people he met, there was definitely some alcohol involved, and I think he felt he had let us down somehow. Also, Andrew had a big faith and he believed in life after death. The inquest hasn't been held yet, and I don't know the details myself yet, as I haven't seen the reports or toxicology results."
Whatever emerges at the inquest won't make it any worse for the Clarkes, as nothing could make their pain any deeper.
Anyone who has ever met Derry and Sallyanne will know that it was never the restaurant or the celebrities who dined in it that the couple spoke about – it was always about Sarah May and Andrew. They recently went together to Sherkin Island and Dingle, which was a bit of a pilgrimage as last summer, Derry and Andrew went there for three weeks together on Derry's two-cabin motorboat. They went on trips together often, as both loved the boat.
Derry admits that he is finding it hard to cope, and is unable to sleep. "It's a nightmare," he says, hesitantly, as this is the first time he has spoken about losing Andrew.
"There is a pain in your head and your stomach all of the time. The joy is gone out of everything and you don't look forward to anything. The last month or two has been the hardest for me, and it's about 10 times worse than right after it happened.
"Every single thing is a memory – photographs, smells, tastes, places – and it hurts. We haven't touched his bedroom. I get a bit envious when I see families with their kids, and I tell my friends with younger children to take more time off work.
"It's a difficult time, actually it's a sh*t time, really. I'm pretty much all over the shop, and so is Sallyanne. Couples grieve differently and at different times, and it's hard sometimes to be strong for one another because we're both suffering so badly. The main thing is that we can't give all our energy to grief because Sarah May is only young, and we want her to have a happy life and a good future. She's precious to us."
While Sallyanne and Sarah May have gone for some counselling, Derry tried one session but didn't get anything from it.
The family are very conscious that they're not the only ones who have lost someone to suicide, and drew comfort from the thousands of letters they received from all over the country.
Even though their hearts are broken, they are still working hard at the business, which has picked up again after the initial fall-off when Andrew died. Many people stayed away or cancelled events out of misplaced kindness, thinking that it would be wrong to hold a celebratory event at L'Ecrivain in the aftermath of such a devastating loss for its owners.
This caused extra worry, as Derry and Sallyanne have 30 loyal staff to keep employed, so the message is that the restaurant is very much open for business as usual.
Sarah May also worked in the restaurant for the past few years, and left recently to do event management. She successfully ran the restaurant section at the recent Taste of Dublin. Like her parents, she was a model of dignity at Andrew's funeral.
"The one thing I would say to anyone who is considering suicide is to think of how the people you will leave behind will feel," says Derry.
"It will ruin their lives forever. If Andrew was to look back now, he'd see that Sallyanne, Sarah May, his granny and myself are all heartbroken, as are his aunts, uncles, cousins and friends.
"His best friend Michael Kelly is really suffering too. You might think nobody loves you, but I guarantee that you don't know just how many people actually care for you, so don't bottle up your feelings.
"Ring Console or Pieta House or any of those organisations who can help, and talk to them."
"Butterflies are a big thing for me," Derry adds. "At the removal, the priest read a poem about butterflies, and the next day, a white butterfly landed on Andrew's coffin. I see them everywhere now."
L'Ecrivain, 109a Baggot Street Lower, Dublin 2. Tel: 01 661 1919, www.ecrivain.com. Contact Console on 01 868 5232 or www.console.ie, and Pieta House on (01) 601 0000 or www.pieta.ie