This article includes discussion of sexual assault and attempted suicide.
Many students have overcome significant challenges to reach their desired field of study in Trinity. But few have faced as many as Mick Finnegan (37), who this year started a four-year undergraduate degree in Philosophy, following a year in the Trinity Access Program. In his life, Mick endured child sexual abuse while volunteering in St John Ambulance, as well as homelessness and a litany of mental health issues, culiminating in two suicide attempts. His story is one of resilience, and is a testament to the power that love and human connection have to heal us.
Mick grew up in “the flats” in Crumlin, in an area in which “heroin was a massive problem” and which didn’t offer many opportunities to its young people: “I was a messer in school, and my teachers would tell me ‘you’ll end up in Mountjoy like the rest of your family.” Mick says that with his background, criminality was nearly expected, and the idea of him attending university seemed a far-flung notion.
Mick’s grandad was the caretaker of the local community centre in which St John Ambulance would have their weekly meetings. Mick was 12 when he joined the Ambulance. He loved the uniforms, he loved being a part of the organisation, and he loved the free entry into the RDS and Croke Park. “I bought into it all, and I loved it.” However, during his first two years of service he was being groomed by a senior member of his division of the organisation: “He was grooming me, to sexually abuse me, and ultimatley rape me,” he said. The senior officer would use first aid exercises to have Mick touch him inappropriately. This escalated to Mick being forced to masturbate the man, and, ultimately, to being violently raped.
Mick was left shocked and terrified by what had happened. He eventually reported the abuse to “a local Guard, who was well-meaning, but he struggled to have a serious conversation around that kind of stuff, and was uncomfortable with it. He did a fantastic job and helped me, but the DPP chose not to prosecute this guy.” Mick faced a wall of denial and disbelief all around him. “Nobody believed me, nobody believed this had happened to me,” he said. A recent Tusla investigation concluded that the allegations made by Finnegan and other victims of the senior member were founded, but the man, now in his 80s, has not been charged to date.
“My mind was all over the place at the time, for me that time in my life was about survival.”
Mick was left traumatised by the abuse he had endured, which contributed to a breakdown in his family home. He left home around age 17 and was homeless on the streets of Dublin for the following four years. Mick was not conscious of what the roots of his mental distress were at this point. “My mind was all over the place at the time, for me that time in my life was about survival.”
Mick says his life consisted of simply getting through each day, and he did this for years on end. “It was hell… it was horrible, I remember people would be coming out of Lillie’s Bordello on Grafton Street late at night, and I’d wake up to them pissing on top of me.” He says his years spent homeless “took their toll” on his body.
After four years, Finnegan managed to secure a place in a supported housing unit. He was helped by Father Peter McVerry, as well as Howard Russell, a Salvation Army worker. He was starting to put the pieces of his life back together.
He stood on the side of London Bridge for four hours in a standoff with the Metropolitan Police, shutting down the entire London transit system.
He moved to London while in his early twenties, to work in homeless services, as he felt Dublin had “too many painful memories” for him. However, his mental state continued to deteriorate in the new city. This deterioration eventually led to what Finnegan describes as a “total breakdown”, when he stood on the side of London Bridge for four hours in a standoff with the Metropolitan Police, shutting down the entire London transit system. The incident was plastered all over the UK media. The police believed Finnegan had a gun, and did not want to approach him, so they called his old friend who had originally helped him off the streets in Dublin, Howard Russell. Upon seeing Mick in his distressed state on the edge of the bridge, Russell walked out and said to him, “I love you… I don’t want you to jump”.
Finnegan was visibly emotional when repeating those words. “I never….like…would have heard those words before, that someone cared about me and loved me,” he said. Upon hearing Russell’s plea, Mick broke down crying on the side of the bridge and was brought immediately to hospital.
This marked the beginning of Finnegan’s journey through mental health services in the UK, and to his eventual recovery. He found the combination of medication and therapy that helped him cope with his mental health issues. He realised that confronting his past, in particular the sexual abuse he had endured in St John Ambulance, helped free him from the guilt and shame that he had carried about it since childhood. “Nobody wants to talk about sexual violence, there’s a lot of shame attached to it, and you feel to a degree as if it’s your fault.” Mick adds: “The reason why I had suicidal tendencies was because of the trauma that I was experiencing, because I wasn’t talking about how I felt. I found a real power and healing once I confronted those parts of my past.”
“I wouldn’t be sitting here today if it wasn’t for the love and kindness of others”
The success Mick has achieved from that point in his life is remarkable, even without regard to the obstacles he has overcome in his life. He is the founder of State of Mind Rugby Union charity that works to improve the mental health of rugby players and rugby communities. Mick has travelled as far as Brazil to develop the game at a grassroots level on behalf of Premiership Rugby. He was appointed a National Advisor at the Royal College of Psychiatrists in London, and is a Mental Health Peer Support within the Southern Trust, to help guide mental health policy for addressing the needs of patients similar to himself. He is also part of the leadership team for the Trinity Ability Co-op, a student-run collaborative initiative housed in the disAbility Hub in Printing House Square.
Finnegan attributes his survival of the darkest days of his life partly to his resilience, which he says he developed while homeless on Dublin streets, when he had to constantly focus on surviving the day, every day. He also credits the kindness of others, and the power of human love and connection. “I don’t think we really understand the value of that, as human beings,” he said. “I wouldn’t be sitting here today if it wasn’t for the love and kindness of others. Kindness is key.”