Left to right: Editor, Dr. Frank Ferguson, Dr. Billy Kelly and Professor Robert Welch (advisory editor).
Left to right: Editor, Dr. Frank Ferguson, Dr. Billy Kelly and Professor Robert Welch (advisory editor).

A Portstewart father has written a powerful novel describing his son’s tragic battle with alcohol which ended with his death on the River Bann five years ago.

Professor Robert Welch’s book, ‘Kicking the Black Mamba’, is a powerful, poignant and provocative memoir of a father’s ‘helpless love’ for his alcoholic son.

After three failed suicide attempts, Egan Welch died in a drowning accident near Coleraine in February 2007 at the age of 26.

He left his home in Brook Street at about 6pm on January 27. There was a confirmed sighting of him in the early hours of January 28 in the Loughan area of the town, but he was not seen alive again until his body was recovered from the river.

‘Kicking the Black Mamba’ is, in Prof Welch’s words, “a search for meaning in the death of a greatly loved son”.

A research professor and sometime Dean of Arts and Professor of English at the University of Ulster in Coleraine, he started writing the novel just over two months after Egan’s death, not as a “chronology of misery” but a tribute to a “good man”.

In the book – which, by Prof Welch’s own admission, was ‘a terrifying and exhausting thing to write’ – the author made the brave decision to “lay bare my own experiences of what it is like to live with and to love an alcoholic, to go through the agony of watching someone decline towards what you know is going to be the outcome – death - unless some transformation of the mind and will intervenes.”

Egan’s death came at the end of four years of turmoil for him and his family.

During this time, the young man went through various attempts at rehabilitation, only to succumb to drink again.

At one point, he was drinking more than four bottles of wine a day. He attempted suicide three times.

His parents, Robert and Angela, lived in “a constant state of tension and fear”, desperately trying to help their son but all too aware that their attempts might ultimately be in vain.

“ If I die”,’ Egan wrote in a note to his father, “it is not alcohol that killed me. It’s something else.”

In a narrative which is by turns passionate, raw, haunting and poetic, Prof Welch tells of their ‘helpless love’ for Egan.

Along the way, he confronts some uncomfortable questions, including whether his own indulgent attitude to drink when Egan was young may have helped to pave the way for his son’s alcoholism.

As well as being a ‘martyr to the drink’, Prof Welch writes that Egan was also to some extent “a martyr to the damaged history of Ireland’.

In exploring how his son’s surroundings and upbringing may have contributed to his alcoholism, the author seamlessly interweaves Irish history, mythology and folklore into the story of Egan’s gradual downward spiral.

Poignant and provocative, ‘Kicking the Black Mamba’ is an unforgettable account of the death of a son and of a family’s journey towards this life-shattering event and through its aftermath.

It is a vivid, haunting personal tragedy, set amidst the political and social overtones of a beautiful and unsettled Ireland and against a breathtaking literary backdrop.

And it is a love story - the story of “a boy’s love for his father, and a father’s helpless love for his son.”

Richly literary in its style, scope and references, the multi-layered memoir draws on a broad spectrum of literature through the ages, including Aristotle, Beckett, Coleridge, Conrad, the Bible, Shakespeare, Milton, Egan O’Rahilly, Yeats, Heaney and Wordsworth.

Right: Prof Welch