Moire O'Sullivan: The healing power of the mountains

Following her husband's suicide, elite mountain runner and mother-of-two Moire O'Sullivan found solace and strength by walking in the Mourne Mountains and through the conversations she had there. She has shared her story in a new book, A Quarter Glass of Milk, and tells Julie Diamond of her hopes that it will be a cog in the process of breaking down the stigma around mental ill health

Julie Diamond

Derry-born author and elite runner Moire O'Sullivan captures the beauty and healing qualities of the mountains in her latest book. Picture courtesy of Elite Event Management

DERRY-born author and elite mountain runner Moire O'Sullivan captures the beauty and healing qualities of the Mourne Mountains in her latest book, A Quarter Glass of Milk: The Rawness of Grief and the Power of the Mountains.

Two years ago Moire's beloved husband Pete took his own life, aged 49, following a short illness with depression, leaving behind their two young sons. Her new book portrays Moire's trajectory through grief in the year following Pete's untimely death.

From her home in the foothills of the Mournes in Rostrevor, Co Down, the author explains that she hopes the book will help break down the silence and stigma that exists around talking about mental ill health and suicide.

When Moire lived and worked as a charity worker in Kenya 20 years ago, she remembers a similar atmosphere around HIV and Aids, until "people started talking about it".

"By talking about it they realised behaviours that could be changed, or medications developed, and a solution was found," she explains.

"Hopefully in 20 years we can look back and say, 'Can you believe people actually died from depression? That's kinda crazy isn't?'

"But I think in order to get to that stage we do need to be able to talk about it. Hopefully this book will be one piece of the cog in the bigger process to break the stigma."

The widowed mum is not only an author, with three other books to her name, but has also earned a reputation for herself on the mountain running scene. Her first book, Mud, Sweat and Tears, tells the inspirational story of how Moire became the first person to complete the Wicklow Round - a gruelling endurance run covering 26 of Ireland's most remote peaks - in under 24 hours.

Her second book, Bump, Bike and Baby: Mummy's Gone Adventure Racing, portrays her colourful background in adventure racing, giving a light-hearted insight into the challenges of juggling motherhood with competitive sport.

A Quarter Glass of Milk: The Rawness of Grief and the Power of the Mountains by Moire O'Sullivan

Although searingly honest, Moire's latest prose in A Quarter Glass of Milk is accessible, descriptive and page-turningly conversational. The writer wants to reach out and help others in a similar situation to her family dealing with the impact of mental illness.

"I'm getting a lot of people messaging me saying, 'Thank you because I've gone through loss with suicide and it's so wonderful to know I'm not alone'," she says of the response to the book.

"I know when someone's going through depression, sometimes the last thing they want to do is to pick up a book... but there's part of me that says, 'Maybe if someone picks up the book,'" - she pauses - "'They'll think, 'I'd never want to put my loved ones through something like this.' Maybe..."

For mountain runner Moire, it was the gravitas of the mountains that provided the ultimate healing and helped her through her darkest days.

Replacing her running shoes with walking boots, she slowed down and started walking in the Mournes.

"When Pete passed away, running wasn't actually there for me. I had lots of thoughts and feelings and emotions bottled up in order to keep going and then, when I would go out for a run, they would all keep flooding back," she recalls.

"For A Quarter Glass of Milk, what I wanted to show was that there were two things that helped my grief: there was actually being in the mountains, not necessarily running; and then to be around people who supported me. And that turned out to be the mountain community, people who I didn't even know before Pete died," she reflects.

"Sometimes you have to work out what works and if it's not running try something else," she adds.

Moire O'Sullivan hopes her book A Quarter Glass of Milk will help break the stigma around suicide and mental ill health. Picture by Ian MacLellan

Describing the healing process referenced in the title of her book, Moire says: "Really, it did feel like we had a full glass [when her husband was alive] and it got tipped over with Pete's death, and three quarters of it got lost, and so we're just left with this bit," she explains.

"So what do you do? What do you do when you've just got a quarter left? Do you cry for what's spilt or do you get on with what you've got?"

In the first year after Pete's death, Moire decided to take on the challenge of completing her Mountain Leader award – to allow her to be able to bring people up the mountains and teach them how to explore and navigate the unpredictable terrain safely on their own.

She describes in the book how working towards this award gave her a focus and brought her into contact with like-minded people whilst training in the mountains.

Interest in the Mournes has surged over the past year; in the same way Moire sought solace in the peaks to fill the emptiness of grief, many of us have turned to the mountains for respite and freedom over lockdown.

Moire O'Sullivan on her way to winning the 83km race at Quest Killarney in 2017. Picture by Valerie O'Sullivan

Social media is flooded with images of families, couples and solo hikers from all walks of life taking on the Mournes, and relishing every minute of this majestic wilderness that's on our very doorstep.

"I think the mountains are a really amazing place. There's something about them I can't put my finger on, but you know what you say stays there," she explains.

"The mountains won't judge you, the person that you're with probably won't hear half of what you're saying because of the wind and the rain," she laughs.

"I've had great conversations in the mountains and they've stayed there and I've felt better coming off the mountains.

"We can realise our place in the world. The mountains have been there for millions of years before us and they're going to be there for millions of years afterwards."

Moire O'Sullivan was the first person to complete the Wicklow Round - a gruelling endurance run covering 26 of Ireland's most remote peaks - in under 24 hours. Picture by, courtesy of Elite Event Management

Armed with her Mountain Leader award and over a decade's experience of hard-core mountain running and racing, Moire has set up her own business, Happy Out Adventures, to teach people how to tour the Mournes freely and safely.

"I love to help people to get to the goal they want. I like to just come in, help them with a couple of skills, for them to go off to have their adventure and I feel really proud about that," she explains.

"When you have a bit more self-confidence, which the mountains can give you, then you don't run away [from problems] any more, you go back to the car park and you just go home and you face it."

"I think the outdoors does teach resilience. You can't sit up on top of a mountain and cry and hope someone will rescue you - you have to get down, and I think that the beauty of the mountains inadvertently teaches us that."

A Quarter Glass of Milk: The Rawness of Grief and the Power of the Mountains by Moire O'Sullivan is published by O'Brien Press, £13.99.

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