Sarah Louise McCall's songs are inspired by tragedy
Newry schoolgirl Sarah Louise McCall is releasing a CD to raise awareness and funds for a suicide charity. By Ivan Little
She was just eight years old when her life was turned upside down by the tragic death of her cousin who was also one of her best friends. Sarah Louise McCaul was too young to fully comprehend the enormity of it all and her relatives agonised over whether or not to tell her about the exact circumstances of her cousin's passing.
For Niamh Louise McKee, from Clonmore near Dungannon, had taken her own life and it was only after consulting Sarah Louise's primary school headmaster that her family decided she should know the truth about the devastating suicide.
Almost eight years have gone by since Niamh's death and, while Sarah Louise still misses her beloved cousin, she has shown a maturity far beyond her years to produce a fitting memorial and tribute to her.
The multi-talented Newry schoolgirl, who has been keen on music for as long as she can remember, has recorded a CD – mostly of her own songs – not only to raise money for a charity set up in Niamh's memory but hopefully also to make more people aware of the ever growing nightmare of suicide across Northern Ireland.
Niamh's mum, Catherine McBennett, will also be speaking about the tragedy for this Wednesday's special event Women with Extraordinary Stories, at Dundonald Library, which is being held as part of this year's One City One Book programme.
Communicate, one of the songs which is also the title of Sarah Louise's CD, was inspired by her grief in the wake her cousin's death. It's a haunting song about loss and longing for someone who's gone, a composition which is all the more striking because it was written by Sarah Louise when she was only 12.
She says: "Initially I didn't know how Niamh had died. The fact that she had passed away was enough of a shock to me. I don't remember asking too many questions about what had happened but then I was told about Niamh taking her own life.
"To be honest, I don't think I completely understood what it meant. I never thought that anyone would do what she did. But it made me aware of suicide and as I went through secondary school, I realised more and more that it was a real problem here.
"You hear more about it as you grow up and while I haven't lost any of my friends I do know of people who have taken their own lives.
"I also know teenagers of my age who have mental illnesses and I can understand them. I wouldn't judge anyone. That has been built into me.
"If I ever see someone who is suffering I can relate to them. And if they want to talk to me about their difficulties, I tell them about my own experiences, though I wouldn't push myself on them because it is such a touchy subject."
It took years for Sarah Louise to come to terms with the totally unexpected death of her cousin who had also been a gifted singer actress, artist and musician, a girl who had everything to live for but who took her own life in November 2005, even though her family said she had shown no signs of depression.
Niamh was 15 at the time of her death, just one year younger than Sarah Louise is now. Despite the seven year age gap the two cousins were extremely close.
Sarah Louise, a pupil at St Paul's High School in Bessbrook, says: "Niamh had been my friend. She would have influenced me a lot in life. She taught me music and dances and acting. I used to watch her and listen to her as she sang and it had a massive impact on me. She was my big cousin and I would have looked up to her."
It wasn't until four years after Niamh's death that Sarah Louise wrote Communicate. "I think it was part of my grieving process. I can recall that Mum bought a new piano for the house and she put a picture of Niamh on top of it. And I wrote the song there and then."
Sarah Louise's mother Brenda recalls: "It was the first time after the death that we'd had a picture of Niamh up in the house. It was so difficult for us.
"And I remember that almost immediately after the picture went up on the piano, Sarah Louise just started to play. I don't where the song Communicate came from. It was maybe somewhere in her subconscious."
Sarah Louise can't remember giving a lot of thought or time to the song. She says: "I didn't sit down to write it. It just came to me. And I never imagined that anyone other than my family would ever hear it.
"But as the years went on, I thought more and more about trying to get some money together for the Foundation and I thought about making a CD with Communicate on it."
Initially Sarah Louise had no idea about how to go about getting an album recorded or released. But then serendipity took a hand as a local man, Wes Taylor, who had been in a choir with Niamh, offered to make the album at his recording studio for Sarah Louise who has helped out with the work of the Niamh Louise Foundation, the suicide awareness charity set up by Niamh's mother Catherine McBennett and her husband James.
The Foundation, which started in a small way in 2006, is now one of the biggest organisations here providing suicide awareness, prevention, intervention and post-vention across Armagh and Tyrone, particularly in rural areas where officials say one of the main problems facing them is the fear people there have of being stigmatised.
Sarah Louise is passionate about spreading the word about the foundation's work in the community and she has also sung at various events organised by the organisation.
"I want to promote the CD as much as I can. I hope it can help with the finances of the foundation but I also want it to get people thinking and talking about suicide and what can be done to tackle it.
"It's something that seems to be becoming more and more prevalent all over Ireland so it's a good time for the CD to be released because I think that people really do need to see what is going on around them."
It has also been a highly personal journey for Sarah Louise. "I have written on the sleeve that the compilation of songs is dedicated to my cousin Niamh who is always in my thoughts," says Sarah Louise, who wants to make a career in music.
"It's something I love. I play the guitar, the violin and the piano plus the African drums in a club at school. I'm also doing singing exams, and I go to drama classes outside school.
"I would like to do music at university and keep it as a hobby as well, playing gigs around Newry and the like."
But, unusually for a modern-day teenager, Sarah Louise has no dreams of finding stardom on the likes of the X Factor or The Voice TV series.
"I don't really do music for the fame of it," she insists. "I will maybe become a music teacher but I would ideally like to be a songwriter with other singers recording my work."
Sarah Louise has been writing songs since she was six years old. "I remember I was sitting in my child-minder's garden when the idea for my first song came to me. And I've been writing ever since."
Unsurprisingly, Sarah Louise's mother Brenda is proud of her daughter's achievements.
She says: "Niamh's death has had a major impact on Sarah Louise's life. The two of them enjoyed each other's company and they were forever singing and dancing.
"Niamh's death was a hard time. It was difficult for us to explain everything to Sarah Louise. We didn't have a notion about what effect it would have on a young mind and in the end we only went on what other people were telling us to do."
Brenda hasn't been surprised, however, by Sarah Louise's use of music to remember her cousin and to help the foundation.
She says: "She's been writing songs and poems from when she was no age. She was brought up with music all around her but the songwriting is her own thing entirely.
"And she has evolved greatly as a writer down the years. She has matured immensely and she's already working on a second CD of her own songs which are very different from Communicate."
For more information about Sarah Louise's CD, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Hear Catherine's moving story next week
• Niamh's mother, Catherine McBennett, will be talking about the charity's work to author Lucy Caldwell at Dundonald Library on Wednesday, May 22, at 6.30pm as part of the One City One Book 2013 programme
• Lucy's novel, All the Beggars Riding, is the chosen book for this year's OCOB
• The book follows a young woman as she tries to uncover the truth about her Northern Irish father's hidden past, following his death in a helicopter crash
• Lucy got involved with the Niamh Foundation after her mother sent her a cutting of a newspaper article on the teenager's tragic death
• Lucy had just won the £10,000 George Devine award for her writing and was so touched by the story that she made a donation to the Foundation
• For full details on other OCOB events between now and the end of May, including talks, workshops and film screenings, go to www.artscouncil-ni.org/ocob2013.