The young woman who lost two siblings but found peace and purpose in faith and God
TV producer and presenter Aine O'Neill has experienced two terrible tragedies in her life. She explains to Emily Hourican how she has found joy and strength amid the heartbreak
Aine O'Neill recognises that people are seeking some sort of purpose in life. "We're all chasing the same thing," says the 32-year-old TV producer and presenter of Life & Soul, RTE's new faith-based documentary series.
"A moment of peace. I would have tried to find that in the gym, eating healthy, doing Pilates, doing yoga, therapy, whatever."
None of it worked. Or at least, she clarifies, none of it worked for very long.
"They don't last. They didn't sustain me." Last August, Aine found something - someone - who does sustain her. God. "This isn't religion," she says.
"I understand that people would be suspicious of religion. This is faith - it's a relationship with God."
The journey started with curiosity and an open mind. "My sister happened to be going to a church in Newbridge, Co Kildare, and she loved it, she spoke really highly of it.
"So I went with her one day, and I thought 'this is lovely'. It was like going along to a little club: really nice people, really down-to-earth."
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It is, she says, "a Christian church, not Catholic. Talk of God was thrown around, but I wasn't uncomfortable about that, I'm willing to try anything.
"I started to go, on a Sunday, with my sister, because I enjoyed it, I needed the joy those people have. I needed the love that they had.
"And then, around November, I had just come back from LA, I was in a really good place with my career and everything, but I remember thinking 'I don't know what else to do, to live a purposeful life?
"I'm just going to hand this over and see what happens'. With that," she says, "my life changed. When I finally handed everything over to God, my life went from 0 to 90."
Does she know why she went looking?
"It's not that I suffered from massive depression. I had a good life - a good career, money, living situation - but I was thinking, 'is that it?' I had all that, and I was still feeling empty. I felt that I wasn't doing enough for people. I have that urge in me - to help. I always have. I was always thinking - 'is this it? You get up, do your work, pay your bills, go to bed?'"
With the wisdom of hindsight, there was beauty to the timing of Aine's quest that is hard not to be struck by.
Because on March 24 of this year, some four months after God entered her life, Aine's brother Stephen died. He is the second of her three siblings to die tragically and prematurely. Her sister, Sinead, died 19 years ago today, when Aine was just 14.
As she says, with a rare kind of dignity: "My parents had four kids, now they have two. It's heartbreaking for them, and for all of us.
"I have grieved, and am still grieving, two siblings. Once, without that church family to lean on, and this time with a church family to lean on. And the two are completely different. It's not like I knew I needed God; God came into my life before I needed him."
Sinead, Aine's sister, was 16 when she died. "I would have been very close to her. I'm the youngest and she was the closest to me in age.
"We were almost Irish twins. She was at a party, she was dancing, she fell and banged her head.
"Later, she went back to her friend's house - they were having a sleepover - and went to sleep and never woke up again. There was no warning, it just came out of the blue. It was madness. My poor parents. I don't remember all that much from that time," Aine says.
"I think I was sheltered from a lot of it. But I'll never forget saying to myself 'I will never waste my life. Ever'. That shaped me."
Hers was not a particularly religious family, "but we were a house with prayer. My dad, every day, a couple of times a day, he'd tell us 'don't worry, God is good', and we'd be like, 'yeah, sure, whatever ...' He didn't necessarily much go to Mass, but he would always say 'I'll say a prayer for you', or 'the neighbour down the road needs a bit of help, I'll say a prayer'. That was his blessing, that he could give to someone, and he did".
After Sinead died, Aine says, as a family, they relied heavily on "my dad's positivity - it was almost like we were leaning on his God to protect us".
Aine, brought up in Tallaght, Dublin, grew up to believe in hard work, ambition, determination. She initially trained as a hairdresser, "but I always had an instinct that I was supposed to be doing something else. I love hairdressing, it's such an art, but I always had this little feeling ... Finally, I surrendered to that and decided, I'm going to give media a go. And when I did, I knew, this is my purpose".
She worked in production on many different programmes, including the award-winning RTE series The Rotunda and Evidence of Evil for CBS. Along the way, she was frequently offered presenting opportunities, front-of-camera stuff. "I've always said 'maybe ...' But I wasn't really pushed. It never really sat right with me. Then Life & Soul was offered and I knew, 'this is the one. These are the stories I want to tell'."
The series, which is broadcast on RTE One and RTE Radio 1, sees Aine along with co-presenter Colm Flynn travelling the country, hearing stories of how faith impacts on life and life on faith; how it moves, inspires, challenges and sustains people in Ireland today.
The second episode, broadcast last Sunday, coincided with the eve of the 50th anniversary of the start of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and featured stories of how faith has brought people through those difficult times.
It is, Aine says "no coincidence that this is what I'm doing now. I know this is where God has put me, and why. The letters and feedback from the first episode were so positive - a lot of people who wouldn't watch a 'religious' show watched this, because it's people's stories".
Nearly 19 years after Sinead's passing, Aine's older brother, Stephen, also died with shocking suddenness. "We won't know fully what happened until the autopsy," Aine says.
"Myself and my mam found him. We went down to his room on a Sunday morning to wake him up and he didn't look right. He looked very weak and sick, we didn't think he was alright. We called an ambulance, he went off in the ambulance and we got a call within 15 or 20 minutes to say 'come straight to the hospital'. I knew then.
"They brought us into the family room - that dreaded walk, into the family room. That moment we were told that Stephen had passed away - we were broken," she says.
"We were so vulnerable. You're in shock. But that kindness we found, the touch of a hand, the humanity from the nurses. They couldn't do enough for us. Those moments of kindness, even though we were just another family, just another part of their busy day, I will never forget."
Fifteen or 16 years ago, Aine says "my brother was addicted to heroin, God love him. I really believe that there are evil spirits in the world that can take a hold of you, and unfortunately they took a hold of my brother. He came off drugs himself, cold turkey, but he never really chased his purpose".
She adds: "Me and my sister had been trying to get him to come to church with us. He said, no; he wouldn't come.
"But when we were clearing out his room, after he passed, there was a Bible on the dresser beside his bed, and so I wonder, was he thinking about it? Maybe in his last moments he needed God, in that time, to help him through? Maybe he was exploring it before telling us he was ready to go?"
In the weeks after Stephen's passing, Aine went to a doctor "and the first thing they did was offer me Valium and Prozac. But you have to go through grief. You have to feel it. My medication is prayer and my conversation with God. That's what's getting me through, day to day".
By another strange quirk of fate, one of the first interviews for Life & Soul Aine did was with a man who had been through a recovery programme at the Tiglin addiction centre.
"He had come through the programme absolutely shining with his life. We had tried to get my brother in there, places like there, so many times, but it just didn't work out, for different reasons," she explains. "Knowing that just made me want to do a better interview, because I was thinking 'my brother could have been sitting at home and turned on this station and be listening, and be able to relate ...'"
At her brother's funeral, a friend asked Aine "where was your God when your brother died? I understand it - they were so hurt and angry for me. But I was like, 'well he's here now. Aren't I able to stand here? Look at the love that's in this room'."
How does Aine's faith work, on a practical level? "Well, I'm not saying the rosary, on my knees," she says with a laugh. "When I pray, it's like I'm in conversation with God. Like this morning, I would have prayed, 'God, give me the words in this interview that might touch somebody at home when they read it'.
"I feel like I'm not the one driving the car any more, so I can sit back a bit. I love that feeling. You know when you're younger and you feel your parents are looking out for you?
"I have that constantly now. The inner peace that I have, the inner acceptance; just having that is unbelievable. Before, I thought about me, about what I had to do. Now, I think, 'how can I make something better for someone else?'
"I do have bad days, of course I do, but they are not as world-ending as I would have found them before. There are days when I just want to go home and lie there and grieve for my brother and my sister, for my parents, for myself, all of that. And I do. I take that time.
"I'll allow myself to do that, whereas before I probably wouldn't have. I would have forced myself, 'Get the job done, get on with it'.
"Whereas now I think, 'God wants me to rest and mind myself a bit more today'. I might say to God, 'I'm having a bit of a bad day today, I'm going to take a bit of time but give me the energy I need to get through the day tomorrow'. I feel like I'm being minded, like I can hand it over to someone else."
Does she believe in an afterlife? "I believe my siblings are both up there. I just know that they're somewhere and that they are together.
"That helps me to go on as well and gives a bit more comfort to my parents. I feel that they have each other. That gets me through the days that are tougher."
But, her faith is far from simply consolation. It is also a source of joy and purpose, a curious process of gaining by letting go.
"Handing God control of your life is one of the most liberating things you can do. People think it comes with limitations when it's the absolute opposite. It gives you freedom.
"The freedom to live a life and not just exist.
"The other day, me and my dad were sitting outside in the garden. The sun was shining and I said 'dad, isn't life amazing? Isn't God good?'
"And he said 'God is so good and life is amazing'."