In the Name of the Son: How a Cork woman who lost three children turned unimaginable grief into saving lives

Television: The tragedies that have scarred Mags Riordan led her to setting up a clinic in Malawi where her third child lost his life

Mags Riordan in In the Name of the Son. Photograph via RTÉ

To lose one child is unimaginable. To lose three borders on incomprehensible. That is the experience of Mags Riordan, a Cork City woman whose life has been framed by tragedy.

“I knew something was going to happen on that trip – I don’t know why,” she says during In The Name Of The Son (RTÉ One, 10.15pm). The “son” is Billy, who drowned swimming in Malawi in 1999. As she says, Riordan had a premonition that something awful had befallen Billy in Africa. When the call came through about his disappearance, it was almost half-expected.

He was the third of her children to die. Four-month-old Niamh had drowned in 1973 when Riordan’s car skidded over the side of a pier. Three years later, Luke, just a few months old, died of sudden infant death syndrome.

All of the deaths have scarred her, but Billy’s was a turning point. O’Riordan, the Dingle-based daughter of a Cork GP, went to Malawi and established a medical practice in his memory. Now, 20 years later, the Billy Riordan Memorial Clinic serves a population of some 16,000 in the town of Cape Maclear.

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“We had no idea how much demand there would be,” she says during her visit to Malawi, where skies of dazzling blue and a gorgeous orange landscape belie the devastation caused by Aids, malaria and other conditions that in Ireland would be easily treatable. “We now have young mums bringing children to the clinic who were brought to the clinic as children.”

O’Riordan cuts a low-key figure. She isn’t in the least melodramatic, despite all that she has been through. Yet she has a quiet ferocity and carries with her the passion for humanitarian causes cultivated during anti-apartheid protests at UCC in the 1970s. As one of her daughters observes: “the burden of grief ... she has taken it apart and put it into bricks and mortar”.

In The Name Of The Son does well to sidestep any suggestion of a white Saviour narrative. O’Riordan and the student doctors from UCC who volunteer with her work in partnership with the community rather than seeking to impose on it a western way of doing things.

Billy’s death isn’t lingered over. The circumstances in which he drowned have never been fully explained and his mother seems at peace with that. Obsessing over how Billy died won’t bring him back, she says.

This is a profile marked by quiet dignity. But it also reminds us of how the death of a loved one is something that we carry with us to the end of our days. “It’s like a wound that is covered over,” Riordan says. “The scar will always be there.”