From the edge OF DEATH AUTHOR and journalist Colm Keane spent several years collecting tales of near-death experiences for his book 'Going Home' which went to number one last year and stayed on the bestseller list from October to March.
His latest offering ' The Distant Shore' took a fraction of that time to finish, with hundreds of people inspired to come forward and speak about their amazing personal experiences. Some of those form part of the collection, which now includes otherworld visions and premonitions.
Bray resident Colm was born in Youghal, County Cork, but has always felt remarkably at home on the east coast. He now enjoys the view from Raheen Park on the slope of Bray Head alongside his wife and fellow-journalist Una O'Hagan.
His dad was a great believer in reading and education and was never too concerned about money. Sadly, he died when Colm was just 11.
Admirably, his mother went on to go to university when she was in her 50s. Colm followed in his father's footsteps and studied economics at Trinity College then Georgetown in the States. He never formally trained as a writer but graduated and began to freelance for the Irish dailies.
Having secured a job in RTE, it was in the canteen there that he first met Una, a reporter for the national broadcaster. They ended up getting married and settled in Bray.
Tragically, their son Sean, lost his battle with cancer on Christmas Day 2007 at the age of 20.
'He was the apple of our eye,' Colm said, describing his son as a boy who won medals for sports and debating, and who participated fully in life when he was here. A ' bright shining star,' who is still very much present in the house that he slipped away from almost three years ago.
'I don't think I'm angry,' said Colm. 'I'm very sad. I really miss him and there isn't an hour that goes by that I don't think of him.
'Una and I could have been destroyed by Seán's death,' he added. 'But we grew closer together. We are very close. We shared something particular to us and we are the only two who understand what the other is feeling.'
They support each other, he said, and go everywhere together. ' She's my closest friend and I'm hers. She's also my proof reader and judge!'
The work he has undertaken since the unbearable loss has given Colm some relief. He no longer fears death. He misses Sean, but believes he is not 'gone' in the most final sense of the word.
It was some years before the awful news that his child was sick that Colm Keane developed an interest in his topic. His previous works in print and on radio have covered everything from sixties pop music to Padre Pio and Irish soccer.
In 1990 he kept a clipping from the 'Wexford People' wherein a local man reported all the elements of a neardeath experience.
Most of those he subsequently spoke to have travelled through dark tunnels, entered an intense brightness, been welcomed by deceased family and friends and encountered a superior being.
The majority have felt a profound calmness and serenity while around them people panicked when their hearts and breathing stopped. They often reported meeting deceased relatives and feelings of sadness and disappointment at being revived.
Local woman Roisin Fitzpatrick had a remarkable experience after a brain haemorrhage she suffered in 2004.
'I experienced a blissful ecstasy,' she told Colm. 'It was like every part of my being was overwhelmed with bliss. It was a state beyond the minds, beyond happiness or joy. I felt great serenity, peace, love, harmony, calmness and oneness.'
She also reported a beautiful light, and a feeling that she was not in her body anymore, and the presence of a superior and compassionate being. 'The most overriding feeling was of infinity, that life was continuous and never-ending.'
In 'Distant Shores' Colm begins to examine premonitions and visions.
Dessie Hynes, who comes originally from County Longford but who now lives in County Wexford, told Colm how a friend, prior to his death, was visited by a deceased mutual acquaintance.
'There was a group of us who were friends and who were very close to each other ever since the late 1940s or early 1950s. One was a fellow named Jim. He came from a gas family and he was a great character. He was 23 years a medical student. When he qualified he became the registrar in a hospital for another 23 years. Then he retired. After that he walked the canal with a brother-inlaw of mine and then dropped dead.
'There was another person in the group, called Mattie. He was also a medical student for a time. He was a very good friend of Jim's and a friend to all of us as well.
'Mattie had a flat in the Dublin suburb of Rathmines. It was a flat of the 1950s. He used to call it a 'dungeon'. It was a basement flat, two steps down. I used to call in there a lot. Anytime I'd pass by I'd go in and out. He used to smoke a lot. His lungs were gone and he couldn't breathe. He was really in a bad way with emphysema.
'About two or three years after Jim had died, I was up there one day to see Mattie. When I went in he said, 'I'm gone!' I said, 'What are you talking about?' He said, ' You won't be seeing me much longer. I won't be here. I'll be going.' I said, ' What?' He said, 'Last night, sometime around four or five o'clock in the morning, I woke up and Jim was at the end of the bed. He came looking for me.'
'He went on to explain, ' It didn't look like the end of the bed. There were pillars there just like in Longford Cathedral or in the White House. They were those sorts of big stone pillars. In the middle of them was an opening. And there was Jim in the middle and he was waving me in.
'There was no sound or anything. I just saw Jim's two hands waving me in. I'll be going soon. I won't be around much longer. You might see me once more but that will be it.'
'Mattie was dead within a week, maybe four or five days. I was phoned by a guy named Gallagher. He phoned me to say that Mattie had gone into the hospital and that he wouldn't be around long. Mattie hardly got to the hospital. I never saw him alive after that. He was dead within a couple of hours.'
While Colm Keane has never felt a direct 'presence' or had any kind of vision, he has been given to feelings of foreboding from time to time. ' I have had gut feelings about things that would go wrong,' he said. 'I would feel tense, uptight and worried, later something significantly bad would happen.' He notes that all of the reports he has received from 'the edge of death' have been warm and happy. ' None of them fears death now. In fact they will welcome it, not immediately as they have reasons to live, but when it comes.
'I used to fear death, because you always fear the unknown,' said Colm. 'But I am in the astonishingly privileged position of having spoken to people who have died. It changed my whole view.' Up to a thousand people have come to Colm since "Going Home" came out. 'They are still coming to me.'
The stories have changed lives, said Colm. That is a welcome by-product of the work for him, he insists, having set out on the project merely to properly document something of interest.
Has he encountered any scepticism along the way? 'Almost uniformly no. Perhaps three or four people in the last 18 months have made their arguments.'
But according to Colm science has ruled out the explanations they proffer, such as oxygen deprivation, endorphins, and so on. 'Science has investigated it, and can't explain it. Maybe tomorrow science will find something to explain it.'
Religion does not factor in the near death experiences reported in Colm's works. 'The opposite is in fact true,' he said, remarking that the same elements are true for everyone, religious or not, who have experienced such a phenomenon.
'They are not the domain of religious fanaticism,' he said. 'The trappings of religion are not important,' as one man reported. The denomination is not important, and the being they see is neither a ' he' nor a 'she.'
The light is always crucial, and there is an element of judgment. 'You judge yourself, and on the compassion and understanding you have had for others,' said Colm. ' What is important is the effects of your actions on others.'
Writing was always in Colm's life. He was very good at English in school and wrote his first book 20 years ago. Distant Shore, with the dedication simply ' To Seán,' is his 20th.
'I remember getting the copy of my first and thinking, "I could do 20 of these," and here I am!'
Mastering the craft has been tough but ultimately rewarding work, with a phrase from his other milieu, the world of broadcasting, always guiding the way. 'It's very easy to make a complicated programme, but very complicated to make an easy programme.'
His role with this work is to give a voice to those who wish to tell their stories. 'I am amazed by what I discovered,' said Colm. 'And so lucky to have spoken to all those people.'