WEST SPRINGFIELD – Mags Riordan, the focus of “This is Paradise: An Irish Mother’s Grief, an African Village’s Plight and the Medical Clinic That Brought Fresh Hope to Both,” is returning to Western Massachusetts with the book’s author Suzanne Strempek Shea.
Riordan, an Ireland native, founded a clinic in Cape Maclear, Malawi in 1999 in memory of her, Billy, who had drowned in Lake Malawi. The Billy Riordan Memorial Clinic serves an area village that, previously, was forced to walk 11 miles to make it to the nearest hospital, Shea said.
Because of the strenuous journey, many villagers died from diseases sprouting from slight infections.
Now, the clinic is able to provide medical attention to people who may not have sought it otherwise, including help for the 14 percent of the population affected by HIV and AIDS.
Riordan did all of this to honor her son and a place that he loved, Shea said.
Shea met Riordan at the Big E in 2004 while helping a friend set up a booth and overheard Riordan talking about the clinic and Billy. With a background as a reporter, Shea’s curiosity peaked.
Now, three continents and 11 years later, “This is Paradise” has been published and Shea continues a nearly yearlong swing of talks and signings.
The book, Shea’s 10th, was released in April 2014, and she said that it is a book good for our time.
“We’re more insular, more to ourselves because of the Internet. For a lot of us, that’s our social time for the day,” Shea said. “We don’t really meet with people, and this is really about sticking your neck out in the world and seeing what’s going on in the world. There is still a big old world we can’t see from our screens.”
Though Riordan joined Shea in October, this time around, she said, there are fewer public talks – Monson Free Library on March 20 at 6 p.m., West Springfield Public Library on March 25 at 7 p.m. and Ludlow Country Club on March 27 at 6:30 p.m.
Hearing Riordan speak is a one-of-a-kind opportunity, Shea said. Riordan, having lost two other children before Billy, is someone who took not one, but three, tragedies and transformed them into something that has changed the world for a village, she said.
“This is about someone’s life’s work and someone with a very tragic story but one that ended up transforming her and a community and a part of a world,” Shea said. “They’ll meet somebody that they will not forget, and I don’t say that lightly. I think she is a pretty unique person, certainly we all are, but what’s she done with her life, someone who not only lost one child, but a second and a third, how does anybody get out of bed after one great loss? Here is a woman who has three, and she is somehow just managing to do this amazing thing, getting sparked by certainly the loss of her third child. I think it’s a great example of human spirit what we can do what we might be able to do. She’s a great example of that.”
Shea said that “This is Paradise” and Riordan have been well received in the area. With the American arm of fundraising for the Billy Riordan Memorial Clinic located in West Springfield, the ties are here for support, but Shea said one of the best parts of talking about the book and Riordan is knowing someone will walk away hearing about what she is doing for the first time.
“It’s one of those things where it’s been really exciting to share this story and also to see the conversation that starts, like what can you do? And we start talking about what we can do in our own neighborhoods, talking about what we do as far as volunteering,” Shea said. “We all don’t have to start a clinic or build something. She gets you thinking, definitely.”
In addition to copies of “This is Paradise” being available for purchase, Riordan will also be bringing crafts from the village. The proceeds from the crafts will go to supporting the clinic.
Shea said that, despite the distance an author should keep with her subject, it is hard to simply stand on the sidelines when it comes to Riordan and her clinic.
“We’re supposed to be removed from our subjects, but by now I’m totally hooked on what she does,” she said. “With each talk, I go out quite frequently and do dozens and dozens of events in a year, and I’ve never felt this way… Hoping that someone will do something or make a donation.”