Saturday 3 December 2016

We thought we were alone in our loss...but it happens everywhere

Charlie McGettigan

Published 19/06/2015 | 02:30

Charlie McGettigan
Charlie McGettigan
Shane McGettigan

It's the small things that stay with you. When my son Shane was laid out in a Boston morgue and hundreds of people were shaking my hand, an obviously homeless man with his world in plastic bags laid a rose in his coffin, shook my hand and disappeared into the night. I never saw him again but he obviously just wanted to show us his particular support at our time of need.

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You learn to live with grief and loss. What else can you do?

Shane had been playing with the Leitrim senior GAA team and in 1998 they were knocked out of the Connacht Championship by Galway, which left him at a loose end for the summer. Martin Carney, the 'Sunday Game' analyst, who had attended the same school as me in Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, rang Shane and asked him if he'd be interested in going to Boston to play for St Patrick's football team for the summer. Shane was delighted, as were we, his parents. It was an all-expenses-paid trip to do what he loved in America - play football.

We both went to see Leitrim minors in the Connacht Final on that Sunday in Tuam. Shane had a lift to Dublin from where he would fly out the next day to Boston. We didn't say a lot to each other. We just hugged briefly and off he went.

We spoke on the phone a few times after he arrived in Boston. He had a job working on a scaffolding, stripping bricks from the front of a very high building. He was really enjoying his first trip to the USA and we were happy for him. He was doing all the usual things that young people do - socialising, meeting girls, etc.

A few days after our last chat on the phone, a curious combination of people appeared at my door. My close friend Tony McGowan, his wife Phil, and the mother of one of his workmates in Boston. There was something about their look that made me realise something strange had happened. All I heard was Shane's name and I knew instantly he was gone. I don't know how. I just did.

Books of condolence for the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse are opened at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour church in Foxrock, Dublin. Niall Carson/PA Wire
Books of condolence for the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse are opened at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour church in Foxrock, Dublin. Niall Carson/PA Wire
Tributes left in a book of condolence in the chapel at St Mary's College in Rathmines, Dublin, where UCD students Niccolai Schuster and Eoghan Culligan studied before they were killed in a balcony collapse in the US. Niall Carson/PA Wire
A flag flies at half mast at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour church in Foxrock, Dublin, to honour the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse. Niall Carson/PA Wire
Candles are lit in memory of the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour church in Foxrock, Dublin. Niall Carson/PA Wire
Members of the public sign a book of condolence at Mansion House in Dublin for those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. Niall Carson/PA Wire
Members of the public queue to sign a book of condolence at Mansion House in Dublin for those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday June 18, 2015. See PA story IRISH Balcony. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Members of the public sign a book of condolence at Mansion House in Dublin for those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. Niall Carson/PA Wire
A list of the names of the victims beside a book of condolence at Mansion House in Dublin opened in memory of those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. Niall Carson/PA Wire
Dublin Lord Mayor Christy Burke (right) invites members of the public to sign a book of condolence at Mansion House in Dublin for those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. Niall Carson/PA Wire
Messages written by President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina in a book of condolence opened at Mansion House in Dublin for those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. Niall Carson/PA Wire
President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina sign a book of condolence at Mansion House in Dublin for those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. Niall Carson/PA Wire
President Michael D Higgins signs a book of condolence at Mansion House in Dublin for those killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse. Niall Carson/PA Wire

It seemed he had been killed when a scaffolding had collapsed and he was hurled with another workmate, Ronan Stewart, down 12 storeys. I didn't take in any of this at the time. I just crumbled into a heap and went into meltdown for about an hour.

I suddenly realised that I would need to regain composure and be there for my wife Goretti and my two daughters, Tara and Ciara. In that hour which I was in another zone, the house had filled up with people. Women making tea, men talking. I was suddenly on a treadmill which wasn't to stop for many months.

Practical details included informing our daughters of the bad news. Ciara was working in the Isle of Man for the summer so we had to collect her from the airport the next morning.

My good friend Eamonn Daly asked if he could come too and I was delighted for that. My poor dad just couldn't take in any of it.

In Boston, we were met by two wonderful people who we had never met before but who were to become lifelong friends. Jimmy and Mai Gallagher were members of the Leitrim Association in Boston. They put their house in Needham at our disposal and looked after us while we were there.

I was not looking forward to seeing poor Shane's body but when I did the undertaker had him in a suit. I knew that Shane hated suits and ties and I insisted that he be laid out in his Leitrim jersey which his new friends in Boston seemed to just pick out of the sky.

In the middle of the wake which the people of Boston had organised, the news of the Omagh bombing started to come through and people started scurrying for phones to see if loved ones from Tyrone had died - a few had.

That brought it home to us. We thought we were alone in our loss but it was happening to other people all over the world, and as we know this week, to people from Ireland far away from home.

Irish Independent

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