The grief and remarkable strength of a mother as she buries her family
'We are plunged into grief . . . even the heavens are crying'
Published 25/03/2016 | 02:30
Sunny days in the back garden. Family outings to the beach. The first smiles of the babies.
Pretty Jodie Lee in her communion dress, Mark looking grown-up on his Confirmation. Glamorous Ruth as a young woman in the 1970s, Sean joking around with his brothers, and little Evan wrapped up in his mother's warm embrace.
Each loving moment - the ordinary days and the special days - was more heartbreakingly poignant than the last as their smiles, bright as sunbeams, lit up the church.
The family album screened on a loop was no different to anybody else's - there was even the obligatory shot of a toddler prone on the ground, clearly in the throes of a tantrum, being coaxed up by his mother, Louise.
It was the very ordinariness of these little vignettes that made them so beautiful, and all the more devastating as the five coffins lay before the altar - the three little white ones of Jodie-Lee Tracey (14) and Mark (12) and Evan (8) McGrotty in the middle, flanked on either side by Sean McGrotty (49) and Ruth Daniels (59). Three generations of a loving family stilled forever.
Tears rolled down the faces of mourners as chief celebrant Fr Paddy O'Kane told them of Evan's last conversation with his mother, Louise, just half-an-hour before the tragedy unfolded at Buncrana pier last Sunday evening.
"Mammy, I miss you so much," he'd said. "I am going to give you the biggest, tightest hug you ever got, when I see you again."
Gently, Fr O'Kane told Louise that she was going to "have to wait a little longer" for her tight hug.
Waxed-faced with grief, hundreds of mourners descended on the Holy Family Church at Ballymagroarty in Derry.
The special Holy Thursday funeral service was made richly spiritual by the touching teenage singing voices of choirs from the schools attended by the three deceased children.
The first sight of so many coffins as they were brought into the church, followed by Louise, so poignantly stoic and calm, led many to immediately dissolve into tears at the unbearable scale of this loss within their community.
"We are plunged in grief. Even the heavens are crying," said Fr O'Kane. "Five beautiful people have been taken tragically from our midst. Five people whom we loved. Not just this family, this community, this country, but also people from all over the world are united with us in grief."
He catalogued the heartbreaking list of all those who had lost a loved one, focusing finally on Louise.
"You are most bereft of all, for you have lost your family and our hearts go out to you especially," he said.
Gifts representing the five young lives were brought before the altar, including a football for Evan, a skilfully made fort that was Mark's school history project, a trinket box for Ruth, a Celtic football scarf for Sean, and a framed photograph of Jodie-Lee's beloved teenage icon, Justin Bieber.
In a deeply touching gesture showing that her status as a loving mother, daughter and sister was eternal in the face of their deaths, Louise ensured each gift was placed correctly on each coffin and bestowed a protective hug and kiss on each special school friend that brought them up.
Fr O'Kane told the congregation that when news broke of the tragedy on Sunday evening that a terrible accident had happened on Buncrana pier, his prayer for the dead and bereaved had included a prayer for the priest who would have to face the family and the funeral to make sense of the tragedy.
"Little did I think I was praying for myself," he said. Early the next morning, he had received a phonecall. "It's Louise James here, Fr Paddy," Louise had said. "That was my husband, my children, my mother, my sister that died yesterday evening."
Stunned, he had made his way to her home and tasted the salt of her tears as he kissed her cheek.
"When I visited the funeral home on Tuesday morning and saw the five coffins, their occupants so peaceful in that sleep we call death, I broke down in tears," he said.
"And yet there is one little sliver of light, one ray of hope bravely breaking through the dark clouds and it is this - little Rioghnach-Ann has been saved.
"As Louise says to me again and again: 'She is my only reason to go on living'," he said, adding that he had baptised her at this font in January and the day before that, had been asked to bless "their beautiful little family home".
The family had told him how little Evan had muscular dystrophy and how Louise has so far raised £16,000 for that charity including a tandem parachute jump from 14,000 feet. Two weeks ago, Evan made his First Confession. They were at the same church last May when Mark received the Sacrament of Confirmation and again last July when Ann, Sean's younger sister, died from cancer. Fr O'Kane told how he had known the Daniels family since he was a young priest in the Bogside during the 1970s.
There was an emotional and prolonged standing ovation for Davitt Walsh, who had swum to the rescue of baby Rioghnach-Ann as Fr O'Kane said: "Davitt, today we salute you as our hero."
He revealed that they had a meeting in the parochial house on Tuesday when Louise and her family met Davitt to thank him for all he did and also to his girlfriend Stephanie Knox for her quick thinking as she warmed the baby's little blue body back to life.
'Don't blame yourself that you did not do more - we are so grateful for what you did," Louise had told Davitt.
"It could easily have been seven deaths, not five," she had added, before passing the baby to Davitt to hold.
Fr O'Kane revealed that the baby had "opened her beautiful blue eyes, smiled up at him and had a big yawn".
Meanwhile, he said they had seen the generosity of spirit in Frances Crawford and others who raised the alarm, in the emergency services who responded to the call for help and did all that was humanly possible to resuscitate the bodies, and in the way the community has rallied. "The kindness of strangers is another ray of light to lift us from our darkness," said Fr O'Kane.
He revealed how Louise had spoken of how Mark and Evan, partner Sean, mother Ruth and Jodie-Lee, her only sister, are now reunited in heaven with Louise's little baby Joshua who lived for only seventeen hours.
Teachers spoke of the beautiful spirit each child had had, of how much they will be missed.
In a heartbreaking little comment on the circumstances of last Sunday's tragedy, Sean's brother, Jim said: "Something that many of you might not know: our Sean couldn't swim."
Mourners wept as Louise herself rose to read in a low voice the little poem, starkly beautiful and of the searing pain, she had penned about the tragedy.
Her face bore the terribly calm serenity of suffering that cannot be taken away and must be endured.
But she spoke not of her own pain but of gratitude - remembering all who had played their role in the rescue of little Rioghnach-Ann and the recovery of the bodies of her loved ones, saying she would be "eternally grateful".
And just like before, when the remains had first arrived back home, brave Louise stepped to the fore to bring the coffin holding each of her most precious loved ones, from the church, carefully placing them in the hearse as they went on for burial. It was the final and most poignant of all of their moments together as a family.