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Sunday 23 July 2017

The mood is sombre as the children come out of school. They're held a bit tighter these days

A community that has known tragedy in the past is struggling to come to terms with the horror against nature of last week's deaths, writes Eamon Keane

SOMBRE: Eamon Keane in Ballycotton, Co Cork, last week, when many local people didn't want to talk to journalists. 'He was one of us. I'm sayin' no more to ye', said one.
SOMBRE: Eamon Keane in Ballycotton, Co Cork, last week, when many local people didn't want to talk to journalists. 'He was one of us. I'm sayin' no more to ye', said one.

AS you drive into Ballycotton, it is, to all intents and purposes, like many other seaside villages on the south coast. Holiday homes mix with local residences set against magnificent sea views.

Una O'Riordan Butler grew up in the village in the days when big fish catches were plentiful. Now the men have to fish over as far as Cornwall, and further, for prawns.

The people of Ballycotton would remember black days when lives were lost out at sea. They know what the sea can do in the blink of an eye. But last week's happenings are a horror against nature. We are held together by certain constants, some moral order. A father does not kill his children and then set himself on fire.

It is interesting when I talk to men about the murders how deeply upset they are. One man, on hearing the news, rushed to the local creche to pick his children up early. "Don't worry, you're not the first today," the owner told him.

Another man, the father of two young children, who lives in a nearby village, told me: "Normally when my children want to come into the bed with us, we say no. The small fella would kick the legs off you. But Tuesday night, we let them in. It felt right. I hugged them. It's taught me to hug them every night."

Zoe Butler was looking forward to Christmas and had written her letter to Santa. "She was a happy bubbly child, a really lovely child. She was the youngest in her class and everyone here is very, very upset," said school principal Derry Kehoe last week. Now he must lead his teachers and pupils back to trust in ordinary life.

As I walk down past the Bayview Hotel, the HSE is offering a counselling service to local people. "Will you go?" I asked a local barmaid. "No, that's not how I do it."

Most of the villagers I approach don't want to talk to journalists. "He was one of us," said a fisherman on Ballycotton pier. "I'm saying

no more to ye." They don't want to be disloyal to Una or John Butler.

It has been reported that he was unemployed for the last year. However, John was working odd days on small construction sites, most recently on one just outside Cork city. John Butler's job on the site was using his mechanical digger on the site foundations. "He was a sound fella, quiet but decent," said one co-worker. He told me that Una Butler contacted the site approximately three weeks ago. She was concerned over John's behaviour and his whereabouts.

At the local national school, Scoil Realt na Mara, people broke down last Tuesday morning after hearing the news. One parent, Ann McNamara, said: "I just can't believe it. We all met up at a birthday party only the other week. It is terrible, so terribly sad."

I walk past the national school which Zoe attended. It is early afternoon, and parents wait for their children without the normal excited expectation. The mood is sombre as the children emerge.

They are held tighter these days. I walk on towards the hill that leads me to the white house where John Butler murdered his two little girls. As if this white house would somehow yield answers. As if the toy doll lying against the rear window would cry out and say, "this is what happened". As if anyone will ever know what went through John Butler's head when he left the two little bodies in the front room of the house. The two girls dressed in their pyjamas. One strangled, the other suffocated. Who would he have expected to find his children?

And in the awful tragedy that is suicide, Irishmen have, in increasing numbers, hanged, drowned or even shot themselves. But John Butler's death was so public. I suppose the only certainty is that John Butler was in torment in a world that had, over the years, become increasingly bleak to him.

He has sentenced the wonderful, kind mother of his two children to a lifetime of grief beyond anything we can conceive of. She could never have known what he was about to do. The simple family statement on behalf of her and the family asked people to pray for them

As I walk by the Butler house, in the garden a trampoline lies still, empty now of the indentation of small feet that should be playing on this bright winter's day. The only sounds are the springs that vibrate with the unseen voice of the southerly wind.

Little Ella Butler would have played in the pink toy house at the side entrance to the garden. Ella was looking forward to only her second Christmas.

The news crews will go home. The gardai will leave and the winds and tides of Ballycotton Bay will continue their cycle. A constant in a world sundered apart.

I leave the village with the plaintive prayer of parish priest Fr Aidan Crowley in my mind. The man who knelt and prayed by the two little bodies as they lay silent without dream, hope or word in their family home last Tuesday morning: "Take care of our little angels Zoe and Ella."

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