Not only has Sallyanne Clarke had to bury her child, but she has had to deal with his death while living in the public eye. Emily Hourican talks to the grief-stricken mother of 16-year-old Andrew Clarke
JUST weeks before he died, 16-year-old Andrew Clarke attended a Kairos religious retreat with his class from Clongowes Wood College. "I went in with 50 friends, and came out with 50 brothers," he told his mother, Sallyanne.
On Thursday, December 27, Andrew had been working in his garage fixing up a VW Jetta he had bought weeks ago, when his mother found him unconscious beside the car. CPR was performed, and then when the ambulance men arrived and managed to get a heart beat, he was transferred to Tallaght Hospital, where Andrew died on Monday 31, New Year's Eve.
In the days between the accident and his tragic death, those "50 brothers", as well as friends from the rallycross and motor sports worlds that Andrew was so passionate about, from the neighbourhood and from every other walk of life that Andrew crossed in his busy, exuberant 16 years, gathered around the Clarke family – Derry, Sallyanne and Sarah May, Andrew's 22-year-old sister – to express their love and support. "We had to ask them to leave the ICU in Tallaght," Sallyanne recalls, "because there were so many of them, and when the medics were working on Andrew, they were concerned about infection."
The car that Andrew had been working on was quietly finished by a friend, who spent a day putting it back together, washing and polishing it, so that when Andrew's body was brought back, to lie at home for one last night, the car was finished and gleaming, a tribute to his endeavours.
Those same friends asked to carry Andrew's coffin for the funeral and burial, which took place yesterday morning, in relays of six, so that as many as possible might play their part in easing the tragic burden of his passing. They took their place alongside Andrew's father Derry, and his cousins, as part of a final farewell to the young man his mother, who's nickname for her son was 'babycakes', describes as, "Kind, caring, considerate. He had a confidence beyond his years. A witty boy with a heart of gold, who loved everybody, and everybody loved him; if prayers and goodwill alone could sustain life, then Andrew would be with us at this moment. He was a cheeky chappie, a lovable rogue, but there was not an ounce of malice in him. He was a lovable baby. He may have been 6ft 4in and about 17 stone, but he was our baby boy."
Listening to any mother talk with love and pride about her child is a moving experience; how much more so when that child is no longer in the world. Sallyanne's words fall over themselves as she describes a funny, brave, kind-hearted young man, one who took trouble for those around him, looked out for the less confident at Clongowes Wood College, someone who was "a man for all. He never distinguished on any basis except character. He didn't give a hoot where people came from or what they did; what was important was the person."
From a young age, Andrew's passion for cars was evident – he got his first Action Man bike at the age of two, and his first motorised bike by the time he was six – as were his mechanical skills.
"He was clever with his hands, and as a child was always taking something apart and fixing it up again. He wasn't brain of Ireland, but he was very good at what interested him; he hoped to get the points to do mechanical engineering in Carlow."
He was also, in his mother's words, "a real action man – a thrill-seeker, in all aspects of his life. He never had any fear. I thought he'd grow out of that, would grow into fear the way most of us do, but he didn't."
Andrew skied well, once winning an under-12s competition just 15 minutes after hitting the slopes, after a hiatus of years. He also played rugby, until a nasty accident a few years ago in which he broke his collar bone in four places.
But as well as being an exceptional young man, Andrew was an entirely normal one, a 16-year-old with the natural imperatives of his age.
"He could be stubborn," Sallyanne says. "If he didn't like it, he wouldn't do it, and that was that. And he could wear us down if he wanted something. Sometimes I would ring his sister, Sarah May, and ask her to tell him that the answer was no!"
When the insistences were enough to earn him a rebuke, Andrew's cheery response would be, "Ah, but you love me, don't you?" A young man entirely secure in his place in the world, and the love of his family.
Like many 16-year-olds, Andrew smoked when he felt he could get away with it. Reprimanded by his mother, he would respond with a twinkle, "Well mom, it's hardly going to stunt my growth".
Andrew also liked to eat – at his parents' Michelin-starred restaurant, L'Ecrivain, yes, but even more so at home. "He always wanted Sunday lunch at home. He would text beforehand to ask who was cooking, and he never turned up alone. There were always two, three, four other kids with him. Even getting his hair cut, Andrew never went on his own. He was highly sociable and loved being surrounded by people."
Love of food was something Andrew shared with his father. "He said he didn't like fish, but he loved lobster, prawns, scallops. He'd eat the leg of a chair if it was seasoned properly. And he would taste everything, just like his dad, no matter how spicy."
Father and son also shared a love of sailing, spending a month last summer around Sherkin Island on their boat. The adventures on the boat were something that Andrew and Derry really enjoyed, especially the fishing. Derry would cook what Andrew caught. The two of them also spent December 23 together, shopping in town.
"They were great pals," Sallyanne says. "We did things as a family, but it was Derry who would bring him motor racing, to Wales or Belfast. I stopped going for a while; I couldn't bear seeing my baby going round corners at 140 miles per hour."
Andrew's first love was cars and racing. He was heavily involved in junior rallycross and Ginetta. If life had taken a different turn, he would have set off for Birmingham directly after New Year's Eve – to have been spent with his family at Ashford Castle – to collect a trophy for coming third overall in the Junior Ginetta Championships.
Teased about when he might get a girlfriend, Andrew's response was that he would rather spend his money on cars. "He told us he had lots of friends who happened to be girls."
For his 16th birthday, he asked for a garage, not a party; somewhere he could properly indulge this passion. That garage is where his mother found him, at 1.40pm on Thursday, cold and unconscious. He had been fixing up a VW Jetta that he had bought. Andrew Clarke died doing what he loved.
As part of the Kairos retreat, undertaken at the start of December, all parents of those attending were asked to write a letter to their sons. "The letters could be funny, witty, serious, whatever you wanted. His dad and I both wrote one. His dad's was three pages, mine was five. He later told me that after feeling the envelope, he joked to his friends, 'Light up a fag, put on the kettle. My mother has written an essay!' He wanted to know why I could not have written a three-page letter, like dad and everyone else's parents.
"Those letters told him how much we loved him. He would have read them on December 20, and they said everything. After he died, we found the letters, open, on his bed at home."
There are few consolations at the passing of one so young, with so much to offer the world, but that Andrew died knowing exactly the place he held in his parents' hearts, their pride and delight in him, is perhaps one.
Andrew Clarke's organs have been donated – a gesture that will change the lives of those who benefit. "We knew he wanted to do that; he was so kind-hearted, he wanted to help others."
Andrew lived for just 16 years, but he lived those years fully and with joy. "He lived a very full life," says Sallyanne. "He travelled halfway round the world twice, won so many trophies, had friends from all walks of life, and generally threw himself into everything. He seemed older than his years, free-spirited and determined. 'We're not here for a long time, but for a good time,' has always been my motto, and for his 16 years, it was Andrew's too."