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A mother's grace shines a light on the darkest of sun-dappled days

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Helen O'Driscoll (front right) helps carry the coffin of one of her twin sons Paddy at his funeral mass in Charleville. Photo: Mark Condren

Helen O'Driscoll (front right) helps carry the coffin of one of her twin sons Paddy at his funeral mass in Charleville. Photo: Mark Condren

Thomas O'Driscoll carries the coffin of his son Thomas. Photo: Mark Condren

Thomas O'Driscoll carries the coffin of his son Thomas. Photo: Mark Condren

Twins Thomas and Paddy O'Driscoll in their communion suits.

Twins Thomas and Paddy O'Driscoll in their communion suits.

Paddy, Thomas and Jonathan O'Driscoll.

Paddy, Thomas and Jonathan O'Driscoll.

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Helen O'Driscoll (front right) helps carry the coffin of one of her twin sons Paddy at his funeral mass in Charleville. Photo: Mark Condren

Helen O'Driscoll couldn't leave her boys alone. During the Requiem Mass she stood between them in the church, touching their white coffins, all three of them. The nine-year-old twins, Thomas and Paddy, were in the little caskets, on either side of their big brother Jonathan.

She fussed over them, with the sort of tender solicitude that only a mother possesses, anxious that everything was just right. She was given some Sellotape, and tore strips off with her teeth, the rasp audible in the silence, carefully sticking pictures of them on to the coffin-lids. During the homily, a family member arrived with two sets of boxing gloves - red for Thomas and black for Paddy; they were mad about boxing - and Helen and her husband Thomas placed them gently on the coffins of their young sons.

On the altar, Father Tim Naughton was sketching short pictures of the lives of the three O'Driscoll boys which came to such a heartbreakingly tragic end last week. He spoke of how Paddy would meticulously put his hearing-aid and glasses on the teacher's desk in school every day "because that was what his mum had said to do and he wanted to please her". Helen stood and gazed down lovingly at Paddy's coffin.

Then, as Fr Naughton described the arrival of their eldest son Jonathan into their family as "the happiest day of their lives", she leaned over the centre coffin and embraced it. She shed no tears or uttered no lamentation, but the eloquence of her gestures resounded painfully through Holy Cross Church in Charleville.

The crowd of several hundred mourners sat silently, profound grief mingled with a sense of numb incomprehension on why this had come to pass - why two children and a young man were being buried, their lives brutally snuffed out.

It was strange that such a dark day should be shot through with so many vivid colours. In front of the trio of coffins was a pile of rainbow-hued wreaths of every shape. There were floral hurleys and horseshoes and butterflies in bright profusion.

The largest wreath was in the shape of a bright red tractor pulling a traditional barrel caravan, an acknowledgment of their heritage as settled Travellers. Helen and Thomas had left the family home on Thursday to buy a toy caravan for the twins, but returned to find them stabbed to death by the hand of their big brother Jonathan. This cheerful toy which Paddy and Thomas never saw was placed among their flowers.

Outside the church stood another caravan - a miniature traditional one, drawn by a tiny brown Shetland pony, its bridle woven with flowers. The sides of the caravan were covered with photos of the boys - the impish twins side-by-side, grinning in their shiny new Holy Communion suits, taken only four months ago. Another showed them either side of Jonathan, each twin holding one of his hands.

Helen and Thomas had opened their hearts and home to several children - the twins were their only offspring, but they had fostered and adopted and loved others too, and it was another daughter, Bernadette, who spoke about her three siblings from the altar. "I will always love you and I will always miss you," she said. "God will be waiting at the gates of Heaven to take ye in."

Then the twins' coffins were taken from the church, leaving Jonathan for the last time. Once again, Helen took charge, she was one of the pall-bearers who carried Paddy out into the jarringly beautiful blue-skied day. They two coffins were carried along the Main Street, following a truck full of wreaths and the little horse-drawn wagon. All shops were closed or shuttered, people standing outside as the cortege passed. Mothers watched the white caskets and drew their children closer.

At the cemetery four white doves were released as the boys were lowered into the earth. But there was no time to weep at their graveside. Helen and Thomas returned to the church to bring their troubled son to his final place of peace - he was to be buried 10km away, with Helen's family in Kilmallock.

And there was Helen, her diminutive figure emerging from the church for the second time, standing under the coffin with her hand raised to help as best she could. She sat in the front seat of the hearse, to be near Jonathan until the very end.

In the picturesque graveyard, a smaller crowd of about 200 had gathered. After the prayers, Helen took the microphone and thanked everyone. Her heart was broken, she said, but the support she had received had made it easier.

So much grace, on the darkest of sun-dappled days.

Irish Independent