THE Sharon Grace who led her two children by the hand into the calm, cold waters lapping the narrow shoreline at Kaat's Strand in Wexford last weekend was a stranger to her family and friends.
Newspaper headlines last week pronounced her a "killer mum". Those who loved her recoiled from the harsh judgment of the woman they knew as an adoring mother, who, in a last misguided act of love, took her children with her from a world that profoundly troubled her.
There was no denying that she was down: Sharon was 28 and a separated mother raising three daughters. But no one could even guess that the bleakness of her life had become so magnified that she thought the only way out was to take her own life and that of her children.
She had three little girls. Amy, 10, was born soon after Sharon left school in Wexford. She raised her alone, with the help of her parents, living on a mobile home on a family plot of land. Then Mikahla, 4, and Abby, 3, followed when she met Barry Grace. Barry, 38, was divorced with a son, Tony, from his first marriage.
The marriage didn't work out. The couple separated but remained on good terms. When Sharon took a part-time job, Barry, who often works nights in base control for a local taxi firm, looked after the children. He regularly spent Saturday at Sharon's house in Barntown, outside Wexford town, taking along Tony, now aged 14. They shared Christmas dinner with Barry's family.
"They were still the best of friends, they just decided that it wasn't going well for them," said Barry's brother Vincent.
They got along so well that six months ago, they decided to give their marriage another go; Barry spent more time in the family home and talked about moving back in. But their reconciliation lasted no more than a couple of months. Their relationship resumed as before: Barry took the children on Thursdays and visited every Saturday.
At their home in Wexford last week, Vincent and his mother, Alsie Grace, alternating between numbed shock and tears, tried in vain to pinpoint what went wrong. Vincent Grace traced a change in Sharon to eight weeks ago. He said she became withdrawn and uncommunicative with her former husband. Barry could not get through to her on the telephone; he was no longer able to see his children. When a fortnight went by with still no contact with Mikahla and Abby, he asked social workers if they could help.
"I don't know what changed in her," said Vincent Grace. "Barry would not have taken the children from her. He didn't want to go to court. All he was looking for was to try and sort out access to thechildren."
A meeting was arranged between Sharon and a social worker two weeks ago and cancelled. A second was organised for last Friday week, the day before she died.
Sharon's parents, Rosie and Ed Reddy, recalled with anguish their daughter's last hours in an interview with the Wexford People, the only one they granted after the tragedy.
"She rang me and said that one of the social workers had asked her whether she was interested in getting back together with Barry, and she had replied 'No'. She was told the next step was divorce, but at the time she didn't seem overwrought," said Mrs Reddy.
But Sharon's mood had plummeted when her parents called to her house at 2pm the following Saturday afternoon.
"Things were not great there on Saturday. She was very poorly and upset and looked as if she had been crying all night. Her eyes were red raw," Sharon's mother told the Wexford People.
"I asked her what was wrong with her and she just started crying. Myself and Ed took the two little girls to the shop to give her a break and when we came back she was lying on her bed. I joked, 'you're lazy, lying on your bed at this time of day', and she startedlaughing."
Sharon then got and up and talked about lighting a fire and cooking tea for the children. Amy, her eldest daughter, was expected back later. At 6pm, Sharon waved goodbye to her parents from the gate. That was the last they saw of their daughter.
No one can know what was in Sharon's mind after they left, when the urge took her to extinguish her own life and that of her two youngest daughters, leaving her eldest behind.
According to neighbours, soon after 6pm a taxi pulled up outside Sharon's house. She took her handbag and her mobile phone, and bundled Abby and Mikahla into the cab. She was dropped off on the Wexford quays. According to local reports, she walked over the bridge to Ely Hospital, and asked to see a social worker. She was told none was on duty, as they work nine to five. Sharon made no further inquiries and left. No one would comment this weekend from the South Eastern Health Board but newspapers quoted sources saying there was nothing in her manner to betray her desperation.
Later, she was seen by passers-by walking past the Riverbank hotel, next to the Ely Hospital. She held one child in her arms and the other walked beside her.
It would have taken her 15 to 20 minutes to turn down the narrow country road that ended in Kaat's Strand, a small beach overlooked by fine detached houses and a fringe of conifers. Local people often walk dogs there in the evening. That fateful night, the beach was deserted. Sharon left her handbag on the shore and walked with her two youngest children into the sea.
Her eldest daughter, Amy, had by then returned home, wondering where her mother was. A little after 7pm, Amy's aunt, Lilian, arrived with a bag of coal and cigarettes for Sharon. They found no note: Sharon's handbag was gone. It was out of character for her to justdisappear.
Sharon's father, Ed, called from house to house and learnt that neighbours had seen a taxi pull up outside her home. Later that night, her family called in the gardai.
BARRY Grace was on a weekend away in Cork with his brother, Vincent and his wife, Michelle, and other friends, when he got a call in his hotel room at 2am from Sharon's mother.
"He was worried and was phoning Sharon's mobile all night long. He was up all night from 2am on his own. But her phone was ringing out," said Vincent.
They drove back to Wexford early the following morning, still waiting for news. Barry telephoned incessantly, first Sharon's mother, and then Sharon's phone.
"When we got to Dungarvan, Barry told us that Sharon's phone had either gone dead or was turned off. He stopped trying to ring her then," said Vincent.
"We got to New Ross and Barry rang Sharon's mother again. I just remember him saying to her: 'are you all right? Are you OK?'"
"Barry said she didn't sound right. He knew knew there was something wrong."
On the outskirts of Wexford, they turned off to Barntown and the narrow road to Rose and Ed Reddy's house, where Barry was dropped off.
They did not know then that the bodies of the mother and her two young children were found by fishermen at 10.30am that morning, floating together in the shallow waters of Kaat's Strand.
"It was lashing rain. I said we'll wait for you. He said, don't, it'll be all right," said Vincent Grace. "I drove 100 yards up the road to turn the car around. It was a narrow road. When we drove back down, I saw Barry coming out of the gate. He was holding his head in his hands. He stopped and stood in the middle of the road in the lashing rain, holding his head, saying 'no, no, no'. I got out of the car. He told me Sharon and the kids were dead."
They stood for 20 minutes in the middle of the road, pounded by the rain and wind. Barry sobbed and moaned. "I had my arms around him. He told me that Sharon walked down the beach and into the water," said Vincent.
Eventually, Barry had to be pushed into the car. They drove in shocked disbelief to their parents' home in Wexford town.
Abby and Mikahla's grandparents had just finished Sunday lunch when a telephone call came from Vincent's wife, Michelle. Alsie Grace answered the phone but her daughter-in-law asked to speak to Mrs Grace's husband, Pat.
Mrs Grace thought nothing more was amiss than her son perhaps denting the car. She pressed the speaker phone button, so that she could hear their conversation too.
"I heard her say on the phone, 'Pat, Pat, Sharon and the kids are dead.' But he didn't hear it. He said to me, 'What? What did she say?'. Pat hadn't registered. But I couldn't tell him . . . it just didn't sink in. I wasn't sure of what I was hearing," said Mrs Grace.
Barry Grace was desperate to see his children. Their bodies lay in the morgue at Wexford General Hospital. Vincent brought him there shortly before 3pm that Sunday.
The children lay head to head in the Chapel of Rest. Mikahla's face looked peaceful. Abby's was marked by scratches.
"He wanted to say goodbye to his children. We were warned when we went in that they had not been touched. The two of them lay there: I just can't get them out of my head," said Vincent. "He wanted to say goodbye to them, but he regretted it in a way afterwards. The reality just hit home with Barry. Til then, it was like a dream. He was distraught."
The anger at the loss of his children has given way to anguish. Before they were laid to rest in Barntown cemetery last week, Barry Grace gave an emotional and stilted interview which ended abruptly when he collapsed into tears: "Sharon loved those children, she was a good mother and I will never say otherwise, she was a good person," he said.
Later last week, his mother and brother asked that Sharon should be remembered as a loving mother. They know that asking "why" is fruitless.
Sharon's father told the Wexford People last week: "I feel that Sharon was so troubled. I believe she thought she was doing the best thing for herself and her kids and whatever way people want to take that, that's what Sharon believed."
He is probably right: Professor Michael Fitzgerald, the chairman of the Irish Association of Suicidology, said the phenomenon of parents taking their own children's lives is not common but literature shows it is often done out of love.
"They feel the world is an absolutely terrible place and a terrible place to leave children in. And they want to protect children from this depressing world where they think there is no hope. It is a loving act - in the sense that it is done out of love generally. It is a misguided act of love but it is basically done to protect the children," said Professor Fitzgerald.
But for the deaths of Sharon, Mikahla and Abby, there would have been scant attention paid to the grief shared by five other Wexford families who also lost loved ones to suicide in the past week. Those who took their own lives were a doctor in his fifties, a pensioner, two teenagers and a young woman. Nor would much attention have been paid to the fact that the suicide rate in Wexford is eight points above the national average, at over 19 per 100,000.
The Health Services Executive might not have extended its out-of-hours social worker service from the traditional office hours to 1am, as it did last Tuesday following the tragedy. Local GPs may not have been reminded of a free counselling service, called the Wexford Self-harm Intervention Programme, as they were last week. Politicians such as Dan Neville, who heads the Irish Association of Suicidology, and Aware, have solid reason to reiterate demands for more funding, research and outreach services.
"If one thing comes out of this for the people of Wexford, if that service is funded and you can go into Wexford hospital seven days a week until 1am and get help, then I will think my daughter-in-law and granddaughters' lives were not in vain," said Mrs Grace.
"That help should have come. There is no glory or money in helping potential suicide victims. But if this service goes ahead we will be able to say that some good came out of our unbearable tragedy."
Finding hope in tragedy of this devastating scale is not easy. Vincent Grace demonstrated as much when he asked for an appeal to be included in this article: pray for the families of Sharon, Mikahla and Abby to give them the strength to carry on.