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Harrowing fallout of a mother's heavy drinking

Maeve Sheehan reports on the case of Faith Varden-Carberry, who sued her parents after a fatal car crash

LAST week, a 12-year-old girl settled a legal action against her parents for negligence. Faith Varden-Carberry was badly injured and traumatised after her alcoholic mother, Mary Carberry, crashed the car she was driving after a day of heavy drinking. Mary Carberry was already banned from driving at the time.

Faith survived, along with four-year-old John Logan. Faith's sister, Ava, 6, and another child, Michaela Logan, 9, were killed. The tragedy was heart-rending and highly publicised, not least because of her mother's role in it. Questions were also raised about the state of the disused road outside Edgeworthstown where the car ploughed into a clay embankment. At such a tender age, Faith experienced the death of an only sibling, her mother jailed for dangerous driving and the harrowing fallout on her father who bought the car for her mother, and her remaining extended family.

So perhaps wanting to at least ensure financial stability for his grandchild as she faces into adulthood following a fractured childhood, Tony Carberry, Faith's grandfather, sued on her behalf. Through him, Faith sued her mother, Mary, and her father, Thomas Varden, who bought the car for Mary. She sued the National Roads Authority and the Motor Insurers Bureau of Ireland, which compensates victims of uninsured drivers.

The case opened last Tuesday, and was settled by Wednesday. But it was long enough to hear the harrowing evidence from Faith's businessman father, Thomas Varden, who said he had considered seeking full custody of Faith and her sister Ava before the accident. Mary Carberry and Thomas Varden, who have not been in a relationship for many years, were in the High Court last week. The settlement must have come as a relief to both of them. They suffered not only the parent's worst nightmare of losing a child, but both were accused in their different ways of contributing to the injuries of their surviving daughter through their alleged negligence.

When Mary Carberry was tried for dangerous driving in 2009, the court heard an account of her troubled past. She grew up in a respectable family in Longford town, where her father, Tony, had been a town councillor. She left school at 13 and went down the route of drink and drugs. By the time of the trial, she had a string of convictions for minor crimes -- larceny and public order offences -- the kind often committed by alcoholics.

While hitch-hiking this petite and dark-haired young woman crossed paths with Thomas Varden, a well-known and successful businessman who was originally from Tuam in Co Galway but lived in Oranmore. She was 23. He was 60. He had built up a successful catering firm supplying glass and bar equipment to hotels and pubs across the west of Ireland. He sponsored the Galway senior football team and was a prominent figure in his community.

Although Mary Carberry was 23, almost 40 years his junior, she was already a chronic alcoholic, regularly in trouble. They had two children, Faith, who was born in 2000, a year after they met, and Ava, born two years later.

They never lived together and they weren't in a relationship at the time of the crash. He continued to live in Galway while Mary Carberry lived in Kilcock, Co Kildare. According to his testimony last week, Varden kept in contact with the children and provided for their accommodation.

Between 2003 and the car crash in 2007, he had concerns for their safety as their mother's drinking continued. He said he had contacted social services several times in that period, as had her grandparents, Tony Carberry and his wife, Lilly. But according to Varden, he was advised to contact the gardai. His biggest fear was that there would be a fire in the house.

But towards the end of 2007, it appears that there were signs that Mary Carberry was facing up to her drink problem. During her trial in 2009, her GP told how two months before the fatal car crash she had come to him seeking an injection to prevent her from abusing alcohol.

In court last week, Varden said he believed she had changed her ways. That was why he agreed to buy her a car in 2007. Their mother was the subject of a six-year driving ban, which meant that the children had to walk more than 2km to school. He recalled how they used tell him on the phone that they got cold and wet on the walk, and that pulled at his heartstrings. "She was seeking for me to provide transport, purchase a car, and somebody who was insured and had a full licence would drive it," he said.

He believed that she intended to move to Drumlish, in Co Longford, where her relatives lived. "She'd have her sister drive the car or her brother, Gerry. I was very pleased with that. I knew the children would be safe down there," he said.

"I thought the fact she was going to her AA meetings; I thought the fact she'd turned over a new leaf. I trusted her. She was adamant she couldn't drive the car and she knew that herself anyhow."

So he bought a black BMW 116. Carberry had the car for just a few months, when on Monday, November 26, 2007, she went for an afternoon drink with a man she was seeing at the time. She drank several beers in the pub and continued to drink back at her house. Her friend, Michelle Logan, joined her there.

At some point, they decided to go to Longford in Carberry's seldom-used BMW for a Christmas shopping trip. Ava and Faith and Michaela and her brother, John, aged four, were in the back. At around 9pm, they pulled into the Park Hotel in Longford, where the children had crisps and minerals.

Carberry tried to book a room at the Park for the night but none were free. So she rang a relative in Drumlish for a bed. That's where they were headed when they left the hotel. CCTV cameras installed on the premises captured images of the four children clambering into the BMW for the journey that would end minutes later in death. A witness who drove behind thought the driving so erratic that "boy racers" must be behind the wheel. All Carberry could recollect was the "thump" as the car ploughed headlong into a mud embankment on the disused road, having missed the turn off for the main road.

She later said in a statement to gardai: "All I remember is the thump. Then the flashing blue lights. I did not know what I hit. I remember Ava, I remember her face, I just don't know what happened. I don't remember arriving in the hospital."

A garda found Michaela dead on the road. Ava died later in hospital, and Faith and Michaela's brother John were both seriously injured. Mary Carberry stood nearby, confused and smelling of alcohol. She asked for a cigarette, even going back to the car wreck to retrieve a pack -- and lied, saying that her friend Michelle had been driving. At Mullingar hospital later, she refused to give a blood or urine sample.

In court last week, Thomas Varden told how he heard the news when Carberry phoned him. "She said Ava was dead and she thought Faith was dead too," he said. He drove to the mortuary at Mullingar Hospital. Carberry was lying by her dead child's body, trying to keep her warm.

"She said: 'If I had a gun I would shoot myself.' I said: 'If I had a gun I would do it for you myself.' My other child was dying. It was terrible," Thomas Varden said. "I thought Faith was dying, but she recognised my voice and I was delighted. I did not see Mary Carberry again until Ava's funeral. I was angry. I am still very angry."

Mary Carberry relented the morning after the crash, apologising to gardai and co-operating fully with the investigation. She pleaded guilty at her trial, where evidence was given of the burden of guilt and grief on her shoulders.

Last week, Varden said that after the car crash, she texted him repeatedly, often in the middle of the night, to the point where he asked gardai to get her to stop.

Ava was buried in her father's home town of Tuam. Faith and John Logan suffered terrible injuries. Faith was in a spinal cast for 10 weeks and attended weekly counselling for three months. She continues to live with her mother in Newtownforbes in Longford.

Carberry did not contest her daughter's legal action against her when it came to court last week. The action against Varden settled on Wednesday, leaving only the action against the Motor Insurers Bureau of Ireland. The case against the bureau will continue in three weeks for assessment of damages.

Sunday Independent