Broken-hearted loved ones still searching for answers after the horrific accident that ended the life of a talented young Fermanagh footballer
Tuesday was the tenth anniversary. Eileen and Brian Maguire had set everything to one side. The worst thing was to not be active, so they headed off to the Cuilcagh Boardwalk Trail towards the highest point in Fermanagh.
Along with them were daughters Eimear and her husband Fergal Reilly, Roisín and her husband Marty McGrath. All there to mark the anniversary of the death of their beloved son, brother and brother-in-law, Brian Óg Maguire.
That day, September 13, 2012, Ógie’s life was good. He left the house early to get diesel in a local garage. The previous weekend he had played a typically starring role for Lisnaskea Emmetts as they squeezed past local rivals St Pat’s by a single point to book their place in the Fermanagh Championship final for the first time in 16 years.
Afterwards, he spoke to reporters. His interview was in The Impartial Reporter. He left the paper on the seat as he went into work at Quinn’s pre-stressed concrete plant in Teemore.
A few days before, he went to Monaghan to purchase a pale grey suit for the weekend wedding of Fermanagh team-mate Peter Sherry. Wednesday evening, he asked his mother, Eileen, if she might come into Enniskillen for the late shopping on Thursday. He intended to buy a white shirt. His girlfriend, Meadhbh, had just been in Italy with her mother and approved as it was all the style there.
On the football field, he had captained Lisnaskea to the All-Ireland Intermediate Championship in 2011. That gave him a recall to the county side.
All the various strands of his life were coming together. He had left St Mary’s College, but after 16 months working knew that the factory life wasn’t for him.
He was taking steps to go back to college, but in the meantime, he was going to gather up some money and had a county final against Tempo Maguires to look forward to. Life was good.
The Maguire family home in Macknagh townland, Lisnaskea, is one you can imagine once heaving with craic and fun. A dining table sits in the middle of the kitchen, the heart of the house. On one wall is the kitchen dresser, festooned with pictures of Brian Óg.
Even when he was with us, the girls called it ‘The Shrine’ to his burgeoning football career. On the kitchen windowsill is a picture of him happy and smiling that someone set during the wake. Reminders of sport are everywhere. Family gatherings on ski slopes. Pictures of Eileen playing camogie with Roslea, and then when they folded, Scotstown, right up to when she was 45.
As a student, she won an All-Ireland title with St Mary’s College, beating Mary Immaculate, Limerick.
Brian played football with Newtownbutler First Fermanaghs, right up to 40, a high-fielding midfielder with superhuman strength, the minder of a young team that won the 1988 Championship.
In the living room, there is a stack of ring binders packed with laminated match reports of Brian Óg’s games, from the International Rules U-17 team, with Cavan’s Cian Mackey featuring prominently. The match-day programme of the 1999 All-Ireland final, when he played at half-time in Croke Park for the mini-sevens.
Sitting loose, there are sheaves of newspapers from after September 2012. None are laminated.
“As a baby, there was never any bother with Brian Óg, he just went along with everything. If he cried, you knew he was hurt.
“He tore into everything. Mad about football. My mother used to buy a ball for a pound or two, and at one stage, we counted 22 of them burst in the back garden here. He could solo before he was any age and loved to catch the ball.
“Roisín was the eldest, then Eimear, then Brian Óg. He was the baby, and he was cherished. He was sick when he was born, so I suppose I cherished him even more. He had an operation in Belfast and was OK after that.”
As a child, there was always a camogie game for Eileen or football for Brian. The children followed Eileen and would play on the sideline under the supervision of their grandmother, Cassie.
Occasionally, Eileen might have to dash off the pitch. To settle a quarrel. To entice them down out of a tree.
“Roisín took on a lot of responsibility,” she explains. “They were always mature children, they didn’t cause me any bother. And then Brian Óg went on as a normal teenager.”
Sport was a constant. In time, Fergal O’Reilly started going out with Eimear. Marty McGrath came into Roisín’s life. Two Fermanagh footballers. One day, Brian Óg was with the Fermanagh minors when Marty was with the seniors. They collected their kitbags, socks and togs for a game the following day. They got a picture of that out the back.
By 2012, Brian Óg and Marty were walking behind the band for the pre-match parade on a warm day in Brewster Park, Enniskillen, representing their county in the Ulster Championship.
On the morning of September 13, 2012, he was tensioning a steel rope in preparation for the manufacture of precast cement slabs.
However, the steel rope came loose at one end and flew towards Brian Óg, who was positioned in a safety cage.
The rope was forced behind him where it struck an object, causing it to splay. Two individual strands struck him, causing fatal injuries.
“When I got the call, I mean Derrylin is only seven miles over there, we could have gone over. Why did they not let us go over there? He might still have been living,” pleads Eileen.
They were sent to the hospital in Enniskillen, where they waited for about an hour. Their shock meant they did not know where Roisín was. As it happens, she was in the hospital for a check-up, already overdue for her and Marty’s first baby. Eimear was teaching in the primary school in The Knocks.
“Eventually, the ambulance came in. We were brought into this room, but there was a high window in it. I heard somebody outside the door saying, ‘there’s the ambulance now,’” recalls Eileen.
She stood on a chair and could see it. The back doors opened. She could see the bare feet of her son.
“I made a burst to get out and they held me down.
“After whatever length of time, our sisters and brothers kept arriving, but we were hysterical. We were brought into a room. He had a big lump of steel cable sticking out of the left side of his head. There wasn’t another mark on him. The cable had pierced his temple. And he was just lying there as if he was sleeping. He was still warm. I held him and told him how much I loved him, then whispered an act of contrition in his ear.
“They said he died in the ambulance. But I don’t know. Ach, it was just horrific. Absolutely horrific. A complete scene of devastation. They said he would have to go to Belfast for a post-mortem.
“I wanted to go with him. He never went anywhere on his own. Even before the All-Ireland final, he had to go to the Croke Park Hotel for the interviews, and he asked if I would come with him. He was just a pet of a boy.”
The ambulance brought him to Belfast for the post-mortem. On the way back, they met the hearse at the Ballygawley roundabout. Thousands of people lined the route.
At the wake on the Saturday night, Roisín went into labour. The following morning, the Holy Cross Church in Lisnaskea was packed for the funeral. Hundreds upon hundreds stood outside.
But Roisín and Marty weren’t there. They were in the maternity ward.
Daniel Brian McGrath was born at 4.0am on Monday morning.
A subsequent investigation by the Health and Safety Executive revealed that three wedge segments which grip the steel rope showed signs of wear and damage.
The tapered barrel, in which the grips were positioned, was worn beyond the manufacturer’s recommended limits.
This resulted in the rope gradually slipping through the grips during tensioning and being released with a force estimated at around six tonnes.
The company did not have suitable arrangements in place to check the grips and barrels were suitable for use.
Nor did it have a proper system to manage the use and rotation of these safety-critical items. Quinn Building Products Ltd admitted it had failed to ensure the health and safety of an employee. It also admitted it had failed to maintain work equipment. They were fined £100,000 (€114,000).
Delivering his judgment at Omagh Crown Court, Judge Paul Ramsey said it had been a “dreadful and freak accident”.
The court heard Brian Óg had been “terribly unlucky”, but breaches of health and safety legislation had led to his death.
There had been previous incidents where a wire had come loose, albeit they differed from this “peculiar” accident.
Judge Ramsey added: “A culture of acceptance had grown up that this type of mishap was almost an occupational hazard, and because no one was hurt, there appeared to be no desire to report it or to address it, and I cannot ignore that.” Judge Ramsey referred to eight victim-impact statements which, he said, made for “very difficult reading”.
“They are articulate, eloquent and moving testimonies to the short life of a young man who was so cruelly taken from them,” he said.
“I thought that Health and Safety were as much to blame as Quinns,” says Brian. “They had nothing in place to prevent that from happening. They would have done risk assessments on that kind of machine before. That particular accident might never have happened before, but when they did the risk assessments, they failed to see that it could have happened.”
The family sought an inquest. Their questions that weren’t answered during the court case, they felt they might get through an inquest. They were assured that would be the case.
The coroner, John Leckey, retired in 2015. His successor wrote a letter to the family saying there was no requirement for an inquest. They wrote back, saying their own questions had not been answered. There would be no inquest. That was the end of the correspondence.
“I’d like to have seen some people questioned,” Eileen says.
“We are left in limbo.”
Brian was a supervisor in a Quinn plant. He couldn’t face going back to work there. Eileen’s brother Kevin was working right beside where the accident occurred. He left after a few months.
After a year with Brian out of work, Eileen had to go back to work as a PE teacher in St Comhgall’s. She will never forget a young pupil, Seán Keenan, meeting her at the door on her first day back and carrying her bag down to her room.
Septembers are the hardest. “When you come round to this time of the year, you know it is coming. It’s looming. You end up reliving the horror of that terrible day all over again and it’s as if your body anticipates it,” says Eileen.
“I took up golf because you have to try to park some of it. You would get into an awful state every day.
“I have tried to do stuff, but until I get September out of the way, I wouldn’t be functioning right at all. I always said the girls are the silent mourners. They are suffering too. Brian is as well. Seeing their grief is also very difficult.
“You can’t be too selfish. All I wanted to do was lie down and never get up. But if you had no other children, you probably would. The devastation of it. The pain.
“We have seven grandchildren. I love when they are babies and so innocent. They are my lifeline, a light at the end of the tunnel and they bring a lot of happiness back into my life.”
After the verdict, their statement was read out.
“On Thursday, September 13, 2012, the happy life we knew ended and we were plunged into this awful, ongoing nightmare from which there is no escape,” it read.
“. . . We have been robbed of our only son and our future. The girls have lost their only brother. All our hopes and dreams are shattered and our lives changed forever. The horror of what we had to face that day is still unbearable, the pain excruciating and relentless. It is very difficult to accept that he is gone.
“Brian Óg’s death was not only a devastating loss to us but also for his girlfriend, Meadhbh, our extended family, his friends and team-mates in Lisnaskea Emmetts, Fermanagh, and further afield.
“The loss of my beloved Brian Óg is something I will never come to terms with. The death of a child is the most severe of all emotional issues. I agonise over his last moments and just wish I could have gotten to him. The horror of what happened to him will haunt me every day for the rest of my life.
“. . . The penalty imposed on the company responsible for the death of Brian Óg is of very little relevance to us, nor will it ease in any way the desperate situation we have been left in.
“For them, it may be over today, but for us, it will go on forever.”
Ten years on, the effect mentally and physically has been profound.
“See a bereavement? The death of a child? Your whole system is flooded with stress hormones and there are very few who can survive it. It can attack you anywhere,” says Eileen.
“I was told you have to pretend sometimes. Go out with the grandchildren. I took that advice. I went out to golf, even though I didn’t want to go.
“I was told, ‘Try to pretend you are living’. And that’s what I am doing.
“It’s like what the poet John O’Donoghue says. He has a poem that talks about being ‘ambushed’. Out of nowhere, you are just ambushed by grief. You don’t know why it comes at that particular time. Something triggers it.”
Sixteen days after his death, the Maguires went to the Fermanagh county final. On a deathly sombre night, Lisnaskea took to the field in their green and red hoops. On their chests, they had an ‘8’ printed in memory of their absent captain.
Ryan Glancy, one of Brian Óg’s closest friends, put ‘Skea into a 1-3 to 0-4 lead four minutes after half-time. But essentially, they crumbled thereafter to lose 0-15 to 1-4. Tempo were crowned champions, but the celebrations were muted and respectful.
“It’s hard to describe what it was like. I don’t actually remember a lot about it, to be honest,” recalls Brian.
“It was just unreal to be sitting there and Brian Óg not playing. We were still reeling from shock at the time. People were coming up to us and sympathising and all the rest. But it was unreal. If it was off for another wee while, I probably wouldn’t have gone to it. We just went along with it.”
At the end of the year, the club hosted a function. Brian Óg was awarded Player of the Year, posthumously.
“That was so heartbreaking as well,” says Eileen.
“I would feel far worse though if Brian Óg was forgotten about. We don’t want him to be forgotten.”
Brian adds: “It’s difficult to go to any matches now. I don’t go to many. The odd one. But it always brings it back when I go down, that he is not there on the pitch.”
* * * * *
They get on with life. Or pretend to. The pale grey suit he bought still lies in plastic in his bedroom, which lies virtually untouched.
The week before the anniversary, owing to their loyalty to Lisnaskea Emmetts, they took part in the Tour of Fermanagh cycle. Brian’s chain snapped on a tricky spike of a hill outside Arney. He had to wait on the rescue van. Eileen pedalled the rest of the 60 kilometres on her own.
He has his activities. Eileen plays golf in Clones. She could be out in the middle of a round when she gets it. Ambushed by grief.
When they think of him, it’s his generosity and gentleness that stands out, even though he played football fearlessly.
It’s the little incidents that remind them of his nature. Like the time he was about 16 and getting ready for school one morning when a thrush flew into the living room window.
Brian Óg went out to it and became upset. He fetched a saucer of water to try and revive it, in no rush to leave it.
How he would write lovely letters to his mother on all her cards, especially on Mother’s Day.
“He had that kind of nature,” says Brian. “You didn’t realise, you should have been so happy,” adds Eileen.
“Like, what were you complaining about before this? We’d give anything to have Brian Óg back, even for one day.”