San Francisco Rose win helps ease the pain of family after Berkeley tragedy

San Francisco Rose Amanda Donohoe tells Catherine Shanahan that being part of the Rose of Tralee festival has a very special meaning for her and her family.

It has its share of critics, but, for the San Francisco Rose, who lost a sister and cousin in the Berkeley balcony collapse, taking part in the Rose of Tralee Festival has had a powerful cathartic effect on the entire family.

“It’s like I’ve already won more than I’ve ever wanted because it’s given my parents a definite boost,” said Amanda Donohue.

“My mum is always going ‘oh we need to get dresses for this, oh we’ll need to get your hair done’ — it’s something to focus on and it’s given us a tremendous light with everything that’s been going on in the last two years, something happy to focus on.”

Amanda, 19, lost both her sister Ashley, 22, and Irish cousin Olivia Burke, 21, when the fourth-floor balcony on which they were standing collapsed during a 21st birthday party in the early hours of June 16, 2015. They were among six students to lose their lives, five of whom were Irish. Another seven Irish students suffered catastrophic injuries.

On RTÉ Radio One’s The Ryan Tubridy Show yesterday, Amanda said her parents, both from Dublin, are “doing well”.

“They are definitely very, very excited for the Rose of Tralee,” she said.

“I have to say for my entire family, it’s been a really, really good push for them. It’s something to come over here for [to Ireland], to a really happy occasion.”

In fact, many of the family’s Irish relations travelled to California to
witness her selection as San Francisco Rose, including Gavin, the younger brother of Olivia Burke, even though he had an exam the following week.

“They were all crying, happy tears in the photos, of everyone hugging me, the big smiles on their faces,” she said. “It’s definitely been a really happy thing to get
together.”

Amanda said the festival experience has not “closed a chapter”, but had “turned a page” to a “definitely happier narrative” than the one that unfolded when her mother and father, from
Tallaght and Donnybrook
respectively, got a call in the early hours of June 16, 2015.

They were told there had been an accident and that Ashley was unaccounted for, so they rushed to Berkeley.

Amanda says the nightmare experience is still “all
a bit of a blur”.

“Everything was chaotic, blurred. It was a 21st birthday party so everyone there was friends,” she said.

“Actually, the other girl who passed away [Eimear Walsh], I knew her as well, they were all just up where I live for my high school graduation the week before. They were all just cheering me on and all. Everyone was very close friends.”

Amid the chaos, a policeman who was a family friend went to the scene, where “the balcony was still swinging” and established that Ashley and Olivia were indeed among the casualties.

“He basically risked his life just to give us some peace of mind and that’s basically when we got confirmed [the two deaths].

“It was just absolutely crazy. And the following week was very, very difficult. We had funerals and I actually spoke at my sister’s funeral.”

Amanda described her sister as her “biggest champion”, particularly when she was being bullied during her early teens at school.

“I didn’t have a lot of friends in school growing up,” she said. “People in the States are a little strange. There’s jealousy going on, I was actually bullied fairly heavily, car keyed and the business.”

Her sister helped her through: “I’d come home from school and I’d be upset and she’d say ‘let’s go and get ice cream’. And I thought about getting back up and I never wanted to let them beat me down. There’s no point in getting bitter over people when, you know... Just be better.”

She said she was also very close to her cousin Olivia
due to regular visits back and forth between Ireland and California.

“The girls, both of them, were absolutely incredible and great role models,” she said. “My sister and I were very, very close and for like a cousin, you would think ‘oh your cousins live on the other side of the world’ but as I was telling you — this is my 27th visit to Ireland at age 19 and Olivia and her younger brother Gavin come over to us just as often.”

Amanda said her parents — who met at Bective Rugby Club in Donnybrook — never intended to emigrate but the opportunity presented itself in the late 1980s and they
decided to try it out for two years. It turned into the “longest two years of their lives”, said Amanda.

She said the fate of Irish students on J1 visas — Olivia was on one at the time of the accident — plays on her mind now.

She recently read of the tragedy that befell 22-year-old Cork student Philip Leahy, who died following a swimming accident in Maryland, and said “my heart goes out to the family”.

“It’s just like dealing with everything in a foreign country is so chaotic.”

Philip is due to be laid to rest in Ballyhooly, Co Cork, on Monday.

Amanda, who turns 20 today, is studying physics “with a nuclear emphasis and a minor in mathematics” at University of Nevada, Reno.

Her choices were heavily influenced by an “incredible teacher, Ms Crowley” who was passionate about teaching and made Amanda “fall in love” with the subjects she is now studying.

“She was offered positions all of the time by big companies, corporations, but she was just so passionate about teaching so she just really got me into it,” she said.

Amanda concedes her
degree choice is in an arena still dominated by males.

“I’d like to say it’s getting better, but it’s still very much a man’s world in the States,” she said.

She gave an example of her first day in university last year.

“I walked into the classroom first day of school, you got your first-day-of-school outfit on, hair all done, one of the guys in the class says: ‘Oh you know you are in the chemistry building? Sweetheart, are you lost?’ And I was like ‘no, excuse me, I’m in class with you’. I actually ended up getting a better grade than him.”

Amanda, who admits to spending Saturday nights teasing out physics puzzles with like-minded friends (how much force would it take to throw a goat 40ft), said she would “love to do lab research” but her “biggest dream” would be to work on the particle accelerator, the Hadron Collider, based at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research where the search continues for the elusive Higgs Boson, or ‘God’, particle .

The Rose of Tralee Festival runs from August 16-22.


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