Baby AJ O’Brien never saw the world but it was waiting for him with soft blue blankets and teddy bears and cuddles at the ready.
The teddy he never held and the blanket that never snuggled him sat atop his coffin, a little white box barely a foot-and-a-half long, carried tenderly by two young cousins whose freckled faces he would never see.
Baby AJ was the youngest of the Clondalkin refuge fire victims, still two months away from his birth date when tragedy struck last Wednesday.
His expectant mum, Annemarie, had already decided what she would call him, naming him for her brother Andy who, by a cruel twist of fate, also died in a fire six years ago.
AJ was to be her little prince, a brother to two-year-old Hannah Paris, her princess, but mum and daughter also perished.
He was to be a pal to his cousins Jordan, 4, and Holly, 3, and their mum Biddy, but the siblings died too, while their mum was left clinging to life in hospital.
Hundreds of family members, friends, and neighbours gathered at St Anne’s Church in Shankill, Co Dublin, yesterday, desperately trying to make sense of the terrible loss in a deluge of sorrow.
Parish priest Fr John O’Connor, who married Biddy and her husband Jamie McGinn, told the congregation that in such circumstances, anger was understandable and expressing it naturally.
“Many will feel abandoned by Jesus, let down by him, angry with him,” he said.
“Many of us may feel like saying to him: ‘If you had been here, Annemarie, Hannah Paris, AJ, Jordan, and Holly would not have died. If you had been here Biddy would not be gravely ill. Why did you let this happen?’”
Fr O’Connor acknowledged that this was “not the first cross” the families had been asked to carry.
Their extended family included the victims and survivors of the 2015 Carrickmines halting site fire and they have also suffered the loss of other loved ones in untimely deaths.
But even in their sadness and confusion, Fr O’Connor urged them to remember that the bonds they formed in life were not broken by death.
“Even though they have gone before us, they will always be with us,” he said.
“They are still our sons and daughters. They are still our brothers and sisters. They are still our friends, our loved ones, and they will always be with us.”
Jamie McGinn took strength from knowing his children were together, said Fr O’Connor, and he wanted to reassure them that he would take care of their mammy who loved them so much and who they loved more than anything.
Somehow, their mum and dad would find a way to be happy together, knowing Jordan and Holly were happy too.
“They are together, they are not alone,” said Fr O’Connor. “Five more angels in heaven.”
Fr Paul O’Driscoll of the Parish of the Travelling People, to which Annemarie and Biddy belonged, spoke with similar sentiments.
Speaking of the deceased, he said: “When you came into our world, our hearts were so full of happiness there was no room for words. There is a place within us that is yours and yours always for the light you brought to us, for the special gift you will ever be.”
It was a quiet and simple service, the very sight of five coffins — one adult-sized in polished timber, three child-sized in white, and baby AJ’s tiny casket — said more than was needed about the devastation brought to the doors of the O’Briens, the McGinns, to Annemarie’s partner Sean Patel, and to all their extended family in Ireland, Britain, and Malawi.
To one side of the church was arranged the floral tributes, pretty pinks for the girls, jolly blues for the boys.
At the other side, an array of helium balloons shaped as Spider-Man, Peppa Pig, and the children’s other favourite cartoon characters hung motionless in the still air.
Awaiting each of the children’s coffins as they were carried up the church was a framed photograph of their smiling faces and a soft toy — a teddy for Paris, Peppa Pig for Holly, and poignantly, for Jordan, Marshall the fire dog from every preschooler’s favourite, Paw Patrol.
Among those who joined the families in mourning were Cnl Michael Kiernan, representing President Michael D Higgins; Cormac Devlin, chairman of Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council; and Gus O’Connell, mayor of South Dublin County Council.
Pat Fleming, chief fire officer for Dublin City, also attended, along with Chief Superintendent Gerry Russell and Superintendent Pat Ward, representing the gardaí of Dublin and Wicklow, along with members of various Traveller representative groups in Bray, Dublin, and nationally.
After the Mass, three hearses lined up to receive the deceased, the largest carrying Annemarie, Paris, and AJ together; one each for Jordan and Holly — and all three crammed with flowers, balloons, and toys.
The cortege travelled to Springfield Cemetery, Bray, Co Wicklow, where the five burials took place, close to the resting places of those from the Lynch, Gilbert, and Connors families who perished in the Carrickmines blaze.
Members of the Patel family who travelled for the funeral intend holding a vigil in Britain for the extended family who could not come over to allow them to say goodbye to Annemarie and Paris, who they had loved from a long distance, and the baby boy they had been preparing to welcome with great joy.
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