A nation stops to mourn with a community in total shock

PJ’S WHITE Beemer was his pride and joy, so much so that a framed photograph of the lovingly tended 19-year-old motor came to the church with him for his funeral and two of his wreaths were shaped as cars bearing the BMW emblem.

Paul loved “doing the lap”, his requiem Mass heard, the lap being Inishowen slang for cruising around town showing off his latest set of wheels. A copy of his favourite read, Autotrader, was placed at the altar.

Mark only ever wanted to be a truck driver, and got his wish at McDaid’s Quarry where the cab of an eight-wheel DAF was like his second home.

An 18-inch model of it was set among his floral tributes and a poem written for him by a colleague fondly recalled him driving around, mobile phone to his ear, flashing hellos at his many friends.

Eamonn was car-crazy and jumped at any excuse to get behind the wheel – he’d drive to Cork in the morning if he could think of a valid reason why, his mourners were told.

Damien had loved a job he had for a time working in a local tyre centre, Ciarán’s cortege was headed by his shiny silver Volkswagen Passat and offerings at James’s funeral included a model of his work van with his name printed on the side.

The young men who died in last Sunday night’s horror crash, which took place between Buncrana and Clonmany on Donegal’s Inishowen peninsula, had a lot more than just friendship in common – they also all loved their motors.

Seán Kelly is no different. The driver who offered to take his friends home that night and the sole survivor of the carnage, was relishing the prospect of being up early on the Monday morning to drive an artic to Paris.

Car culture is strong on the peninsula, not surprising given its rural setting, particularly when a set of wheels is an almost essential expression of a young man’s independence and freedom.

In an area of farms and one-off houses, you can’t stroll down to your pals’ houses and in a region with sparse public transport, you can’t hop on a bus or commuter train to socialise whenever the mood takes you.

But given the events of last Sunday night, and the fact that Inishowen has had more than its fair share of tragedies on the roads, questions were being asked this week whether the region’s love affair with the car was a doomed one.

The questions – or rather the criticisms they implied – were not well received in communities gutted by grief.

From early on they felt they were on the back foot, fending off suspicions that alcohol played a part in the accident, though it is now accepted that Seán Kelly had abstained and offered the others lifts home for the very reason that he was sober while his friends had a few drinks taken.

There were also suggestions that the occupants of the car ignored a warning flashed by another motorist, urging them to slow down, and that when they hit the first car, they failed to stop and kept on going until they collided with local farmer Hugh Friel in the fatal crash.

Those theories, too, now seem to have been discounted, the collision with Hugh Friel now believed to have been a consequence of losing control after clipping the first car.

The driver of that first car, who lived less than a mile from Mr Friel, was deeply shocked by what happened and she has declined to speak publicly.

What isn’t disputed is that Shaun’s Passat was overloaded with eight people in a car that had seatbelts for five, but even then people are reluctant to condemn.

Overloading is not so common now that it attracts penalty points but few could honestly say they never took a lift, or offered one, in a car that had more passengers than seats.

Fr Neil McGoldrick, parish priest of Fahan, who was chief celebrant at two of the victims’ funerals and won praise for the sensitive manner in which he reflected the community’s pain, would not be drawn into discussion when the question of responsibility on the roads came up.

“Those are issues for other people to look at. My only concern is the grief of the community and supporting them through that,” he said.

He taught secondary school for 12 years and knows young people, hates to hear them maligned for their natural exuberance, hates to think of youth being anything less than youthful.

“This is all very hard on the young people around here. It’s support they need, not speculation.”

Buncrana-based county councillor Rena Donaghey, a cousin of the fathers of victims Mark and Damien McLaughlin and a former neighbour of PJ McLaughlin, also cautioned against trying to find lessons in the accident.

“I don’t think you can legislate for what happened here. You know, the wee man [Hugh Friel] never went home that way normally. Neighbours said he always went a different way so it was very strange for him to be on that particular road that night.

“And Damien had phoned Coleen [his girlfriend] to cancel the lift she was going to give him so that was a bit of fluke too. I just wonder is the man above doing something to us. It’s just hard to understand any rational explanation.

“Also I think if there was anyone with a right to look for something or someone to blame, it’s the families of the young men who died, but their sympathy is with the Kellys. They’re all praying for young Seán. Members of the Kelly family have been at every wake and every funeral and they’ve been welcome at them all.”

But local former Garda sergeant, John O’Keeffe, is not so sure that an analysis of the events of last Sunday night would not be useful.

O’Keeffe, who retired from the force two years ago, has told his story in this paper before – of how in 2004 he went to the scene of an accident to find his teenage daughter, Lizanne, seriously injured and his niece, Áine, and the two young men they were with all dead.

The following year, five young people died in similar circumstances and the next year, another crash claimed the lives of five Latvians who had been living locally.

Last Sunday night O’Keeffe heard the sirens go past the house and felt a mix of concern at the number of emergency vehicles and relief that he didn’t have to face the horror that awaited them.

He wouldn’t talk specifically about this week’s accident but said it should prove a reminder of how catastrophically wrong things can go on the road.

“There seemed to be a good improvement in the number of fatalities over the last few years but the mindset in certain places has not changed,” he said.

“There is a culture in parts of the peninsula of ignoring speed limits. That has to stop. A lot of young people will not drink and drive – it is still the older driver who does that – but they will speed.”

Worryingly, he said the attitude of parents did not always help.

“Sometimes young men are pulled up by the gardaí and then the parents remonstrate that their Johnny is being picked on. When young people get the backing of their parents for irresponsible behaviour, that behaviour is not going to change.”

He believes penalties for dangerous driving should be stiffer and if he could pull the hood down on every young man who drives in a hoodie, he would.

He also thinks it’s time to review the holding of rally racing in the area.

“I would notice that there’s an increase in speeding just prior to and after a rally. It gets people excited. It doesn’t help matters.”

He speaks as someone who was a garda for 30 years but also as a parent and uncle.

“I just feel so sorry for the parents of those young men. They don’t know what they’re in for. It’s six years since Lizanne’s accident and still the first thing that hits you every morning is that Áine’s dead.”

There are others urging debate. On Tuesday at Letterkenny District Court, Judge Seamus Hughes spoke with exasperation as he dealt with the case of a head-on collision.

“I don’t know what it is about the breed of Donegal people,” he said.

“I know this is a sensitive time in the county and I don’t want to comment on the tragic events of the weekend, but for God’s sake will people slow down.”

But for the most part, these are topics too painful for local people to discuss right now.

The closeness of communities here is hard to overstate. Golf competitions at Ballyliffin, bingo at Clonmany, dances at Burnfoot, GAA matches, cycling races and sports days have all been cancelled this weekend because the organisations involved or their members had links to the deceased.

Even the gravedigger at Eamonn McDaid’s funeral had to be brought in from Convoy, he explained, because the local man was related to the victim.

But some activities continued as normal. In Buncrana after dark, locals say you’ll always find young people, mainly young men, in one of the town’s car parks, parked side by side in cars polished to perfection, engines idling, windows rolled down, chatting, slagging and sharing the craic before taking a spin around town and returning to see who else has rolled up alongside. Sure enough, a couple of late-night visits find exactly those scenes.

Local youth and health workers opened a drop-in centre in the evenings to offer a listening ear to young people affected by this week’s tragedy in any way but numbers using it were small. They seemed to prefer their own unofficial meeting place.

The car park gatherings looked harmless and, after all that’s happened, they may well be helpful.

But after the events of last Sunday night, every parent with a son who goes there will be wondering if they’ll make it safely back home.


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