JUST one small signpost marks Fahan out among the string of small communities scattered along the Lough Swilly shoreline and its parish church lies hidden among a maze of tight roads squeezed between heavy hedgerows.
But no signs were needed to point the way to the focal point of the grief that enveloped the area yesterday as locals gathered at St Mura’s Church to lay to rest two of their tragically lost young men.
Cars turned down the twisty route in their dozens, and walkers wound their way there in their hundreds, heads bent as the wind whipped rain into faces already washed pale by their exhausting battle with shock and sorrow.
At St Mura’s approaching 11am, they huddled together in muted expectation, awaiting the arrival of the first of the young victims of Sunday night’s devastating car crash.
Mark McLaughlin was 21, a son of John and Roma, a brother to Damien, a lorry driver for his local quarry company, with a love of community and a zest for the life he lived there.
His coffin was carried into the barely adorned church with raindrops shivering on its polished surface, as a violin played a traditional air. The 300 or so mourners in the pews rose in respect as the same number again stood inside and outside, wherever a space presented itself.
Parish priest Fr Neil McGoldrick opened with words that spoke of the anguish and injustice felt by Mark’s family and friends.
“Just 21 and in the fullness of good health — far too young to die. And yet here we are in St Mura’s parish church today to pray for and to say farewell to Mark — son, brother, friend.”
Mark’s uncle Pat died suddenly in February and Fr McGoldrick spoke of the disbelief that now Mark would join him in the graveyard where the family had grieved so recently.
In his homily, he said an air of incredulity surrounded everything that people in the Inishowen peninsula had experienced and felt these past few days. “On Sunday night a shockwave rolled through this area. Someone described it as a tsunami rolling across Inishowen, overwhelming us all.
“Immediately, there was the fear and anxiety of wondering who could have been involved in the accident.
“That anxiety spread by mobile phone far beyond here to Britain, the United States, Australia and Europe.
“Right around the world wherever there was family and friends, there was the worry and fear of not knowing if their loved ones were involved.”
He recalled the horror for the McLaughlin family of waiting for hours at Letterkenny General Hospital only to find their worst fears confirmed.
“Surely no words can adequately describe that harsh reality that has left Mark’s family and so many others feeling stunned and helpless. Eight deaths, seven young people, all gone in an instant. How can this be?
“Then on Monday, the sight of hearse after hearse, cortege after cortege, passing through on the way to Fahan, Clonmany and Buncrana was a sight you would never forget — so deeply, deeply distressing.
“This distress and the pain of this gathering is being repeated and will be repeated at seven other funerals, not to mention all the old wounds that will be reopened as people remember past tragedies.”
Fr McGoldrick called for prayers for the emergency service crews, hospital staff and undertakers who had to deal with what was a tragedy of unprecedented scale, and also for the driver of the car, 21-year-old Seán Kelly who remains in a serious condition in hospital.
“Inside you feel like screaming at the world, screaming at God,” he said. “In these times of deepest grief, there is no answer to the question why?”
In the afternoon, more came asking the same question. The numbers at Patrick McLaughlin’s funeral swelled to over 1,000, the later start giving more time to travel.
The 21-year-old, known to all as PJ, was no relation to Mark, but as friends they shared more than a surname and now their families were sharing the ordeal of losing a son.
His coffin was carried past a guard of honour formed by the Illes Celtic Football Club for whom PJ, their striker, wore the number 10 shirt.
President Mary McAleese and Bishop of Derry, Dr Seamus Hegarty, both sent their condolences as they had done for Mark earlier.
Fr McGoldrick was once again chief celebrant and once again spoke of the bewilderment and sense of disbelief his young parishioner’s death had brought.
“We all think we understand death until it comes in our own door,” he said. “There is so much pain, it tears you apart.”
PJ’s mum, Kathleen, despite the heartbreak wrought on her, PJ’s dad, Charlie, and his four younger siblings, Charles, Deborah, Aoife and Odhran, had shown extraordinary resilience, vowing at his wake: “It will be hard but we will manage.”
The choice of ballads at his funeral were hers: In the Arms of the Angel and You Raise Me Up — songs of comfort and hope in seemingly hopeless times.
That determination to be strong was carried into the final reflection, a tender verse with the lines: “Let me live, not in the anguish of your hearts, but in the sparkle of your eyes.”
The rain let up for PJ’s burial but the weariness of the long, sorrowful days hung heavy all around.
Fr McGoldrick had recalled how the previous evening when the families of the dead went down to the crash scene to lay flowers, they had remarked to him that there was hardly any sign of the accident, the road showing little evidence of the devastation that occurred there two days earlier.
He said it felt odd to them to see no physical signs, given the pain and anguish and horror imprinted on their own hearts and souls.
But marks on the road weren’t needed to signpost Fahan’s grief yesterday. It was written on the face of every mourner that here was a place where sorrow dwelled.
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