Derry City has witnessed many sorrowful scenes in its often troubled history. But yesterday’s funeral service was as heart-wrenching as any other dark chapter in this proud but battered city’s history.
Mourners gathered at the church in Ballymagroarty long before the five hearses bearing those who perished in Donegal’s waters on Sunday evening arrived just before 2pm.
Spitting rain quickly gave way to a sharp burst of spring sunshine as the hearses, all carrying floral tributes, were lined up side-by-side as mourners waited in the car park.
Three white coffins, containing brothers Mark and Evan and their aunt, Jodi-Lee, were the first to be removed from the hearses.
A short time later, coffins bearing the remains of the boys’ father, Sean McGrotty, and his partner Louise’s mother, Ruth Daniels, followed.
All five coffins were carried up the steps of the Holy Family Church.
Hundreds of neighbours, family, and friends from across the city followed the coffins into the church, and around 400 or so had to listen outside as the funeral Mass was relayed by speaker.
People held hands and many wore little red and white ribbons in honour of Mark and Evan’s favourite football team, Derry City, for whom their uncle Josh Daniels, Ruth’s son and Jodi-Lee’s brother, plays.
Fr Paddy O’Kane, the parish priest who has coped admirably in trying to bring some form of reason and sense to the horrendous events of last weekend, gathered himself.
Beforehand, Fr O’Kane said, he was pleading with God to give him the right words to bring some kind of comfort to those who had gathered to say goodbye to Ruth, 57, Sean, 46, Jodi-Lee, 15, Mark, 12, and Evan, 8.
He duly found those words but admitted he struggled to help Louise James and her family to find answers as to why such grief has visited her home.
He told the congregation: “When the news broke on Sunday evening that a terrible accident had happened on Buncrana pier, my prayers for the dead and bereaved included a prayer for the priest who would have to face the family and at the funeral try to make sense of this tragedy,” said Fr O’Kane.
“Little did I think I was praying for myself. Then at 7 o’clock on Monday morning I got a call. ‘It’s Louise James here, Fr Paddy,’ she said. ‘That was my husband, my children, my mother, my sister that died yesterday evening.’
“Stunned, I later made my way to her home where the grief was palpable. Grown men stood, red eyed, in silence. Words could not come to my lips to put any shape on what I felt inside.
“A reverent silence felt more appropriate as I gripped her hand. As I kissed her cheek, I tasted the salt of her tears. ‘I am so, so sorry’ was all I could muster, and I hoped it was enough.
“We struggle today to find words to speak the unspeakable. We are bewildered by the intensity of this grief for I know, Louise — as I have already said — there is nothing I can say today to alleviate your pain and sense of loss.
“This is a desert experience, barren of any comfort, as we search for an oasis of hope in this bleak landscape and as we struggle to find there any refreshing words of life and healing.”
Fr O’Kane paid also tribute to Davitt Walsh, from Kerrykeel, Co Donegal, for his bravery in saving Louise’s four-month-old daughter Rioghnach-Ann from the freezing waters of Lough Swilly. Davitt was at the church, still on crutches after receiving cuts during his heroic rescue.
“We saw it in the self- sacrifice of Sean on Sunday evening as he desperately tried to save his family,” said Fr O’Kane. “We saw that altruism again in the bravery of Davitt Walsh who saved the life of Rioghnach-Ann by swimming out to rescue her.
“Davitt, today we salute you as our hero.”
Fr O’Kane spoke of little Evan and his phonecall to his mother just half an hour before he was to lose his life just metres off the slipway at Buncrana Pier.
He said: “Two weeks ago, we were gathered as a family again when he made his First Confession — that same little Evan who, when his mother phoned him at 5 to 7 on Sunday evening as they sat on the pier to watch the sunset, said, ‘Mammy I miss you so much. I am going to give you the biggest, tightest hug you ever got, when I see you again.’”
Fr O’Kane also paid tribute to the emergency services: “We saw it in the way this community has rallied around Louise and all those who grieve here today. The kindness of strangers is another ray of light to lift us from our darkness.”
Then the priest turned to Louise and said: “Louise, your faith is strong as I hear you say how your sons Mark and Evan, partner Sean, mother Ruth and Jodi-Lee, your only sister, are now reunited in heaven with your little baby Joshua, who lived for only 17 hours.
“You are just going to have to wait a little longer till you get that tight hug promised to you from Evan.”
Songs were sung by various choirs including St Eithne’s school choir, St Joseph’s school choir, and St Mary’s school choir.
Among the offertory gifts were a red football for Evan, a school project for Mark, a picture of pop star Justin Bieber for Jodi-Lee, a Celtic shirt for Sean, and a trinket box for Ruth.
A special poem penned for Louise was also read out.
The five family members were laid to rest at the City Cemetery in two graves: Ruth alongside Jodi-Lee and Sean with his boys Mark and Evan.
Sean and his two boys were dressed in their beloved Derry City jerseys, with all five victims wearing St Michael’s Guardian Angel medals as they were laid to rest.