Two best friends who played GAA football together were among four young women killed in a tragic car crash after a day out shopping, it emerged tonight.
Students Marie Ni Chonghaile and Teresa Molloy died alongside college friends Sarah Byrne and Sorcha Rose McLoughlin after their car collided with a pick-up truck at a notorious accident black spot on the Galway-Mayo border.
Hundreds of devastated pupils and staff at NUI Galway held a special Mass for the young women who died on the way home from Sligo.
The driver of the car, fellow student Michelle O’Donnell from Inis Mór, was left fighting for her life in hospital.
Students union president Donna Cummins said the deaths had shattered the close-knit community in the university.
“There is this cloud of sadness around the college. It is just such a bolt of a tragedy to happen in one night,” she said.
“The university has a wonderful vibe about it which is just extinguished.
“People really were lost for words – it just hasn’t sunk in.”
The cause of the crash on a notorious bend on the N17, halfway between Tuam and Milltown, is not yet known although driving conditions in the area had been poor with very heavy rain.
The 42-year-old driver of the lorry was discharged from hospital while garda traffic corps inspectors examined the road for several hours.
Marie, 19, from Ballynahone in Galway and Teresa, 19, from nearby Lettermore, were best friends who played Gaelic football together until they started university.
It is understood the girls became friends with Sarah, 20, and Sorcha, 19, at NUI Galway and lived together in the city.
Those who knew the four paid tribute to them as popular students, bubbly, vibrant and full of life.
Michael Bharry O Flatharta, former secretary of the Lettermore GAA club Naomh Anna where Marie and Teresa played, said it was a harrowing time for both families.
“They were lovely girls,” he said.
“They were the best of mates.”
Theresa’s heartbroken family, Pat and Cathy and her three sisters, and Marie’s devastated parents Noel and Noirin and her two brothers, comforted each other in hospital.
Local Parish priest Fr Michael Kenny, who was called to the crash scene, said it was an horrific sight.
He was on the road for more than four hours administering last rites and supporting emergency crews as they removed the bodies from the wreckage.
“The weather was terrible. There was terrible rain and the road conditions were pathetic,” he said.
In a statement NUI Galway said: “The untimely death of our students has shocked the NUI Galway community and we wish to extend our deepest sympathies to all of their families, classmates and friends at this time.”
Prayers were also offered for injured Michelle.
Sarah, in her third year at NUI Galway, was studying a BA in Gaeilge and Geography while Teresa and Marie were also in their third year studying for a BA in Irish and Translation Studies.
Sorcha was a second year studying for a BA in Geography and Applied Math Science and an Irish Diploma.
Fr Kenny said the stretch of road was known to be dangerous.
“It is a very notorious spot. It is renowned for car accidents,” he said.
“It’s on a corner but there’s a drop-off, a slope, as you are coming round and you can lose control.”
It was the single worst road accident this year bringing the death toll for the year to date to 211.
It follows some of the best safety figures on record after 276 people tragically lost their lives on roads last year – the lowest total since 1959.
Garda Commissioner Fachtna Murphy offered his condolences to the families involved and urged motorists to take care on the roads.
“My abiding message to everybody is to take care on the roads,” he said.
Michael D Higgins, Labour TD for Galway West, said his thoughts were with the families of the women.
“The death of anybody in a traffic accident, but the loss of four young women, who had so much to look forward to, is one that will be felt particularly hard,” said Mr O’Higgins.
He said his thoughts were also with Michelle, from Kilronan on the largest of the Aran Islands, who remains in a critical condition in Mayo General Hospital.