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'The trust got Patrick home so we could see him in his coffin... we'll never be able to repay them'

How the Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust, set up in the aftermath of a tragic death, has become a lifeline for families who lose loved ones abroad

By Una Brankin

Published 11/06/2016

Patrick McDonnell with his children
Patrick McDonnell with his children
Patrick McDonnell was known for his craftsmanship with stained-glass windows
Patrick’s elder sister Lily Willis and her son Mark
Tragic loss: Colin and Eithne Bell with a portrait of their late son, Kevin Bell
Kevin's funeral
Fundraiser: Patrick’s nephew Mark Willis and Hannah

Patrick McDonnell would have loved the special gathering his family have organised in Belfast’s Victoria Square shopping centre tomorrow. He would have been the life and soul of the party, and he would have loved the prizes for the sports-themed raffle that will take place then, for a very good cause.

The heartbroken family of Patrick, a much-loved west Belfast man killed in a road accident in North Carolina in February, has won the support of some of our top sporting stars for an event to raise funds for the Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust (KBRT).

The Trust organised the return home for burial of Patrick (52), a talented stained glass craftsman who was knocked down by a 4x4 vehicle while walking along a junction in the Holly Springs area of the south-eastern US state.

To thank the Trust, set up three years ago by Newry man Colin Bell after his son was killed in a hit-and-run in New York, the McDonnell family will gather at Victoria Square shopping centre tomorrow afternoon for a raffle to win some coveted prizes, including signed and framed shirts from the NI and Republic Euro 2016 football squads, and boxing gloves signed by world champion Carl Frampton.

“Because of Mr and Mrs Bell, we were able to get Patrick home in 10 days and to see him laid out in his coffin,” says Lily Willis, Patrick’s elder sister. “That helped his kids and the family take it in. The news of his death was such a shock and that made it more bearable.

“The Bells organised a private viewing when he arrived in Dublin and that made it real. He looked lovely, even the priest said so. He remarked on the contrast between his smooth wee face and his hard-working hands.”

Crash investigators in America said they would not be prosecuting the driver of the vehicle that struck Mr McDonnell from behind at around 11.15pm, on Monday February 22. Patrick and his second wife Ursula had lived in the North Carolina countryside for over four years. Ursula has remained in the States since her husband’s death.

“The details are sketchy but as far as we know, he was killed instantly,” says Lily (61). “We Facetimed every Friday night and he’d texted us late the night before he died. He was up all night working on this LED-light stained glass with a humming bird on it.

“My husband, Abraham, told him to get to bed but that was him — he was passionate about his work and he wanted to get it finished. He was a real hard worker and a real wee gentleman.”

Described as a very popular and generous “happy-go-lucky man”, Patrick was father to three children, Patrick (27), Shannon (26) and Melissa (23) from his first marriage. He also had two grandchildren and would return to Belfast regularly — his most recent visit was over Christmas.

“Patrick’s wife Ursula was born in America but grew up here, and with his children all grown-up, they decided to make a life out there,” says Lily. “Patrick loved it. He loved life. When I got that call from a family member at 7.05am that Tuesday to tell me he was dead, I just couldn’t believe it.

“I’ll never be able to repay Mr and Mrs Bell for their help. They were such a brilliant support to us.”

Regarded as a genius in his field, Patrick worked up to 16 hours a day to provide for his family. Shortly before his death, he made a photo collage of the family and placed it above his work bench, where he could look at it often during the day.

“He was the golden boy of the family,” said Mark Willis, Lily’s son. “He was small in stature but he was very big-hearted. Mum was very close to him.

“The news of his death was an awful shock for her. We were told the driver was free of fault but we don’t know much else. Mum said she was prepared to fly to America that day but I remembered hearing how the Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust had helped bring back Alan Drennan from Ibiza last year, and they reassured us there was no need for her to make that journey.

“They took over and organised everything, and did all the paperwork. It was a terrible time for us and their help was invaluable.” The Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust is named after a 26-year-old dancing champion and talented Gaelic football player from Newry, who died in June 2013 in a hit-and-run accident in New York.

The popular redhead was one of seven children, including a twin brother. He’d been living in the US for almost a year when his body was found in the Bronx area, early one Sunday morning.  His family’s distress was compounded by a photograph which emerged of Kevin’s body being tossed in to the city’s Medical Examiner’s Office van, next to bags of recyclable bottles.

“Kevin had been out, it was a Saturday night and he returned home at about half three in the morning,” his father Colin explained. “He got out of a taxi and a white van came speeding and struck him, drove on and then he was hit by a second car but apparently he had been killed instantly.”

“We were fortunate or God was good in that we didn’t get a cold call from America. Kevin had been out to a friend’s, Sheamie Toner, and Sheamie rang his parents and they broke the news to us.”

In dealing with the loss of Kevin, his family and the community came together to create a lasting legacy in his memory.

The Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust now helps other families, like the McDonnells, bring their loved one’s bodies home. They have raised in excess of £100,000 so far and helped to repatriate over 130 people, including Patrick.

It can cost families £5,000 to bring their loved one’s body home from another country.

“The time I heard about Patrick McDonnell, I could see his family plunged into the same situation that we were in, I just thought ‘oh God, you are just starting on your journey’,” Kevin’s mum Eithne said.

“It’s a comfort to think that we can help. We said at the time, Kevin wasn’t going to be the last, so the fund is there to help. We just want to help people like the McDonnells.”

Just over a year after Kevin’s death, the KBRT assisted in the repatriation of Glenavy agricultural worker John Paul Nelson (30), who was killed in a road accident in New Zealand, while he was on a working holiday visa. And last November, they repatriated Joseph McDermott from Omagh, Co Tyrone, and Gerry Bradley from Portstewart, Co Derry, both in their 20s, who were killed when a concrete panel fell on them as it was being unloaded at a construction site in East Perth.

A few days later, Alan Haughey (28),from Craigavon was killed in a car crash at Kilgoorlie in Western Australia. The Trust also brought home two people from the Irish Republic who died in Australia that same week — a young man who fell off a ladder and a young girl whose organs failed after she contracted a virus — and a further six deaths that occurred in Canada, New York, Jamaica, Denmark and England.

Patrick’s nephew Mark had heard about the Trust’s untiring work last summer to bring home the body of Newtownabbey apprentice mechanic Alan Drennan (21), who was found dead, with head injuries, in a hotel room on holiday in Ibiza, less than 24 hours after arriving at the holiday island last July. Later, Mr Bell was presented with a cheque for £8,000 from Mr Drennan’s friends.

“As soon as the tragic news about Patrick had set in, I remembered reading about the eight friends of Alan Drennan, who’d been on that holiday with him, presenting Mr Bell with a cheque for £8,000, from money they’d raised for the Trust,” says Mark (40), a computer programmer.

“When someone dies thousands of miles away from their loved ones, there’s no greater gift to be given to the family than to have the body returned for burial, in his home soil, and after the Trust got Patrick back to us, I knew I had to raise as much as I could for them.”

Mark has helped raise £8,000 so far for the Trust, through pub quizzes and by running the Belfast Marathon, with his daughter, Hannah. He hopes to raise a further £2,000 from Sunday’s raffle, which has been timed to coincide with the Northern Ireland team’s match against Poland in the Euros on the same night, and the Republic’s clash with Sweden the following evening.

The prizes include two Celtic football shirts — Patrick had been a devoted fan since the team’s 1967 European Cup triumph. His coffin was lined with a commemorative rug that Patrick had retrieved from a coal bunker and scrubbed clean.

“What happened to my uncle was an absolute tragedy but we are determined that something good should come out of Patrick’s death, in the same way that the Bell family have turned their tragedy into something hugely positive,” says Mark. “There is also a symbolism to the prizes, as the Trust serves both communities equally, and operates across every county in the island of Ireland.

“We feel we have a debt to the Trust, both in a financial sense and also in terms of promoting their good work, so that they can continue to assist other families who have lost a loved one abroad. As my mother said, you never know who will be next.”

  • The Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust raffle takes place at Victoria Square, Belfast, tomorrow from 1-5.30pm. Raffle tickets can be bought online from  www.kbrtraffle.com and www.kevinbellrepatriationtrust.com

Belfast Telegraph

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