Belfast Telegraph

Andrea McAleese getting married eight years after losing little girl in road tragedy

By Ivan Little

A woman who lost her young daughter in a road accident eight years ago and who was recently acclaimed a hero for helping other bereaved people in Northern Ireland, is getting another chance of happiness on Friday in a dream wedding.

And as she ties the knot with her haulier husband, Tommy McConaghy, Coleraine hairdresser Andrea McAleese will be lighting special candles for her tragic three-year-old daughter, Roma, at the service and at the reception, near the famous Dark Hedges at Stranocum.

"My daughter, Maya, will be by my side, but Roma should have been my second bridesmaid," said Andrea, who set up a memorial garden in Coleraine for Roma and for other families to remember lost loved ones.

The wedding comes only weeks after Andrea won the Overcoming Adversity award in the Sunday Life Spirit of Northern Ireland awards.

The accolade was in recognition of Andrea 'dedicating her life to helping parents who have lost a child' and for raising £82,000 to construct the Angel of Hope Garden.

Her 17-year-old daughter, Maya, nominated her mum for the award, but told her nothing about it.

The first Andrea knew about the competition was when she received a telephone call from the organisers.

"I had no idea what they were going on about. Initially, I thought they were talking about some hairdressing award."

At the ceremony, a shocked Andrea received her award from Game of Thrones star, Ian McElhinney. And by a twist of fate, Andrea's wedding is taking place right beside one of the most iconic locations used in filming for the hit fantasy TV series.

The marriage ceremony and the reception are being held at Gracehill House beside the Dark Hedges, which have become a huge tourist attraction for visitors from all over the world.

And if there aren't too many of the fans thronging the road between the trees, Andrea and Tommy will pose for some of their wedding pictures beside them. Andrea, who has been wed twice before, said her second marriage broke down after Roma was hit by a car outside the family home.

"I've read that 70% of marriages don't survive the death of a child," added Andrea, who calls her hair salon in Coleraine Romaya, an amalgamation of the names of her two daughters.

Andrea and Tommy have known each other for years and they even attended the same Sunday School and were confirmed together.

Their mothers, Susan Spence and Anne McConaghy, have been lifelong friends, having grown up together in the Killowen area of Coleraine.

"But they never imagined that their children would end up getting married to each other," said Andrea, who started going out with Tommy almost seven years ago, after a chance encounter in a pub in Coleraine.

"We were friends when we were younger. But after that meeting in Johnston's bar, we started dating. Tommy is a very good fella," said Andrea. "He has helped a lot with the memorial garden, too."

Interest in the Angel of Hope project has soared in the wake of the publicity in the newspapers and on television for Andrea's award. Prisoners from Magilligan jail helped with the building of the memorial on land that Andrea leased from her local council after an intensive lobbying campaign.

Former Man United and Northern Ireland goalkeeper Harry Gregg opened the memorial and his grown-up daughter, Karen, who died from cancer, was given her own place there, too. The memorial was designed by local architect Stephen Todd, who was living and working in Australia.

Families were offered the chance to buy bronze stars inscribed with the names and ages of their loved ones and they were erected on white walls around the garden. The memorial garden includes a picture of Roma, which was taken by her nursery school teacher just hours before she was killed.

And at the wedding, Roma's photograph has been included on the candles that will be lit on several occasions during the day.

Andrea said that Roma was never far from her thoughts. She added: "I've been crying all week. It's going to be a difficult on the day, too. I really miss Roma every day of my life. But I know she will be there in spirit at the wedding.

"I will be getting Maya ready, but thinking I should have another wee bridesmaid there, too. Roma would be 12 now, the perfect age for a bridesmaid.

"But a girl in Coleraine is making the candles with Roma's photograph on them. One of them will be lit during the ceremony and there'll be another one at our top table later on, so that Roma will be with us."

Seventy family and friends will be at the wedding itself and scores more will be joining the party in the evening.

Andrea and Tommy will be spending their honeymoon at a luxury hotel in County Cavan.

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