'Ciara was an incredible girl ... we could not imagine that something awful could happen to her'
A former gaelic footballer, talented musician and successful career woman, Ciara McGreevy was a shining light. Her sudden and, as yet, unexplained death has left her family and friends devastated.
Preparing to mark a month since her little sister died, Serena Hylands is determined to remember the good times — the nights out, the laughs and the endless energy Ciara McGreevy bubbled with every day of her life.
A true all-rounder, the 31-year-old was sports mad, a proficient musician, an ambitious career woman — and the heart of her family.
“She was an incredible girl,” says Serena. Unreal.
“She was my baby sister — my only sister. And we were best friends. We were thick as thieves our whole lives even though we were polar opposites in our personalities. She was so outgoing.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do without her, although every day I’m coping a little bit better; we all are, I think. It helps to just remember her and how brilliant she was.”
Ciara’s body was found at her home in Warrenpoint, Co Down, on January 23. So far, the family aren’t sure of the exact cause of her death, although the possibilities have been narrowed down to either a ruptured brain aneurysm or a catastrophic heart condition.
“It could only be one or the other we think,” says Serena (33).
“But until the full report comes back, we just don’t know. We never imagined something so awful could happen to our Ciara, who was so young and always so happy.”
Ciara’s family — mother Joan, father Tom, Serena and her brothers Connaire and Garren — remember her as the life and soul, the fun-loving one, the one always full of adventure.
“She was the heart of our family,” says Serena. “She really was. You’d just be happy being around her and there was always lots going on with her.
“For one thing, Ciara was great for travelling. She was so adventurous and she went just about everywhere you’d dream of going — she inter-railed round Europe, she went to Thailand, America.
“She did so much and, for that, we’re really glad.”
Over the years, Ciara played for a number of GAA teams — Ballymartin, Saul and even Down ladies for a time.
She was once named personality of the year, young player of the year and player of the year at Ballymartin, her mother’s family’s GAA club.
“She was a great player, and loved the sport,” Serena explains.
“She didn’t play so much in the last couple of years but she’d still go to the gym and keep herself healthy. That was important to her.
“She was absolutely stunning as well, so pretty with her blonde hair, and she had an amazing figure. She was into her fashion and she always looked gorgeous.
“We had so many nights out together, and holidays, that we’ll always have those memories, all that fun to look back on.
“Looking through my wardrobe a few days ago, it stung a little bit because there were dresses that would make me think of nights out we’d had, and the silly things we’d laughed at.”
There was a serious side to Ciara too, and she was very successful in her career. A former pupil of St Louis Grammar in Kilkeel, she went on to complete a degree at the University of Ulster, and later a Masters at Queen’s.
After working at two prestigious businesses, she took the reins as Human Resources manager at the family firm, CTS Projects in Warrenpoint, and later got involved in its Mourne Mountains Brewery company too.
“We all worked there,” says Serena, who is assistant managing director at the firm. “So we spent loads of time together, not only at home with each other, and socially, but at work too.
“Ciara was very professional and really into her job, she loved it. And recently she was really thriving in the brewery work because she loved the promotion end of things and it suited her down to the ground.
“Ciara was a great talker, you see. She was very confident and relaxed in herself, very friendly.
“She could talk to anyone, no matter who you were, what age you were, she’d find common ground with everyone and put them at their ease. Because that’s
just who she was, lovely and bubbly and friendly, she was an absolute natural in that part of the business,” Serena explains.
But her talents didn’t stop there, and the family are immensely proud of her musical abilities — something she kept up well beyond her school days.
“She played the piano and violin, and got quite high up in her grades,” recalls Serena.
“She played with the Ulster Youth Orchestra for a while and she got recognition from them at one point, which we were all so proud of her for.
“She really threw herself into so many things and, while she didn’t study music at university, she always carried on playing.”
Some of Serena’s fondest memories are of big family occasions, with Ciara there in the middle of all the activity.
“She was my bridesmaid the day I married my husband, Simon,” says Serena, “and she was amazing on such a big day — and she even gave a speech. It was so lovely and such a brilliant thing for a bridesmaid to do, I was so proud of her.
“Then last year, when my little boy, Lewis, was christened, she was in the middle of it all having a great time.
“Lewis was her only nephew and she absolutely doted on him, she loved him. And he loved her too, they had great fun together. It’s just sad she won’t get to see him as he grows up.”
And, according to Serena, her little sister was a great animal lover too.
“We always had pets, growing up, and Ciara had her own two cats, Tia and Tommy, who she was crazy about. She was a vegetarian too, so that was a big thing for her, as was her health and fitness.”
Looking back on what happened to Ciara still stuns Serena. “Sometimes I think it’s sinking in, that I’ve come to accept that Ciara’s not coming back, but it was such a terrible, terrible shock. We never dreamt for a minute something so awful could happen to our family.”
One thing that’s given the family a lot of comfort has been the huge surge of warmth and support they’ve felt since Ciara passed away.
And while they struggled with their immense grief on the day of her funeral last month, they couldn’t believe just how many people came along to St Mary’s Star of the Sea Church in Rostrevor to pay their respects.
“We just couldn’t get over it,” says Serena. “It was huge. We knew she was such a popular and well-loved girl, but we didn’t know so many people would come along like that. It was lovely to have that support and warmth for her.
“Ciara loved pink so everyone came along in pink, to celebrate her life and her personality, and we even managed to get a pink coffin which we think she’d have liked.
“And as we left the church, we somehow managed to smile because we played one of her favourite songs — Rose Garden by Susan McCann. It’s upbeat, like a country song that Ciara loved, and through all the sadness it somehow made us smile.”
As the family prepare to mark Ciara’s Month’s Mind tonight, they are focusing on the good times with the girl they loved so much.
“It’s certainly not easy,” Serena acknowledges, “but I’m not breaking down and that’s the main thing.
“My wee boy, Lewis, keeps me going and he has to come first. There are still tears every day because we can’t believe our Ciara is gone, but we are learning to deal with it.
“We know things won’t be the same again, we won’t and our lives won’t. But she was such an incredible person, we’ve got to celebrate the fantastic life she had and the amazing person she was.
“We’ve got to try to laugh and smile about her, and remember her the way she was — forever young.”