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Sisters run marathon to keep memory of hero Eliza Ward alive

 

By Claire McNeilly

Brave Eliza Ward is long gone, but far from forgotten. Family and friends will never forget the beautiful young woman who radiated warmth and happiness.

Customers of the Belfast city centre restaurant where she worked will always recall the bubbly blonde manageress for whom nothing was too much trouble.

But many people in Northern Ireland will remember Eliza Ward's name for an entirely different, and deeply unpalatable, reason.

For even in a strife-ridden country which, at that time, had seemingly grown immune to violent acts, the 18-year-old's brutal murder was profoundly shocking.

Eliza died from multiple stab wounds, having stepped in to save the life of her boss from a disturbed, knife-wielding work colleague.

It was an act of astonishing courage, rightly acknowledged with a posthumous George Medal, although that brought scant consolation to the countless people whose lives the east Belfast girl touched within the all-too-short one afforded to her.

Now, three of her sisters, including ex-pat Emma who is coming all the way from Australia, will run the Belfast Marathon in memory of their much-missed heroic sibling, who would have been celebrating her 38th birthday today.

They are raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support, a charity not directly connected to Eliza or what happened to her, but, as mother Alana pointed out, there isn't an organisation that deals effectively with the relatives of victims of violent crime.

"My daughters Constance, Emma and Monica, who was born after Eliza was murdered, will be running the marathon on May 1 in Eliza's honour," she said.

"This year it will be 20 years since she died in that brutal, unprovoked attack and the girls wanted to do something in her memory. They also decided it was a good opportunity to raise money for a worthy charity."

On that dreadful night of July 17, 1997, Eliza rushed to Rene Scott Lea's aid after hearing her screams.

When she got there, Rene was lying in a pool of blood having been stabbed in the back in an upstairs laundry area of trendy eatery Cafe Society in Donegall Square East by newly employed kitchen porter, Gerard Patrick Stewart.

The then 23-year-old - who was later jailed for life for Eliza's murder - had helped himself to a cocktail of alcoholic beverages from the restaurant before stabbing Rene with a six-inch boning knife.

Then, as Eliza tried to restrain him, he pulled the knife out of Rene's back and plunged it into her, stabbing her through the heart and twice in the back.

The young girl staggered down the stairs crying out, "Please help me", before collapsing.

A customer in the cafe, Irene Waring, tried to administer first aid, but it was to no avail. Eliza died of her injuries in the ambulance taking her to hospital. Her employer later recovered.

As the Short Strand-based Ward family mentally prepares for the 20th anniversary of Eliza being taken from them, Alana told the Belfast Telegraph that the passage of time hasn't made it any easier.

"The support of my children has been great, but even 20 years on it's a struggle to come to terms with what happened to Eliza," said the mother-of-10, whose daughter Monica and son Robert were born in the years after Eliza died.

"Some days are good days, others are not so easy. There's just always something that brings the pain back. The emptiness is always there."

The 56-year-old added: "When Eliza died, a light went out. It's not natural to bury your child, but when that child is murdered and taken from you so brutally, it's even worse."

Watching Eliza's younger brothers and sisters - Angeline (36), Constance (34), John Michael (29), Marco (27), Emma (26), Alana (25), Jason (20), Monica (18) and Robert (17) - grow up without her gives Alana pause for thought.

"You look at the rest of them and you imagine what she would be like now and what she'd be doing and it's just sad because she's not part of it," said the homemaker.

"Eliza was very ambitious and very capable. She was a go-getter. She was a happy girl. She'd just passed her driving test and she'd bought a wee car. She wanted to go places. She wanted to better herself."

Every year, on what should have been their eldest child's birthday, Alana and husband John (60), who doesn't work due to ill health, mark the occasion with a party "so the younger ones remember her".

"The 11 grandchildren (seven girls and four boys aged between 20 and three months) never knew Eliza but they think they do," Alana said.

"Today we'll get together with a cake and sing Happy Birthday to her and the young ones will blow out the candles and eat the cake.

"It's a bitter-sweet experience. It's nice when it's happening, but it's sad because Eliza's not here."

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