Spence family slurry tragedy: Dad, Graham and Ulster Rugby star Nevin would be proud I’m pushing on with life, says Emma
In the first of a two-part interview, artist Emma Spence explains how her work is a celebration of the dad and brothers she tragically lost
Emma Spence could have been forgiven if she had never wanted to see the scene of the terrible tragedy again, but the gifted Hillsborough artist, whose father and two brothers died in one of Northern Ireland's worst farming accidents, has used the land that they loved as the inspiration for a new exhibition she has dedicated to them.
The richly colourful paintings reflect the breathtaking splendour of the Spences' home on the Drumlough Road. Its stunning views of the Dromara Hills and the Mourne Mountains serve only to complete the picture of perfection in an area that was plunged into unfathomable sadness on September 15, 2012, a sadness from which it will never recover.
For that is when Emma's father Noel and her brothers Graham and Nevin died after what started as an attempt to rescue their pet collie from an underground slurry tank on the sprawling farm.
Emma almost died herself after she battled to save "her boys", as she calls them. She had to be rushed to hospital when she too was overcome by the poisonous fumes.
The fact that "wee Nev" - as Emma affectionately called her 22-year-old brother in a remarkably composed and uplifting address at the funerals - was a gifted Ulster Rugby player guaranteed the news would gain even more coverage in the media.
Nearly four years on and standing in the ordered chaos of her studio in a space above a garage that 58-year-old Noel refurbished, Emma was reluctant to revisit the full horror of that nightmarish Saturday afternoon when her life changed inexorably in the blink of an eye.
She had said all she wanted to say at the inquest, where it was revealed she went down into the slurry tank and pulled her father up a ladder with the help of others before going back into the pit.
But Emma lost consciousness as she tried to save Graham (30), and at the inquest she thanked the people who got her out. The coroner asked her if she had been aware of the dangers of what she had done, and she replied: "Yes, but when it comes to the love of your family…"
They were the words which wrote their own newspaper headlines on a distressing day for Emma and her family, who still live at Drumlough Road, staying despite the obvious temptations to move away from the reminders of the tragedy.
The artist, who hates the glare of publicity, had also found her way onto the front pages after the funerals where she had summoned up the resilience - from where she doesn't know - to pay warm and sensitive tributes to Noel, Graham and Nevin, who she said were hard-working, genuine men who were best friends.
In the congregation, the supposedly hardmen of Ulster Rugby struggled to control their emotions, remembering their friend and joker in their pack Nevin, whose sister had painted portraits of 20 of the players for an exhibition not long beforehand.
Emma dismissed any notion that what she did at the funeral service in Ballynahinch Baptist Church, or even at the farm, was in any way courageous.
"We were living in a bubble of a wake. I didn't think about how many people were at the church. It could have been just five or 500. I just wanted to tell them about my dad and my brothers," she said. "Nothing was going to stop me. The words came very quickly to me and there was no great English in them, but I never imagined that people would think so much of it."
Emma's new exhibition is more personal than anything she has done before. It is an intimate reflection of life in the rural tranquillity of Co Down, far away from the roaring crowds in Nevin's Kingspan Stadium.
She has called the collection of 31 oils on canvas Their Fields. They are powerful evocations of little corners of Magheraconluce Farm, which was part of the very fibre of Noel, Graham and Nevin and which made them who and what they were.
Yet there is no sense in which the paintings are morbid, mawkish memorials for her family.
Rather, they stand alone as celebratory snapshots of the hedgerows, the blackberries and the hawthorn blossoms in the fields that Emma said were her loved ones' identity. The 31-year-old is hopeful that her boys would have been proud of what she has achieved with her exhibition.
All three of them, particularly her dad, backed her all the way and encouraged her to find her own identity, even when she harboured youthful dreams of becoming a clarinettist with the Ulster Orchestra, before deciding that art would be her career.
Emma went to art college in Belfast, and she was on the verge of dropping out when she found a new mentor in lecturer Neil Shawcross (below), the acclaimed artist, who urged her to express her own individuality and who will open her exhibition in Belfast next week.
In her final year at the college Emma decided to produce what was in effect an homage to Magheraconluce Farm, which her great-grandfather James bought for £500 in 1921.
It was serendipity, she said, because the photographs she took of her family's everyday life down on the farm and the stories she coaxed from her father have turned out to be invaluable records of the beloved men she lost.
"My dad started with five cows and then he built it up to a thriving dairy farm with almost 200 cattle before the accident," explained Emma, who is deeply appreciative of the help neighbours gave the Spences to keep the farm in business in those dark and dreadful days after the accident.
In the aftermath Emma called a temporary halt to her painting.
She knew that she would return to it one day, but it was not a priority at that time.
She did, however, continue with her work as an art technician at Wallace High in Lisburn, where Nevin had been a pupil and school rugby star.
Not surprisingly, the days, weeks and months after the tragedy were harrowing as the surviving Spences agonised about their future. "We could have sold up and got enough money to buy a nice house to start our lives again somewhere else. But we resolved that we didn't want to walk away from this place, which was home and a massive part of the boys' lives," said Emma.
"Mum also talked of the blood, sweat and tears that went into the farm, and she said that money couldn't buy walking down a back lane and going to a river that is on your own doorstep."
Emma added that the seeds for the new exhibition were sown during her own walks in the fields around the farm where she found solace.
"My dad and Graham worked the farm and were passionate about it, and while Nevin may have been a full-time rugby player, he loved the farming just as much," she said. "At night-time here he milked the cows and the joke was that his best workouts would be standing out in the yard."
Emma started to see the farm anew, looking at it from the point of view of her dad and brothers.
"To most people, looking at something like hedges, they would see only weeds, but I was stopping to look at them and recognising the beauty in them, which is why I wanted to paint them," she said.
But there were, and still are, plenty of down times as well.
"I remember the first spring after the accident," Emma said. "It had always been a happy time, seeing the cows going out into the fields after the winter. But that first spring tore me apart because dad, Graham and Nevin weren't there.
"Now, with the passage of time, I think of the joy that the boys got from something like that. It still hurts, but I am trying to accept that this is life.
"I'm not saying I have it all sorted out now, because I think we are all still in the grieving process with the enormity of all that has happened. But I suppose we have no other choice but to try and cope with it and live with it."
Emma, who lives with her husband Peter in her grandmother's old house at Magheraconluce, said that people regularly asked her if she was not tempted to move away from her studio right in the heart of the farm.
"But it's not painting there that I find difficult sometimes," she said. "It's the noise of the tractors outside. I can still convince myself that dad, Nevin and Graham are there too. Then it hits me that I can't show them my paintings.
"Last May I was part of a mini-exhibition and my work did well, but when I came home I cried. I told my husband that the success meant nothing because the boys weren't there to see it."
Emma choked back the tears as she talked of how she would miss her dad and her brothers even more at the opening of the new exhibition at the James Wray and Co gallery.
"They're their fields and I won't know what they think of the paintings, and no one else's opinions matter," she said. "But I suppose the three of them would be proud that I was pushing on with life and that I was trying."
Their Fields, an exhibition by Emma Spence, runs from April 7 to April 30 at the gallery of James Wray and Co, 14-16 James
Street South, Belfast. www.jameswray.ie