Belfast Telegraph

A week of despair that brought out human in all of us

By Gail Walker

Last week the shadows threatened to overwhelm us. Last week it was hard not to be unnerved. What happened to Sean McGrotty (46), his young sons Mark (12) and Evan (8), his 57-year-old mother-in-law Ruth Daniels and sister-in-law Jodi-Lee Daniels (14) showed that, beneath the stabilities of our everyday existence - home, work, friends - there are arbitrary chasms of pain, horror and despair. It is hard to witness a tragedy like Buncrana and not succumb to the senselessness of it all.

An impromptu day out at a seaside town while mum is in England on a hen party. A spur of the moment decision to take a drive down to watch the sun set over Lough Swilly. A three-point turn to begin the short journey home. An algae-covered pier.

The details as they came through were excruciating. How the car slipped down the pier. The shouts for help. And when it became clear that tragedy was under way, the bystanders' desperate calls to the Coastguard and RNLI. The car starting to fill with water. Sean McGrotty passing out baby Rioghnach-Ann to a man who had swam out to help, his heartrending plea of "save my baby". And, after all that, the photographs of a laughing, smiling family.

Those faces. Loving and ordinary. Five lives, lived like lives are being lived all across Northern Ireland, wiped out in the blink of an eye. No wonder this is a community still in shock.

Many felt the same kind of desolation upon seeing photographs of last week's funeral of prison officer Adrian Ismay, murdered by dissidents. Mr Ismay was described as "a big man with a big heart" and we could see how that big heart touched the lives of many, most of all the Ismay family: his wife Sharon and three daughters: Samantha, Sarah and Tori. Their tears fell - as they should - unchecked and searing. What are we to make of a philosophy that leaves a young woman with Down's syndrome weeping over the coffin of her dad?

Many also felt stricken by the sad life - and death - story of Downpatrick woman Catherine Kenny. A 32-year-old discovered dead in a Belfast shop doorway after a life wrecked by addiction, its wilfulness and powerlessness, but not abandoned by family, or by love. A life which complicated the stereotypes we have of homelessness and which reminded us of the human hearts inside the bundle of clothes on the side streets.

Three very different stories: one a product of merciless chance, another of grotesque murder, another of wrong paths taken. We look at those left behind - Louise James, the Ismays, the Kennys - and we wonder how they will cope, how they will make sense of it all? What unites these stories is sorrow - and also terror at just how awful life can be.

But then.

Walking beside these stories, there are those others which demand our attention also. There is Davitt Walsh, who, without regard for his own safety and propelled only by the need to do something, anything, to help, struck out into the treacherous waters of Lough Swilly in a bid to save the family.

There was also the love of Sean McGrotty, who could have saved himself but instead stepped back into the sinking car to be with his little family to the end. Because it is also clear that, underneath the ordinary, there is something redeeming, inexplicable even.

That a man could risk his life to help strangers is a reminder that we are all bound together in some extraordinary fashion. That a father could hold his life as nought when death threatens his family demonstrates love is indeed greater than the self.

As we despair, we should also remember how we and our friends felt as these tragedies played out. In other words, the feelings of those who didn't know the families of Sean McGrotty and Adrian Ismay and Catherine Kenny. Those feelings were and are genuine, showing that not only can we feel, but we can think and we can imagine. We can empathise. We can and do care. Helplessly and hopelessly, perhaps, but deeply and profoundly nevertheless.

We can see the compassion in the responses of many, many people, whether it was rallying outside City Hall in a silent vigil for Adrian Ismay, or donating cash to a fund to help Louise James and Rioghnach-Ann, or the many calls for action on the condition of homeless and stricken people on our streets. However inadequate, however pitiful, we felt the need to help, to do something, and that says something.

It's true, of course, that for us the pain will dim and the rhythms of ordinary life will re-assert themselves. But we will not forget those images, those words, those stories. They are a reminder that, to borrow a phrase of John Donne's, we are involved in mankind, in all of its sudden, unspeakable terror and in all of its fleeting and humbling nobility.

As well as a reminder of how to live every precious day of the rest of our lives.

Belfast Telegraph

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