Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 April 2014

Editor's Viewpoint: Lessons must be learned amid grief

The photograph on the order of service at the funerals of Noel Spence and his sons, Graham and Nevin, summed up more poignantly than any words could do the fickle nature of fate and the cruel hand it can so often deal.

The photographs of the three men, admired by all who knew them, had been taken on the steps of that same church at a family wedding, obviously a time of great joy. Yesterday it was the setting for a time of unimaginable grief.

These were men who could almost be described as the yeomen of Ulster. They were proud sons of the soil, men who knew how to work the land and make farming pay. And their love of their land was matched by their faith, a faith that was as strong and as deep rooted as the crops they harvested. They were in the words of country folk, decent men, men whose loss to their families will be immeasurable.

The esteem the family were held in was demonstrated by the huge funeral crowd. Nevin's team mates from Ulster rugby were there in force, many of them visibly still shocked that a man who shone on the field of play less than a week ago should now be dead. Politicians, farmers' leaders, Mickey Harte, the Tyrone GAA manager, who has had more than his fair share of grief to contend with including the death of his daughter, Michaela, and the Spence's friends and neighbours all stood shoulder to shoulder to pay their respects.

And they witnessed a remarkable show of strength from Emma, the daughter who had barely survived the tragedy. Just released from hospital she spoke eloquently of her beloved father and brothers, by turns reducing the congregation to laughter and tears. What many just discovered yesterday was the extent of Emma's heroism. How she had climbed down into the slurry tank to haul her father out, a Herculean feat given his size, and then gone back to try to save her brothers. Perhaps that more than anything demonstrated just what kind of people the Spences are.

Emma, her sister, Laura, mother Essie and sister-in-law Andrea bore their grief with dignity but only they know the pain they are enduring. While the tragedy touched the hearts of many throughout this province, it is with these women, and Graham's two young children, that the agony and emptiness of loss will endure for many days, months and years.

There are no adequate words of consolation that can be said or written.

In time we may learn some lessons from this terrible tragedy. Slurry tanks and their lethal gases are a constant source of danger on farms and perhaps there are measures which can be taken to minimise the risk to life.

But these men died trying to help each other survive. Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for another is a Biblical phrase familiar to most of us. Noel, Graham and Nevin lived, and died, by it.

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