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Emma has created something positive out of terrible tragedy

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 01/04/2016

Emma Spence. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Emma Spence. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

How do you get over a tragedy that robs you of your father and two brothers, men who were the centre of your life? The stark and uncomfortable truth is that you don't. Emma Spence knows that all too well, even coming up to four years after her father and brothers died in a horrific slurry tank accident on their Co Down farm.

In her compelling interview in today's newspaper - which will be continued tomorrow - she tells how it is the everyday events of life on the farm that remind her of the enormity of her loss. The first spring that the cows went back out into the fields after the tragedy the men who normally herded them were no longer there.

And now when she hears a tractor in the field there is that fleeting moment when she imagines they may be behind the wheel.

It is fitting that her tribute to her dad and brothers should also feature everyday things they would have been familiar with - the hedgerows on their farm, the wild blackberries and the hawthorn blossoms. Her collection of 31 oils on canvas is simply called Their Fields.

That reflects the organic nature of farming, how the seeds grow from the sweat of the farmer's brow, and how the livestock prosper through prudent acquisition and through careful tending.

Those who work the land or rear animals invest not just their time, but also their hard labour and their hopes. They keep pace with the seasons and they can rightly call the land their land.

Emma's deeply personal exhibition will resonate with many in what is a largely rural province. They will know the risks of life on the farm that run alongside its beauty, and they will nod appreciatively at Emma's glowing tributes to those who helped the family keep the farm running in the immediate wake of the tragedy.

They will also understand entirely why the remaining family members decided to stay there. It was bought by Emma's grandfather in the year that Northern Ireland was created, and her father built up his herd of almost 200 dairy cows from original stock of just five. The family DNA is in that land, and those Emma calls "her boys" lived and died for it.

In a way, this exhibition is a sort of catharsis for Emma, a way of coming to terms with her grief and loss. Even if the pain is still there, she has created something positive, something beautiful out of an unimaginable horror.

It is worth remembering that Emma, too, almost perished in that slurry tank as she entered it twice in a bid to save her father and brothers, only to be overcome by the fumes. She doesn't think that was a courageous act but, rather, what anyone would do for a family member. It shows the depth of family love and the character of Emma.

She mourns that her dad and brothers won't be able to give their verdicts on her paintings, but she must know that they would be as proud of her memorial as she is of them.

Belfast Telegraph

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