Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

Spence tragedy: Faith sustains as family bids farewell

The three coffins leave Ballynahinch Baptist church, in Co Down after the funeral service of Noel Spence, 68, and his sons Graham, 30, and Nevin, 22 who all died trying to save each other in a slurry tank
The three coffins leave Ballynahinch Baptist church, in Co Down after the funeral service of Noel Spence, 68, and his sons Graham, 30, and Nevin, 22 who all died trying to save each other in a slurry tank
The funeral cortage of Noel Spence and his two sons Graham (30) and Nevin (22) at Ballynahinch Baptist Church
The funeral cortage of Noel Spence and his two sons Graham (30) and Nevin (22) at Ballynahinch Baptist Church
Ravenhill Rugby Club on the day of the Spence funerals
Nevin Spence's coffin is covered with his Ulster Flag Jersey after his funeral service at Ballynahinch Baptist church, in Co Down
Jim Neilly
Nevin Spence coffin drapped in his Ulster Rugby Heineken Cup jersey.
Edwin Poots MLA and family friend
Family members at the head of the funeral cortage of Noel Spence and his two sons Graham (30) and Nevin (22) at Ballynahinch Baptist Church
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt (left) attending the Spence funeral.
Tyrone GAA manager Mickey Harte (left) pictured at the funeral
A police officer salutes Nevin Spence's coffin as it leaves the church after the funeral service
Ulster player Tommy Bowe pictured at the funeral
Ulster captain Johann Muller pictured at the funeral.
The DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson arrives at the funeral
Ravenhill Rugby Club on the day of the Spence funerals. Photograph by Declan Roughan
The Spence family arrive at Ballynahinch Baptist church, in Co Down for the funeral service of Noel Spence, 68, and his sons Graham, 30, and Nevin, 22. Photo PA
@Press Eye Ltd Northern Ireland -19th September 2012Mandatory Credit - Brian Little/ PresseyeThe funeral of Noel Spence and his two sons Graham (30) and Nevin (22) at Ballynahinch Baptist Church, who died in an farming accident on Saturday evening.Ulster rugby player Paddy McAllister (centre) walking in the funeral cortage.
The Spence family arrive at Ballynahinch Baptist church, in Co Down for the funeral service of Noel Spence, 68, and his sons Graham, 30, and Nevin, 22. Photo PA
The Spence family arrive at Ballynahinch Baptist church, in Co Down for the funeral service of Noel Spence, 68, and his sons Graham, 30, and Nevin, 22. Photo PA
@Press Eye Ltd Northern Ireland -19th September 2012Mandatory Credit - Brian Little/ PresseyeThe funeral of Noel Spence and his two sons Graham (30) and Nevin (22) at Ballynahinch Baptist Church, who died in an farming accident on Saturday evening.Harry Sinclaie Ulster Farmers Union President.
@Press Eye Ltd Northern Ireland -19th September 2012Mandatory Credit - Brian Little/ PresseyeFamily members at the head of the funeral cortage of Noel Spence and his two sons Graham (30) and Nevin (22) at Ballynahinch Baptist Church, who died in an farming accident on Saturday evening.UUP leader Mike Nesbitt (left) attending the Spence Funeral.
@Press Eye Ltd Northern Ireland -19th September 2012Mandatory Credit - Brian Little/ PresseyeThe funeral cortage of Noel Spence and his two sons Graham (30) and Nevin (22) at Ballynahinch Baptist Church, who died in an farming accident on Saturday evening.
@Press Eye Ltd Northern Ireland -19th September 2012Mandatory Credit - Brian Little/ PresseyeThe funeral cortage of Noel Spence and his two sons Graham (30) and Nevin (22) at Ballynahinch Baptist Church, who died in an farming accident on Saturday evening.
@Press Eye Ltd Northern Ireland -19th September 2012Mandatory Credit - Brian Little/ PresseyeThe funeral of Noel Spence and his two sons Graham (30) and Nevin (22) at Ballynahinch Baptist Church, who died in an farming accident on Saturday evening.
@Press Eye Ltd Northern Ireland -19th September 2012Mandatory Credit - Brian Little/ PresseyeThe funeral cortage of Noel Spence and his two sons Graham (30) and Nevin (22) at Ballynahinch Baptist Church, who died in an farming accident on Saturday evening.
@Press Eye Ltd Northern Ireland -19th September 2012Mandatory Credit - Brian Little/ PresseyeThe funeral cortage of Noel Spence and his two sons Graham (30) and Nevin (22) at Ballynahinch Baptist Church, who died in an farming accident on Saturday evening.
19/9/12 PACEMAKER BELFAST. Essie Spence is comforted by family members at todays funeral in Ballynahinch of Noel, Nevin and Graham Spence who died following a tragic farming accident at their Hillsborough home at the weekend. Picture Charles McQuillan/Pacemaker.
19/9/12 PACEMAKER BELFAST. Surviving family member Emma Rice at todays funeral in Ballynahinch of father Noel and brothers Nevin and Graham Spence who died following a tragic farming accident at their Hillsborough home at the weekend. Picture Charles McQuillan/Pacemaker.
Funerals at Ballynahinch Baptist Church for Ulster rugby star Nevin Spence along with his brother Graham and father Noel
Funerals at Ballynahinch Baptist Church for Ulster rugby star Nevin Spence along with his brother Graham and father Noel
Emma Spence twice risked her life to try and save her brothers and father
Nevin Spence, 22, came to prominence playing for Ulster Rugby and was a rising star in Ireland's international rugby scene
Ulster rugby player Nevin Spence who was killed, along with his father and brother in a farming accident
Book of condolence opened at Ravenhill rugby ground for Ulster rugby star Nevin Spence along with his brother Graham and father Noel who died in a slurry tank accident on the family farm outside Hillsborough in Co. Down. Tributes placed at Ravenhill
Book of condolence opened at Ravenhill rugby ground for Ulster rugby star Nevin Spence along with his brother Graham and father Noel who died in a slurry tank accident on the family farm outside Hillsborough in Co. Down. Tributes placed at Ravenhill
A painting of Nevin Spence by his sister Emma.
Book of condolence opened at Ravenhill rugby ground for Ulster rugby star Nevin Spence along with his brother Graham and father Noel who died in a slurry tank accident on the family farm outside Hillsborough in Co. Down. Tributes placed at Ravenhill
Artist Emma Spence from Hillsborough County Down pictured at her studio in a barn at the rear of her father's farm. ©Press Eye Ltd - Northern Ireland.25th February 2011
Pacemaker Press 17/9/2012 Graham Spence
Graham Spence at his Hillsborough farm.
Nevin Spence on the family farm. Pacemaker press
Ulster's Nevin Spence
Nevin Spence, father Noel and brother Graham
Nevin Spence playing for Ulster last December against the Scarletts
Nevin Spence at Ulster's summer camp
Nevin Spence in action for Ulster against Bath
Nevin Spence with Ulster team-mate Nigel Brady back in December 2010
Nevin Spence relaxing down on the farm
Nevin Spence (far left) with young Oscar Knox who suffers from a rare form of cancer
Gifted: Accident survivor Emma Spence on the family farm
Emma Spence in her artist's studio
Emma Spence's portrait of brother Nevin on the rugby pitch
Ulster's Nevin Spence
Horror: The Spence farm, where emergency services attended on Saturday night after four people were overcome by fumes
Horror: The Spence farm, where emergency services attended on Saturday night after four people were overcome by fumes
Tributes for Nevin Spence and his family left at Ravenhill
A family console each other while reading messages of condolence at the home of Ulster Rugby
Tributes left at Ulster Rugby's home ground Ravenhill for Nevin Spence and his family.
Tributes left at Ulster Rugby's home ground Ravenhill for Nevin Spence and his family.
Tributes left at Ulster Rugby's home ground Ravenhill for Nevin Spence and his family.
Tributes left at Ulster Rugby's home ground Ravenhill for Nevin Spence and his family.
Tributes left at Ulster Rugby's home ground Ravenhill for Nevin Spence and his family.
Tributes left at Ulster Rugby's home ground Ravenhill for Nevin Spence and his family.
Tributes left at Ulster Rugby's home ground Ravenhill for Nevin Spence and his family.
Nevin Spence, who died alongside his father Noel and brother Graham
Ulster's Nevin Spence
Tributes left at Ulster Rugby's home ground Ravenhill for Nevin Spence and his family.

The bright autumn sunshine seemed incongruous, its light glancing off the three coffins, highlighting the beauty of the orange, red and white floral tributes that sat on top of them.



This was a day when it would have been more appropriate for the heavens to open, for rain to lash down upon thousands of mourners and soak the streets of Ballynahinch. Out of pity. Out of sympathy. Out of pure sorrow.

But no, sunshine.

And, yet as the Spence women said goodbye to their men — Noel (58), Graham (30), and Nevin (22) — yesterday afternoon at the Baptist Church, the bright mid-September day took on a strange appropriateness. For if the Spence family’s grief was palpable, so too was their sustaining faith.

Ahead of the service, a church elder reported that mother Essie, daughters Emma and Laura, and daughter-in-law Andrea, were coping well. He said: “It’s devastating for them but they have strong Christian faith and we know that this is what life is preparing us for.”

Then, the three large coffins of Essie’s husband Noel (58) and her sons Graham (30) and Nevin (22), who died on Saturday trying to save each other from a slurry tank on the family farm, were wheeled in. Nevin’s coffin carried his no 13 Ulster Rugby jersey, a poignant reminder of what was lost.

When Essie, her daughters and immediate family filed in and took their places at the front of the church, there was a collective intake of breath.

The ashen-faced mother was within touching distance of her youngest’s son coffin.

How do you comprehend bereavement on this scale?

When the pastor gave thanks for the fact that Emma’s life had been spared, Essie and Emma were visibly moved.

Yet throughout the lengthy 80-minute service the Spence women, time and again, epitomised the grace and dignity that comes with deep personal faith.

Touchingly, despite her own inner turmoil, Essie was still able to comfort her daughters.

When the story behind the second hymn When Peace, Like A River, Attendeth My Way, written by American Horatio Spafford after he’d lost his son, then his daughters, was announced, she reassuringly stroked daughter-in-law Andrea’s arm.

But when it came to daughter Emma’s intimate and moving — and, yes, amusing — tribute to her lost father and brothers, it was Essie who needed support.

After artist Emma had spoken of her father’s blond hair, her younger brother’s humour and her older brother’s devotion to his children, her mother was deeply moved.

Among this family group was Andrea, who has lost a husband, and whose children, Nathan and Georgia, still under five, lost a daddy.

The Spence men died trying to save and support one another in extremis, and that was exactly what these women did during this Service of Thanksgiving.

They rallied during a rousing chorus, It Is Well With My Soul, exchanging near-hugs and giving words of encouragement.

And afterwards Essie and her family prepared to accompany her men on their final journey to the graveyard. She chatted to the pastor then turned to face the congregation, her face a mask of grief.

As another mother and grandmother said after the Twin Towers fell, ‘grief is the price we pay for love’. The Queen is right, but it costs us dear.

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