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How a headline in the Belfast Telegraph written years before Nevin Spence’s death brought comfort to his sister in the dark times that followed fatal farm tragedy

On the anniversary of the tragic accident which killed her brothers Nevin and Graham and her father Noel, Emma Spence tells how Christianity helped her cope

Ivan Little

A sister of Ulster rugby star Nevin Spence who died five years ago today in a tragic accident on the family farm in Co Down has revealed how the chance discovery of a Belfast Telegraph headline sustained her in her darkest hours.

Devout Christian Emma Spence has told the makers of a special Ulster Rugby memorial video about her 22-year-old brother that she came across the headline 'Nevin's in Heaven' as she questioned if he was "where we thought he was" after the accident on September 15, 2012.

Nevin's father Noel and brother Graham were also killed in the tragedy.

"I was battling in my head a lot of thoughts and emotions," says Emma, who was rushed to hospital after she was overcome by toxic fumes as she tried to rescue her family members from a slurry tank where they'd gone to save a pet collie.

"And there in black and white was an old story about Nevin signing a contract with Ulster Rugby and the journalist had used a spin on words for the title and it said 'Nevin's in Heaven'."

On 15th September 2012, Nevin Spence tragically passed away along with his father Noel and brother Graham. Five years...

Posted by Ulster Rugby Official on Wednesday, September 13, 2017

"But little did that journalist know that it would have a very different impact on me just as I was thinking those thoughts.

"To a lot of people that was just a coincidence but it gave me lots of comfort.

"We live with the hope that they are alive more than ever in Heaven and that someday we will get to see them again. I try not to think that it's been five years that I've done without them but I probably in many ways try to think that I'm five years closer to seeing them again."

The headline is from the Belfast Telegraph's Rugby Ulster supplement dated January 22 2010, in an article predicting a bright future in the sport for Nevin after he signed a development contract at Ravenhill.

A cherished family picture of Nevin and Graham and their father Noel

Emma also says that the support the family received from the farming and rugby communities around the world has been humbling.

She adds: "We had no idea the impact that the boys' deaths had made. One day the postman arrived a week after the funeral and he had three big crates of letters and he told me he had never delivered anything like this in his 20 years."

Emma also talks of the immense pride that she and her mother have about the naming of a museum and exhibition centre at the Kingspan stadium after Nevin, whose portrait by his sister has a prominent position there.

The 33-minute video called Nevin Spence: Always with Us is a tribute to the popular star, who also played for the Ireland A team, from his friends and former Ulster rugby colleagues as well as from Emma.

Paddy McAllister, who now plays for Gloucester, says that he and his wife Deborah decided to give their new-born son the middle name of Nevin after his friend, who like him was a devout Christian.

The three coffins of the Spence family at the funeral service in Co Down

He adds: "I never forget about Nevin. I live differently. I live grateful and blessed and I definitely think about him a lot and about his life and what his career could have been.

"And it does motivate me to try my best to try to reach goals which sometimes might not be reachable."

Paddy says he's proud of the impact that Nevin had on his life.

Another team-mate, Chris Henry, says that after the accident, his fellow players wanted to "put in performances and stay tight as a group and bring Ulster forward because that's what Nevin would have wanted".

Ulster Rugby chaplain, Rev Andrew Thompson, says that on the morning after Nevin's death he spent time with the players and the staff.

"We tried to make sense of something that was senseless," he says, adding that the hairs on the back on his neck still stand on end when he thinks back to the outpouring of sympathy for the Spence family at a memorial service after the accident. Ulster Rugby chief executive Shane Logan says Nevin was a magnificent ambassador for the club and he remembers how even rival fans joined in the anthem Stand Up For The Ulstermen in games after his death.

Nevin Spence on the family farm in Co Down

Irish captain Rory Best says his former Ulster colleague was a talented, uncompromising, 'hard-as-nails' player who would have run through a brick wall for his team.

"But off the pitch he was very grounded, very humble," says Rory, who also comes from a farming family, and who adds that the accident was particularly distressing for him. "It really threw farm safety into the spotlight and a lot of stuff has been done to highlight the deaths on farms and how important it is for safety," says Rory.

He hopes that something good can come from what he describes as a tragic accident when it was shown how a split second decision could lead to catastrophe.

The video which has been posted on the Ulster Rugby website includes footage of a number of Nevin's cavalier tries for his province and for his school teams.

Interspersed is news coverage of his huge funeral in Ballynahinch and that moving Ravenhill memorial attended by 5,000 fans and Nevin's team-mates.

Emma, who spoke powerfully at the funeral, recalls the enormity of the tragedy.

"Suddenly the three men of our house were gone. My mum and dad's family had suddenly been split in two in a matter of moments.

"Probably the impact of what has happened really has shown the sort of person that he was. He had no airs or graces about himself."

Emma talks about how as he grew up Nevin took pride in being "her annoying wee brother" who along with his father and brother revelled in banter, laughing and playing tricks.

"They enjoyed life and loved winding you up," she says, adding that Nevin was good at whatever sport he tried, and also excelled at drawing and painting.

"My mother would say that he was better than me," she says.

Nevin Spence in action

Emma tells the video makers how important her faith has been to her in the years since the tragedy.

She says she was uplifted after she moved Nevin's car following the accident and found the last song that her brother had played on his CD system.

It was a gospel song called Ten Thousand Reasons (Bless the Lord) about a new day dawning.

"It was a lesson to me that God is still God even in the good and in the bad. And that is something I know Nevin would definitely say to me."

She says she automatically thinks of Nevin every time she hears the song and "I hold on a wee bit stronger to my faith and it helps me to cope with that day".

The video includes old pictures of Nevin playing football at school and Charlie McAleese, a former teacher at Dromore High School, says he took reports from his primary school about his athletic prowess with a pinch of salt.

But that all changed when he started at the high school.

He says: "He was strong, he was quick, he was modest. He was humble. He was just an outstanding guy from the early doors."

Initially Nevin was torn between football and rugby.

Soccer coach Robert McClelland says Nevin, who played for Lisburn Youth, was selected for the Northern Ireland under-16s school squad.

"He was being tracked by Manchester City and he also had a trial for Sunderland," says Robert who struggles to hold back the tears as he talks about Nevin's passing.

"He played in the first Northern Ireland Victory Shield team that beat England in England."

But when he didn't make the next level of youth football Nevin had a heart to heart with Robert McClelland and asked him how he would feel if he focused on rugby.

"And the rest is history," says Robert.

Four of Nevin's closest friends say that their pal loved his rugby but hated the limelight.

Sister Emma says that he didn't even tell her when he was first picked to take part in a camp for the Ireland rugby squad.

He told her he was going to Bath to meet up with friends from university.

One local friend remembers how Nevin bought food for a beggar in the centre of Belfast but tried to keep it a secret from his companions.

"He was humble and compassionate and wanted to do things like that and wouldn't have done it for any praise or adulation from us."

Emma says that the way that her two brothers and father died five years ago epitomised their lives.

"Ballynahinch Rugby Club summed it up very well with the quote 'Humanity defies logic when it comes to love.' And that was it - they loved each other," she says.

"They maybe weren't the sort of fellas to say it but they were there for each other right to the end."

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