| 8.3°C Belfast

Widow of retired PSNI man who died on Mournes keeps reliving trauma of it all

Robert Robinson died after a fall in the Mournes. The hurt is still raw for widow Barbara, she tells Claire McNeilly


Barbara Robinson with a picture of her late husband, retired PSNI Chief Superintendent Robbie Robinson

Barbara Robinson with a picture of her late husband, retired PSNI Chief Superintendent Robbie Robinson

Stephen Hamilton

Retired PSNI Chief Superintendent Robbie Robinson

Retired PSNI Chief Superintendent Robbie Robinson

Robert Robinson on a hill walking trip with two of his grandchildren

Robert Robinson on a hill walking trip with two of his grandchildren

Robert Robinson enjoying a family holiday

Robert Robinson enjoying a family holiday

Robert Robinson had a passion for the outdoors

Robert Robinson had a passion for the outdoors

Widow Bernie Byrne (pictured) who lost her husband Sean on the same day

Widow Bernie Byrne (pictured) who lost her husband Sean on the same day

Sean Byrne

Sean Byrne

Barbara Robinson with a picture of her late husband, retired PSNI Chief Superintendent Robbie Robinson

It has been just over a year since Robbie Robinson's life was cut short after a tragic accident in the Mourne Mountains - but for his devastated widow Barbara it "feels like yesterday".

After 45 years together - 43 of them as man and wife - the Banbridge mother-of-two and grandmother-of-three said she now finds that day to day life "is just extremely difficult without him".

Mr Robinson, a 64-year-old experienced hill walker and retired PSNI Chief Superintendent, had been walking with son Neil on January 13, 2019, when he slipped on muddy ground and fell near the top of Slieve Commedagh.

For his wife, who has had one birthday in her husband's absence and is due to see another this April, the passage of time has given her pause for thought about what happened that fateful day in his beloved mountains.

And in her first interview since she lost her soulmate - the man she called 'Robert' and "not Robbie as he was known by everyone else" - Mrs Robinson said she often recalls the accident that cruelly claimed his life.

"It's just the circumstances... it all goes round in your head. Did he suffer? I just pray that he didn't suffer," she said.

"Neil and Robert had just climbed Slieve Donard and were coming down Commedagh. Neil said Robert was a few yards in front of him; literally one minute he was there and the next second he was gone.

"He slipped, his feet went from under him and he just disappeared."

Mrs Robinson (63) told how their son Neil (40), an engineer, alerted the emergency services before calling her after his father vanished without trace.

"When Neil rang he just said, 'I can't find my dad'.

"He had tried to go down after him but there were a lot of boulders and it was rocky. I begged him not to go any further. It was getting steeper and it could have been a case of Neil getting hurt as well."

She added: "In the end Neil had to be rescued as well because he was stuck. He couldn't get back up again because it was so steep."

It was "at least six or seven hours" between hearing that Mr Robinson was missing and receiving the news they had all been dreading.

Barbara said it "felt like forever".

"As time went on we were getting more afraid that it wasn't going to be good," she recalled.

"At the beginning we thought he'd maybe hurt his leg, or injured himself and couldn't get back up, but as time went on... he wasn't calling out... we had heard nothing and as the day went on the fear grew."

He slipped, his feet went from under him and he just disappeared.

She added however: "It was a comfort to know that he and Neil had been together when it happened."

Mrs Robinson said she "just couldn't believe it" when she later learned that another man, Sean Byrne (63), from Camlough, had died on the Mournes that same day. The fact that two men had lost their lives within 10 minutes of each other led to negative reports that their deaths were linked to the weather conditions - something Barbara vehemently refutes.

"People were saying they shouldn't have been up there," she said.

"Neil himself said he wanted everyone to know it was nothing to do with the weather.

"It was just a slippy patch of ground and Robert lost his footing. The weather didn't play a part in Robert's accident.

"And Sean was as experienced as Robert. It was just a tragic accident."

She added: "Robert wasn't reckless. Robert never did anything to put his life at risk - apart from joining the police 40 years ago."

Mrs Robinson said her late husband, who adored their grandchildren Logan (11), Zac (9) and Lucy (4), frequently went climbing alone, adding that he had "walked all over the world in various countries, including Vietnam, Borneo, Morocco".

"If there was a mountain there he wanted to climb it," she said.

"Robert carried everything in his rucksack; his medical kit, his GPS, his foil blanket but at the end of the day it was just one of those tragic accidents and they wouldn't have been any good to him anyway."

The devoted mum, who previously worked in banking, added: "A friend recently said if anyone had asked him where Robert would like to be when he dies he would have said the Mournes because it was where he loved to be."

Barbara, who suffered a heart attack five years ago and is "in a lot of pain with my back and neck", told how her late husband "did everything for me" and "never complained about anything".

"Before Robert died I hadn't driven for four years, he drove me everywhere, he did all the housework, he cooked for me," she said.

"I've had to learn to do a lot of things myself."

She said her son and daughter Laura (38), a forensic toxicologist, and their spouses Hazel and Simon had been a great and enduring comfort to her. She also recalled how family and friends rallied around her at the service of thanksgiving for his life at Seapatrick Holy Trinity Church of Ireland, as well as the "overwhelming number of people who came to his funeral".

Mrs Robinson added: "It's been overwhelming even, the number of people who still say to me they just can't believe he's gone."

Describing Robert as someone who "just loved fun, fishing, cycling, walking and people", she said "a lot of people remember him for his cheeky smile".

However, some recollections remain difficult for the Co Down woman.

"I still can't go to church because there are too many memories," she said.

"There was a candlelight service before Christmas and the collection was going to the Mourne Rescue. It's still too raw for me to go to something like that."

She went on holiday alone earlier this month for the first time.

"Robert and I used to go to Tenerife every November for his birthday. I went back by myself, the day after the anniversary of his death.

"Robert and I did a lot of travelling together and I think he would have liked me to keep doing that. I hope he's proud of me.

"I went back to the same hotel that we always stayed in and it was extremely difficult. But then it's difficult being at home in the house and being lonely. Life is just extremely difficult without him."

She also revealed that her son-in-law Simon commissioned a marble plaque bearing Robert's name and details.

"My son and daughter, along with their partners and friends, took it up the mountain last summer and put it close to where Robert fell so he will hopefully always have a place dedicated to him on the mountain," she said.

She has met Mrs Byrne - whose husband Sean died on nearby Wee Binnian on the same day she lost Robert - several times for coffee and a new friendship has blossomed between them.

"I would never have met Bernie in other circumstances... our paths just wouldn't have crossed and yet we have so many things in common. I don't have to hold anything back; I feel like I can talk to her about anything."

The Robinson family were hit by a second tragedy in October last year when Robert's brother Victor died from a fall at home, aged 72. It has indeed been the most challenging of times.

Barbara said her "wonderful" family will pull closely together as they struggle on without the man who was at the heart of all their lives.

"Neil has big shoes to fill; he's now the head of the family and he has done very well. They've all been great. And we are going to make sure than on every anniversary, birthday or anything like that we all spend the day together. It's the only thing that makes it bearable."

Fighting back tears she added: "Every day is hard. I just hope there will come a day, soon, that it will be less raw... a day when I just don't feel so sad."

Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.

Already have an account?

Belfast Telegraph