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Cookstown remembers teenagers one year on from Greenvale Hotel tragedy

Emotions still raw for families and friends of trio who perished in horrific crush outside hotel in Tyrone town

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The main street of Cookstown in Co Tyrone where the Greenvale Hotel tragedy took place

The main street of Cookstown in Co Tyrone where the Greenvale Hotel tragedy took place

Greenvale hotel

Greenvale hotel

Council chair Martin Kearney

Council chair Martin Kearney

Businessman John McConnell

Businessman John McConnell

Lauren Bullock

Lauren Bullock

Photopress

Connor Currie

Connor Currie

Photopress

Morgan Barnard

Morgan Barnard

Photopress

The main street of Cookstown in Co Tyrone where the Greenvale Hotel tragedy took place

Across the country St Patrick's Day events have been cancelled. From Dublin to Belfast, Cork to Downpatrick, there will be no mass gathering to celebrate Ireland's national day.

That will not make much of a difference to Cookstown. They will not bother too much about it in the heart of Co Tyrone. There was little appetite to celebrate anyway.

A year from now we will remember St Patrick's Day 2020 for the things that didn't happen.

Today we remember last year for the things that did happen. And the events which claimed the lives of three teenagers in a crush outside the Greenvale Hotel as they queued to get in to celebrate Ireland's patron saint are still very keenly felt in the town where the tragedy unfolded.

Always a town quick to raise a glass or three to St Patrick in the past, a glass will be quietly raised to Morgan Barnard (17), Connor Currie (16) and Lauren Bullock (17), not only by their friends, but by the families of their friends, and indeed all across the town where virtually everyone knew someone who was in that queue at the door, out with friends to carry on the annual tradition of hundreds of young people celebrating St Patrick's night at the Greenvale Hotel.

Time has moved on. Emotions are not so highly charged. Healing had begun and there have been other concerning matters to contend with in the run up to the first anniversary. There's nothing like a critical health pandemic to take your mind off other things.

Walking along Ireland's longest, widest main street, the howling wind rolls down from the Sperrins which dominate the skyline at the northern end of the town. It is an unpleasant day under the leaden skies. Snow doesn't feel too far away.

It's not long before the Cookstown sense of humour warms that chill as you duck in and out of the shops to escape the freezing, sideways rain.

"She'd lift ye out here," says one woman struggling to open a shop door, "quare 'n' breezy".

You are greeted with a smile. Those smiles which were missing this time last year have returned, but that is Cookstown. A friendly, welcoming town steeped in the traditions of Tyrone.

It is a town where families know families, know friends of friends. Have known them for years. Connections run deep.

Not much has changed over the years. A market is still held every Saturday come rain, hail or shine. Many of the old shops stand exactly where they've stood for decades, run by the son of the father and sometimes of the grandfather as well.

For a night out the venues are the same, there's just a new clientele, more often than not the children of those who attended the exact same places three or four or decades ago. The children who don't believe their parents once had a life.

The bus loads still come in from around the country on any given weekend, but now they come with the knowledge of what happened last St Patrick's Day.

These days there is not so much of the sneaking out behind parents' backs. Party nights are still to be found, but there remains an underlying sense of shock, even a year later, when you mention the Greenvale tragedy.

Maybe they had been distracted by other events across the world, but when you speak to people about the night of March 17, 2019, they take a moment to realise what you mean.

Reality dawns and facial expressions change. That's no slight on what happened, that's just human nature. We live mainly in the present.

It's not that what happened at the Greenvale Hotel that St Patrick's night has been forgotten. Far from it. It might not be talked about so much, but it's very much there.

Grief is a personal thing and that can apply to a whole town as well as an individual. Cookstown doesn't want to be remembered as that town where three teenagers died as they went out to celebrate St Patrick's night. Yes, it's part of the history, part of the story to be told of the town, but it doesn't have to dominate its future.

At Mulligans Bar, half way along the main street, it's a quiet start to the day - and it looks like a quiet week ahead. There's nothing major planned. "There's just no real appetite for it. We'll be having a normal night," I'm told when I inquire behind the bar if there's anything special lined up.

Another of the major hot spots, one which attracts bus loads every weekend, is Time. All weekend there are St Patrick's-themed nights lined up, but for March 17, nothing.

And all will fall silent at The Greenvale Hotel itself, which will close its doors at 5pm.

Many people still shy away from that night, protecting themselves from the memories they wished they didn't have, memories of their own kids who were there, who saw what happened and prefer to deal with it in a less public, more private, protective way.

"It has changed. Things feel different now," said John McConnell, who runs his business in the centre of town. A sports shop, it's a popular one with the young people of the town.

"Every parent has been left thinking twice because of what happened," he said.

"Where are you going? Who are you with? Parents now want to know where their kids are going, and the kids seem more happy to let their parents know. There's more responsibility.

"There was hardly a person in Cookstown who wasn't affected in some way. And what really stuck home was that it could have been any one of our children.

"The events touched everybody. My heart still goes out to the families, the hearts of all the people in Cookstown go out to them. Over the past year families are probably closer than they have been for many years."

There's not a lot goes on without the whole town knowing it by the end of the day. And last year the town, indeed the Mid-Ulster region as a whole, suffered greatly.

"There can be very few people whose thoughts will not be turning to the same day, a year ago, and the loss of three young lives," said Mid-Ulster's first citizen, Martin Kearney.

The council chairman said it was going to be a painful day as the community reflected.

"For the families of Lauren, Connor and Morgan, we know coping with such a shocking and terrible loss has been a daily struggle. They have lived through many 'firsts' without their precious children, now they face the first anniversary," he said.

"It's impossible to imagine how difficult and painful the day will be and my thoughts and prayers, and those of the people of Mid-Ulster, are with them.

"The events of that night have also impacted deeply on the young people who were there, their families and emergency services and we think of them too, together with the school and sporting communities which continue to feel the loss."

Speaking at the funerals a year ago, Archbishop Eamon Martin's spoke of a 'Valley of Tears'.

That new valley will be forever painted on the landscape of Mid-Ulster. Though over the years the colours may fade, the memories of three teenagers, out for a night with their friends, will never fully be erased.

Belfast Telegraph