Ruth Maguire's family on Christmas pilgrimage to spot where she died
The fact that Ruth is not here isn't just hard, it's surreal, says her sister as she tells of family's poignant journey
Last Christmas it was different. Last Christmas Ruth Maguire had been in full festive swing, searching for gifts, fussing over the family, ensuring everyone enjoyed their dinner.
But this year there was an empty chair at the table in her household in Newcastle, Co Down, and no presents from Santa for Tyler (11), Oliver (6) and Lydia (7) to show to mum on Christmas Day.
In the words of her heartbroken older sister Rachel Wilkinson: "She was a massive presence in the family so the fact that she's not here isn't just hard; it's surreal."
Ruth Maguire, mother, partner, sister, auntie, beloved daughter, is gone. Tragically, laid to rest in the wedding dress she never got to wear.
And while other people fretted about who they might have forgotten to put on the gift list, Ruth's family was outside Dundalk courthouse in Co Louth last Tuesday, having been once again reminded of how the mum-of-three drowned while on a hen weekend in Carlingford in March.
But even then, they were striving to ensure another family does not have to experience the nightmare they have gone through in the last nine months.
They believe what happened to 30-year-old Ruth can only have some tangible meaning if its legacy is a safety rail installed at the harbour in the village.
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Too late to save Ruth, but destined to prevent others slipping into the freezing water like she did that night in what can only be described as a tragic accident.
"We think there needs to be better lighting and the surface, which is bumpy and slippy, needs to be redone to make it safer," said Rachel, who is in her 30s.
"After Ruth died, two people contacted me to say they fell into the water, only they had their friends who were able to pull them out. Who knows what would have happened if they'd been alone when they fell in?"
Rachel, an accounts assistant, added: "If Ruth was here she would put up a safety barrier there herself. That's why we're doing this."
Originally from north Belfast, Ruth, a health assistant, was part of a hen party of 30 that had travelled to stay the weekend in the popular village over St Patrick's weekend.
The inquest was told how she had spoken about going home to Newcastle when she left the bar that her hen group was in at around 11.30pm.
She took a photograph outside a house across from the pier and posted it to Instagram at midnight. It is believed she fell off the pier a short time later.
Her partner James Griffin (36), whom she was due to marry in August, only discovered she had rung him on his work phone at six minutes past midnight when he switched it back on two weeks later.
Following an extensive search and rescue operation aided by family and friends after the alarm was raised on March 17, Ruth's body was found on Blockhouse Island in Carlingford Lough on March 18.
Sitting in the lounge area of a Co Down hotel, Rachel fought back the tears that have never been far away since she lost her only sister and her best friend.
"The pier is a dangerous place; I think Ruth's death could have been prevented if a barrier had been there," she said.
"If there had been some sort of guard rail it would have been obvious that you're going into a dangerous area. Especially at night time, when it's dark.
"I imagine if Ruth had seen a barrier she wouldn't have climbed over it to get to the pier. She would have thought it wasn't a good idea."
Rachel added: "We don't want to tell the council what to do but it's their responsibility to do something now because this could happen again."
Rachel said last week's inquest - in which the coroner returned an open verdict in keeping with the medical evidence that Ruth had drowned - confirmed what her family already knew.
"We came away feeling emotional and upset but in a way it gave us closure because we know the cause of death now - it was an accident and she drowned," said Rachel, who is married to Ben Wilkinson (41), with whom she has two sons, Louis (8) and Oscar (4).
"Ruth was a sensible person. She had had a couple of drinks but her alcohol blood level was reducing so she'd stopped drinking a while before she fell in. She didn't really drink so she must have started drinking water.
"I was shocked to hear she was going on a hen do. Everybody was. She was at mine but she didn't drink. She left at 10pm and drove home. She didn't drink at my wedding either."
Although nine months have now passed since Ruth's sudden death, Rachel said she misses the conversations they used to have with each other every single day.
And she said her sister's absence has been tough to take for their mother Geraldine Worthington, father Malachy Maguire, who lives in London, and her brothers Ryan Maguire (47) and Raymond Worthington (33).
"It still feels very recent," she revealed."It's like it happened last month, but there's been so much going on."
Ruth was due to marry her partner of 12 years, gas engineer James - known affectionately as Jim - Griffin, dad to their two sons Tyler and Oliver and daughter Lydia on August 8.
When death cruelly intervened, Rachel said Jim went ahead with the barbecue and music as planned at the wedding venue the following day because "everyone was already booked to go to Newcastle that week".
She added: "It was nice because everyone was together but it was very difficult as well."
Rachel also revealed how some 30 family members and friends also paid a poignant flower tribute to Ruth during a special ferry trip between Greenore and Greencastle prior to the scheduled wedding day.
"In August they were lighting up the lighthouse and the owner ran a private sailing for the family so we could see the lights coming on from the boat," she said.
"The RNLI from Kilkeel (who recovered Ruth's body) showed up. We didn't know they were coming.
"We had brought flowers with us to throw into the water but they took them and brought them to the spot where they found Ruth's body and then they let off flares to let us know. It was a lovely experience."
She added: "My kids call it Auntie Ruth's lighthouse and they were saying: 'Look, auntie Ruth's lighthouse has been lit up'."
In the aftermath of the devastating tragedy, Rachel and her relatives have been frequent visitors to Carlingford, including last Sunday when the children paid a visit to Santa's grotto.
There was also a special addition to the memorial, consisting of a holly wreath and a picture of Ruth, that is already there.
"Ruth's partner Jim got a real Christmas tree on the journey down," Rachel said.
"Some of Ruth's friends were also there, along with her kids and aunts and uncles.
"The kids went to see Santa in his grotto and then we went to the pier and the kids decorated the tree and put lights on it.
"We were conscious of kids wanting to go over to see it so we made sure to put it away from the water, so it's safely off to the side."
Given how the dark days and nights have seemed to last forever since that cold March morning robbed them of a partner and mother, Rachel said that Jim and his sons and daughter are doing well.
"Considering what they've all been through they're good," she said.
"The kids are looking forward to Christmas. They miss Ruth dreadfully but they're being kept busy with day to day life."
She added: "My mum stays in Newcastle a couple of days a week to help out."
Rachel told how she was planning to give her mother and older brother a lift to Newcastle on Christmas Eve "so they'll be with Jim and the three children" on Christmas Day.
The wider family will all be reunited today, on Boxing Day, if briefly, before "Jim goes to visit all his family as well".
It has been hard for Jim, now performing the role of both parents, but it is a job he has embraced wholeheartedly.
And Rachel praised his bravery for helping his children navigate the emotional roller coaster of not having their mother during the festive period, when coping with the loss of a loved one can be especially difficult.
"He is trying to keep them busy and in a routine - they do a lot of sports - so they're not sitting around thinking about it," she said.
"The tree went up as normal... he's just trying to keep a bit of normality about it. Jim is very good at knowing what the kids want. He's very organised. Everything is wrapped and ready."
Reality is, nevertheless, encroaching and inevitable.
"The children are adjusting to not having Ruth here but they obviously miss her and sometimes they get upset," Rachel said.
"If Ruth were here she'd be getting presents in, preparing food for Christmas dinner, coming up to see us, exchanging gifts..."
Last Wednesday Rachel said that she and her father took some Christmas flowers to Ruth's grave in Carnmoney Cemetery prior to dropping her dad off to the airport to catch his return flight to England.
It is hard for her to believe her younger sister is really there and it is not something she will ever get used to.
"You go to the grave and it's hard to make the connection - that that's where Ruth is," she said, her eyes welling up with a sadness words cannot express.
And she recalled one particular day in the recent past when she had taken her youngest son, who had celebrated his fourth birthday, to see her sister's final resting place.
"I told Oscar to tell Auntie Ruth that he's four now and he sort of gave me this funny look that said 'she's not here'," Rachel said.
"But if I can't really make the connection how can a child ever understand?"