Belfast Telegraph

Sister of Ulster star Nevin Spence recalls grief at losing three family members in farming tragedy

By John Scally

Nevin Spence was a talented centre with the Ulster rugby team. Aged just 22, he was on the cusp of Irish honours. The rugby world was his oyster. But on September 15, 2012, he lost his life.

In the worst farming accident in over 20 years in Ulster, Nevin was taken from the family he adored in an attempt to rescue a beloved dog from a slurry tank in Hillsborough, Co Down.

His father Noel (58) and his brother Graham (30) also died.

Such were the bonds of family love that Nevin's sister Emma courageously put her life on the line in an effort to rescue her father and brothers.

Members of the Ulster Rugby team carried Nevin's coffin.

Then-Irish rugby coach Declan Kidney and Tyrone Gaelic football manager Mickey Harte were among more than 2,000 people at the funerals.

Six years on from the tragedy, Emma pays an emotional tribute to the three men.

"They were hard-working men," she said.

"They were not perfect but they were genuine. They were best friends.

"They were Godly men - they didn't talk about God, they just did God.

"They were just ordinary - but God made them extraordinary.

"Dad was the one you probably saw taking up half the Drumlough Road with the tractor.

"He is the one that greeted you with a thump on the arm.

"He is the one who christened you with a new nickname no matter who you were.

"To me he was the one sitting at the kitchen table with his coffee made in only mum's best china cup listening to my every worry and telling me the truth - whether I wanted to hear it or not," she remembers with a tremor in her voice.

Graham was "driven by the thought of improving farming" and was "unashamedly Nevin's biggest fan".

"He was a gentle giant who doted on his two children.

"He is the one who came alive when he talked about farming ... he is looking at me when I look at (his children) Nathan and Georgia".

Many tributes were paid to Nevin after he died.

Emma, who is a physio, said: "I have no son but if I did I would want them to be like Nevin and have his values."

Emma started to see the farm anew.

As an artist, she has literally drawn on her family's farm for inspiration.

"To most people, looking at something like hedges, they would see only weeds, but I was stopping to look at them and recognising the beauty in them, which is why I wanted to paint them."

But there were plenty of down times as well.

"I remember the first spring after the accident," Emma recalls.

"It had always been a happy time, seeing the cows going out into the fields after the winter.

"But that first spring tore me apart because dad, Graham and Nevin weren't there.

"Now, with the passage of time, I think of the joy that the boys got from something like that.

"It still hurts, but I am trying to accept that this is life."

Nevin's faith reflected in his life.

"He has left a lasting impression on those who knew him.

"I have heard it said Nevin along with his brother and father have spoken more in death than in life."

The impression of meeting Emma and her sister Laura is of a shaft of light illuminating the darkness of family tragedy.

She remains fiercely proud of her brother's achievements.

"He was humble. Often I was congratulated on Nevin's achievement, then headed home to ask at the dinner table - 'So Nev I didn't get the paper today, what have you done?'

"The answer would be 'Nothing, I don't know' only to find he had been selected to train in the Ireland camp, or won young player of the year!"

Nevin will always live on in Emma's heart. "As my mum put it when he was alive and repeats it even more in the past six years, 'Nevin was special'," she said.

"Maybe what was even more special was if you had the chance to encounter him in your life."

Belfast Telegraph

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