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A grim year on the roads in the southeast

“I wish there was a way to know you were in the good old days before you actually left them.”

Words written by Zoey Coffey and her friends from sixth year in the Presentation Secondary School in Clonmel last May as they prepared to see out their final days of second-level, prepared for Leaving Cert exams which would steer their near futures, prepared to move on to the next chapters of their lives.

Little did anyone know that, a few fleeting months later, those words would ring out at the funeral of Zoey Coffey (18) and be quoted by her friends and family members, and the friends and family members of Nicole Murphy (18), Grace McSweeney (18) and Grace’s brother Luke McSweeney (24) as, over a few heartbreaking days in south Tipperary, with the sorrow felt throughout the country and beyond, the four victims of a devastating road crash were buried amid tributes and tears.

It was the worst of weeks on the roads of the area.

Between that collision on Clonmel’s Mountain Road on a Friday night when Leaving Cert celebrations should have been happening, and the days late the following week when the friends were bade farewell, came another horrific incident which brought to seven the number of fatalities on the roads of Tipperary in that short space of time, and skewed the county’s place towards the top of an already burgeoning and unwelcome list of deaths on Ireland’s highways and byways this year.

Just four days after that Clonmel calamity, members of the Reilly family from Cashel were on their way home from a day out and travelling along a quiet side road in the townland of Knockbulloge, a couple of kilometres from the town itself, when their car struck a wall near the ditch.

The scene of the crash at Knockbulloge in which three-year-old Tom Reilly, and his grandparents, died

Tom Reilly was driving and his wife Diane was a front-seat passenger when the incident happened. The couple survived, albeit after suffering serious injuries, but tragically their three-year-old son Tom did not, and his grandparents Thomas and Bridget, aged 45 and 46, were also killed instantly.

As news spread throughout the locality and eventually throughout the country on that Tuesday night and the following morning, the community could scarcely believe that another horror had been visited on the area.

Diane Reilly (carrying orange toy) behind the coffin of her three-year-old son Tom, as the coffins of Thomas Reilly (45) and his wife Bridget (46) leave St John the Baptist Church in Cashel

The two fatal crashes were all-too-sad reminders of the frailty of human life and the dangers presented on the roads, where life can change or end in an instant.

A focal point for grief

Little over a year ago in Clonmel, Santa Claus himself, helped by the mayor and other local leaders, officially opened Kickham Plaza near the centre of the town. The site was part of the former Kickham Army Barracks campus and had been “done up” over the course of several months, complete with new paving, lights, benches, and an open space for performances, markets and other gatherings. A universally-welcomed addition to the public realm.

The shrine at Kickham Plaza, Clonmel

It could not have been dreamed on that festive occasion in December of 2022 that the new plaza would become the focal point of a community’s grief not too long later.

On the last evening in August, two days after those Leaving Cert results came out and two days after Nicole, Grace, Luke and Zoey lost their lives when on their way to join friends for a post-results celebration event, thousands gathered at Kickham Plaza for a memorial service quickly-organised by local clergy and the council.

Nicole Murphy (18), Grace McSweeney (18), her brother Luke McSweeney (24) and Zoey Coffey (18)

Photographs of the four friends on a table in the heart of the space formed the centrepiece of the evening as prayers were said, messages were relayed, hymns were sung and memories were shared.

As it had so often around the town during the previous two days, and in the neighbouring communities of Kilcash and Kilsheelan, silence fell as the people stood in disbelief and sadness.

Throughout the weekend, matches were cancelled, festivals postponed, events forgotten about and instead it was gatherings of grief which dominated in the churches and in the schools where the four friends were remembered so fondly – Presentation, Loreto and the High School.

Flowers outside Loreto School, Clonmel

Not only should it have been the weekend when those exam results were digested and analysed to assess where the next step along life’s road would lead, it was also that pivotal point as summer yields to autumn when young people return to school for the start of a new academic year.

They did so, but as they did, they passed poignant reminders of what had just happened. A shrine in the lobby of the Presentation Secondary School with flowers and photos of the four; many bunches of flowers leaning undisturbed against the wall outside the Loreto Secondary School; more flowers outside Hillview Sports Club literally around the corner from the Loreto, and where the car in which they’d been travelling had struck a wall and overturned.

Books of condolence in Presentation Secondary School

And of course the new “shrine” on the plaza, where so many placed flowers and candles at the close of that Sunday evening memorial service and which remained intact for months afterwards, augmented every day by more flowers, more candles, more photos, and many messages written by friends.

In the middle of the week that followed, the town of Cashel and the extended Reilly family and their many friends had to deal with their losses.

On the morning after the crash outside the town which claimed those three lives, parish priest Fr Enda Brady spoke about the devastation being felt in the area.

Bridget and Thomas O’Reilly and their grandson Tom, who died in the crash

“There’s a numbness over the town this morning,” he said, while noting how the Reillys were “part of the Cashel community here, very, very well-known around the town”.

It fell to the emergency services once again to deal with the immediate aftermath of the collision; the road heavy with gardaí, fire service personnel, paramedics, council workers. Just as the Mountain Road in Clonmel had been on the previous Friday night and Saturday morning.

Superintendent Kieran Ruane, whose jurisdiction covers both Clonmel and Cashel, briefed the assembled media on both occasions, offering his and his colleagues’ sympathies to the families of those who were gone, while also reminding us all that those whose jobs include dealing with those aftermaths are affected by what they see on a human level. Speaking in Cashel, he said that the scene of the crash had been “traumatic and very difficult for everyone in attendance”.

A scene which was also marked with flowers in the days to follow.

In silence and tears

The funeral of Nicole Murphy in Kilcash

As schooldays began again, the families of those lost and their friends had to deal with the funerals as they said goodbye and looked back on lives which were too short.

President Michael D. Higgins attended several of those funerals, as did the Minister for Education Norma Foley and a host of other dignitaries.

But at the heart of each one were family and community.

President Michael D Higgins at the funeral of Nicole Murphy, one of several he attended

It was parents, siblings, relatives, and friends who shouldered those coffins as they made their way into those churches, and out again, before being conveyed by hearse to nearby graveyards.

Such as in the mountain-side village of Kilcash: thronged beyond recognition on 31 August while rain fell on mourners as Nicole Murphy was laid to rest. Nicole, who had done enough in her Leaving Cert to get the midwifery course she wanted, along the path towards her ultimate ambition of becoming a radiographer.

Mourners at the funerals of Grace and Luke McSweeney

The following day, what would normally be a busy shopping Friday was replaced in the bustling town of Clonmel by the sight of local shops, restaurants and cafés closed for business for the morning, as the cortege led by the coffins containing Grace and Luke McSweeney made its way from their family home on Mountain Road down to the quays beside the river Suir and up on to Gladstone Street before entering the Church of St Peter and Paul. Grace, the gymnast and dancer who helped so many local young people with their own dancing lessons. Luke the college graduate who welcomed friends from all walks of life to his home and was remembered by his friend Kevin Grace as “a huge presence” who was central to so many groups.

That church was the venue again on the day afterwards for the funeral of Zoey Coffey, many of the mourners wearing pink, her favourite colour, as we heard that the just-released CAO offers revealed that she had achieved her goal of a teacher-training course in college.

Pallbearers at Zoey Coffey’s funeral wear her favourite colour, pink

All the while, young students lining up in silence and tears, their teachers and parents steering them through days of heartache.

And then it was Cashel’s turn on the Sunday to welcome so many people who came together to say farewell to little Tom Reilly and his grandparents Thomas and Bridget.

The culmination of nine days of scarcely comprehensible tragedy, but only the beginning of a journey of mourning for all those dozens of family members, across an entire county and beyond, and hundreds of friends, struck by the latest bouts of devastation on our roads.

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