Monday 11 December 2017

Terry Prone: A cold coming home for lost children and their magnificent parents on an infinitely sad day


The remains of the young Irish students who lost their lives in the Berkeley tragedy are escorted on the M50 to their homes after landing at Dublin Airport.
The remains of the young Irish students who lost their lives in the Berkeley tragedy are escorted on the M50 to their homes after landing at Dublin Airport.

The statement it made, that procession of cars on the road from the airport, led by the white escort car, followed by the black hearses, one behind the other, empty dark lanes to either side.

It was stately and ordered, like the final rites of an elder statesman, except that these hearses carried victims of a tragedy that stifled them long before they had the chance to live fully adult lives, never mind grow old.

A cold coming they had of it, those bright-faced young people, now familiar from photographs capturing them at their best, their most optimistic fearless selves, when they were radiant with hope and happiness.

They came back early on a cool, bright summer morning in a plane holding those who had loved them. A cold coming home, they had of it. There was dignity in it, and respect. But when the coffins went into the hearses and the doors were closed so gently, the very pace of the vehicles was like a kick in the heart - a reminder that speed and excitement have gone, forever, for the students.


Processions focus the gaze and the mind away from distractions and random noise. Processions make bereavement real and put away the concerns of the rattling, busy day. Ireland halted, head down in reverence as they passed.

There was, too, the realisation that it had really happened. That this monochrome sequence of vehicles signified the end, not just of a summer of colour and sunshine, of music and memory-making, but of young lives.

Up to the moment the big wheels of the plane carrying the coffins met the runway at Dublin Airport with a puff of smoke, it had been a nationally-accepted truth. The Taoiseach had summed it up well, but although the faces could have been those of children from any family in Ireland, it was not a personal truth to most of us.

We knew the balcony had sheared away, its rotten beams plunging them to their deaths. We knew their faces, we knew the reported details of a story that was not our own.

Then, because in Ireland we are never more than three degrees separated from each other, we each, gradually, found ourselves closer to the disaster.

Someone cancelled an appointment and the reason was that they were the uncle of one of the dead. Someone else mentioned a daughter, distraught because that daughter had known another of the young people involved.

People began to talk of events and organisations where they had met some of them.


Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that people mentioned those events and organisations, because the Berkeley disaster was never cotton-wooled by gossip or vicarious excitement.

It was unimaginable, and so we tried not to imagine it. The thought of parents forced into such sudden catastrophic loss was frightening.

The bulletins told us, of course, that the parents and other relatives were travelling to where their children's golden lives had been lost.

We imagined their long, long hours in the air, with perhaps the possibility of being ambushed by sleep, but then going through the agony all over again on wakening, when the realisation of the irretrievable loss would return like a tsunami. Destroyed, they must be, we murmured. They proved us wrong, by presenting a united grace under pressure that spoke to their pride in their sons and daughters.

Parents who could so easily have shut down, retreated into a private space of self-directed silence, instead reached out in gratitude to those who had helped. They were magnificent. Then they brought their children home to be buried. A cold coming, they had of it, brought home in an infinitely sad ceremonious sequence.

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