Surviving sister in moving tributes at funerals of her father and two brothers
IN BALLYNAHINCH Baptist Church Emma Spence, in simple, true and personal terms captured just how deep is her loss, her family’s loss and indeed the community’s loss after the terrible tragedy on their farm near Hillsborough.
Speaking from the heart Emma, an artist, who tried valiantly to save the life of her father, Noel (58) and her brothers Graham (30) and Nevin (22) when they were overcome with deadly slurry fumes on Saturday, painted little pen portraits of the three Spences that moved many of the 2,000 or so mourners at the funeral yesterday to tears.
The church was full with several hundred more people outside the Co Down church, standing in the sunshine quietly and reverently in the car park. Poignantly three hearses were parked side by side nearby.
There were mourners there from the worlds of rugby, farming and politics. There too were their many friends and neighbours – people who knew that even in death the life of a large dairy farm must continue regardless and who in recent days helped ensure cows were milked and tended to.
The Spences’ minister, the Rev Rodney Stout, spoke movingly about the family, describing the men as “three peas in a pod”, the sons, “while having their individual characters and giftedness, nevertheless were most certainly chips off the old block . . . What these men have left behind is as positive a legacy as any family could have”.
Beautiful music was played. Hymns associated with Protestant churches, What A Friend We Have in Jesus and I’ll Fly Away were sung lustily, as if the congregation was seeking to spiritually banish away the horror of what happened on Saturday.
Emma spoke for her mother Essie, her sister Laura, Graham’s wife Andrea and their two children, Nathan and Georgia, and for all the family.
In speaking so positively and warmly about Noel, Graham and Nevin, she reflected the terrible sorrow the family is suffering but also in a strange way lifted the hearts of the mourners.
She said her dad had the most natural bright blond hair any woman would kill for.
“He’s the one who greeted you with a thump in the arm; he’s 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.”
The eldest son, Graham, worked in the background, said Emma.
“He’s the one who adored his Andrea and his kids, his little princess and his wee mate. He’s the one that came to life when talking about farming. He’s also the one who had about 15 apps on his phone to check the weather forecast. To me he’s the one who protected me as I grew up. To me he is looking at me when I look at Nathan and I look at Georgia.”
She described her brother Nevin, the Ulster rugby player and almost certain future rugby international as “Wee Nev”.
“He’s the one who did not love the limelight but handled it like a pro. He is the A-grade pupil; he is the one who would discuss or debate any Christian-related subject. To me he is the baby. To me he is the one mum had the organic blueberries and prize- winning steak ready for when he called.”
Emma concluded: “They were gentlemen, they were hardworking men, they were not perfect but they were genuine, they were best friends. They were godly men; they did not talk about God, they just did God. They were just ordinary, but God made them extraordinary.”
She had said all that needed to be said, leaving a deep impression on the many current and former Ulster rugby players at the funeral such as the pall-bearers for Nevin’s coffin, Andrew Trimble, Paul and Luke Marshall, Chris Henry, Ian Whitten and Willie Falloon.
Also among the mourners were Ireland rugby manager Declan Kidney and former international Trevor Ringland; Tyrone GAA manager Mickey Harte, well acquainted with family loss, and Harry Sinclair of the Ulster Farmers Union. Also there were politicians such as Minister of Enterprise and Trade Arlene Foster and family friend and DUP MLA Edwin Poots, DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson, Minister of State for Agriculture, Shane McEntee, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt and SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell.