In the hall, there was silence. The chatter which had previously filled the arena ended abruptly; in one and a half thousand seats, feet stopped shuffling, and a last door banged closed.
In that silence, the names of the dead were read aloud into the darkness; the only light came from the spotlights illuminating those on the stage who had come to pay their own musical tributes to the victims of the tragedy which killed ten people in Creeslough in Co Donegal in October.
Shauna Flanagan Garwe (5), her father Robert Garwe (50), James Monaghan (13), and his mother Catherine O’Donnell (39), Leona Harper (14), Jessica Gallagher (24), James O’Flaherty (48) Martina Martin (49) Martin McGill (49) and Hugh Kelly (59) died in the explosion at the Applegreen service station and apartment complex in October.
On Monday night, they were remembered at Together for Creeslough, a concert to show support for the families of the victims and the people of the village and to thank the emergency services and everyone those who tried to help that afternoon and in the days, weeks and months since in what was the first time they have been reunited since the funerals.
‘I am still alive but my life is different now’ - survivor of Creeslough explosion says his ‘heart is broken’
“Music, as we all know, plays a huge part in life in Donegal. It’s part of what we are, and it’s part of where we’re from,” said one of the organisers, Ciaran O’Donnell, as he welcomed the 1,500-strong crowd to the Aura Leisure Centre in Letterkenny.
“Even though this tragedy happened in Creeslough, it happened to all of the Donegal people, who are all with you,” said co-hosts Moya Brennan and Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh.
“The musicians have come to carry the people here tonight, and hold them,” said Fr Paddy Dunne, the parish priest in Kilmacrennan, near Creeslough.
Hold them they did. As performer after performer took to the stage – Mickey Joe Harte, Brian Kennedy, Lisa McHugh, The Whistling Donkeys, Brian McFadden, Keith Duffy and co-hosts Moya Brennan and Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh – each paid their own tribute to the people of Creeslough and, as McHugh put it, tried “to bring you even the tiniest bit of distraction.”
“Music for me is medicine on all kinds of levels,” said Brian Kennedy, introducing Paul Simon’s The Boxer. “I’m going to try and lift you up a wee bit tonight for a couple of songs, this one I think encapsulates being able to have resilience in the darkest of times.”
“We’re here to celebrate,” said Keith Duffy. “It’s sad, but tonight we want you to smile, we want to remember the very special memories we have of the people we loved and lost.”
“Where words fail us, music steps in, so that’s what we’re trying to do tonight,” said Harte, “and, have a little bit of fun.”
It was a night, as one of those watching reflected, of healing and hope; of remembrance, a shared comfort and, perhaps, a moment of relief.
“It’s just about community spirit, about showing everyone is standing together still, after our ordeal,” said one man from Creeslough. “All for one and one for all. You’ll never get your mind around it.”
He and his friend are both from the village and were among the first on the scene as the tragedy unfolded; neither wish to be identified. “It’s nice for the people of Creeslough and the community, to give them a night out, something upbeat, after all that’s happened.”
“We are here to support the families – we needed to come,” said Kathleen Toland. She explains how she previously lost her own son, who had worked with the father of one of the victims, 14-year-old Leona Harper. “That loss is something that never heals, but you just hope it will help the families in some way.”
As well as relatives of the victims and first responders, among those present were Malcolm Noonan TD, representing the Government, Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty and other local politicians including the Cathaoirleach of Donegal County Council, Councillor Liam Blaney, as well as former Eurovision winner Dana and Tony Hamilton, the chief executive of the Celtic FC Foundation.
“Our roots are very much here in Ireland,” he said, “so it’s important to us that our community includes this community. It’s an honour for us to be here.”
“We are from Creeslough – we couldn’t not come,” said another local man. “You look around [the crowd], and you see people who lost people.”
“There is a sense of unity. People want to be here to support the town,” added his wife. “You want to be there for them, so they know their community is behind them.”
Former Westlife singer Brian McFadden – who came up with the idea for the concert along with promoter Joe Gallagher – shared his memories of happy holidays spent in his mother’s homeplace of Creeslough; his cousins, aunties and uncles were in the audience.
The tragedy at Creeslough, he said, “just broke my heart, shattered everybody.
“But when I saw the people in Creeslough, the people in the surrounding towns, got together and helped each other, got everyone through, it made me so proud to be from Donegal.”
As Boyzlife, he and former Boyzone member Keith Duffy performed a string of their hits: Love Me For A Reason, Flying Without Wings, Baby Can I Hold You.
Their performance of No Matter What was dedicated to their friend, former Boyzone member Stephen Gately, who died in 2009 aged 33.
“Tonight, we’re sharing that song with everybody that you’ve lost, to keep their memory alive and to remember they’re not gone … as long as you keep their memories alive they’ll always be with you,” said Duffy.
Asking the audience to turn on the lights on their mobile phones, McFadden said: “Let’s shine a light for the people that we’re singing for tonight. Just light up this room for all the people that you love.”
The lights shone.
The final song – excepting an encore of Uptown Girl – fell to pupils from three local schools - including Scoil Mhuire in Creeslough, where Shauna Flanagan Garwe was a pupil, and Mulroy College in Milford, attended by James Monaghan and Leona Harper.
As they prepared to perform The Town I Loved So Well, there was the biggest cheer of the night for Father John Joe Duffy, the parish priest in Creeslough who since the tragedy has become the town’s comforter, spokesperson and guiding light.
Taking to the stage to a standing ovation, he thanked the musicians and everyone involved in the concert who had “sung not just in the ordinary way, but who sang from the very depths of your hearts and your souls out of love for all the people who are affected by the tragedy.
“Thank you for coming here [and] walking with us tonight,” he said. “We ask you to continue to walk with us on that journey.”