Ella Mills, a Trinity College English student, will be forever remembered by an island that has been named after her on the Potomac river in the US. Ms Mills (20), from Clontarf, died in a kayaking accident on the river near Washington DC earlier this month.
One of three siblings, the 20-year-old was waved off by her parents, Ralph and Jo-Ann, her younger twin brother, Leo, and her sister, Isabel, “five weeks ago tomorrow”, her mother told mourners gathered at Dardistown Crematorium in north Dublin for her funeral service.
Friends, including many from local sports clubs in which the family are involved, stood in pouring rain to provide a guard of honour before the 10am service. Among those watching online were students and staff from Columbia University.
As her wicker coffin, adorned with white and pink roses, poinsettias and red berries, was brought into the chapel, celebran, Shay Byrne welcomed mourners for a “celebration of the life of Ella Mills”.
“There is no right or wrong way on how we are going to celebrate today, whether with tears or with laughter. Ella chose the music (as she loved Taylor Swift and Mitski). Today we are going to shout out Ella’s name as loud as we can. For her 20-plus years on this earth she changed the world,” he said.
The music included Taylor Swift’s Cowboy Like Me; Mitski’s Last Words of a Shooting Star; Lennon and McCartney’s Blackbird; Wonder by Natalie Merchant; and Florence and the Machine’s Free. Leonard Cohen’s If It Be Your Will, sung by Cathriona Edwards, echoed around the small chapel.
Ella, the funeral heard, was the eldest grandchild on both sides of the Mills and Feely families.
Her six-year-old cousin Luke spoke of how she was “always very funny, she was very smart and always very nice and kind to me. She made me feel special.
“I remember whenever we were on holidays she would always hold my hand if we were walking down to the pool or walking down to the park. She would always hold my hand.”
Her father, Ralph, recounted how he and his wife spent five months in New York when Ella was four-years-old and that was when her love affair with the city began. She believed she would live there one day.
Ella’s brother Leo read a poem, Manhattan, written by her when she was aged 17. Her father read A poem for Ella, which he had written and sent to her when she began her studies at Columbia.
For more than 20 minutes, Ella’s mother, Jo-Ann, spoke about her daughter’s close bonds with her wider family circle, how she always wanted to study at Trinity College, Columbia University and the last moments of her life.
“Five weeks ago tomorrow Ralph, Isabel, Leo and I left Ella standing on the steps of her apartment building on Morningside Drive a few short blocks from the Columbia campus in New York. We were all so sad to say goodbye. Daunted by the prospect of leaving her in this huge city so far away,” Mrs Mills said.
Mrs Mills said she went to bed before learning about her daughter’s death. “She was 20 and having the time of her life. The three weeks she had in Columbia, I have no doubt, were her happiest. I’m just so sad it was so short when she had worked so hard to get there,” she said.
She spoke about travelling to New York with her sister, Dee, and brother, Mick, after hearing of her daughter’s death and how “every single hour felt like the worst kind of hell and each day was an eternity”.
Mrs Mills added: “Where the accident happened (on the Potomac river) is a beautiful, serene place. We placed flowers on a rock and we could see the place now known as Ella’s Island, named for her by the Potomac Kayaking community.
“By some incredible miracle, as we set-off to leave we met Tim, the most wonderful, kind and gentle man who had tried to save Ella. He told me that he had seen her get into difficulty and was there within 90 seconds. He held her as he tried to free her. He did not let go of her and he said ‘she fought hard. She did not want to go’.
“He held me tight. It will perhaps be the meeting that will shape my life, forever knowing that Ella was being cared for by this beautiful soul. We will never be able to express the debt of gratitude we have to him.”
She explained the feeling of calmness she felt when returning to Columbia campus. “This was Ella’s spiritual home. Her spirit gave me such a feeling of calmness and stillness. This is where she wanted to be. An academic prize for literature in Ella’s name will be created for her graduating class, the class of 2025,” she said.
The family were met by Columbia staff members and 24 of the students who were on the kayaking trip with Ella the day she died.
“We introduced ourselves as they had witnessed something terrible. This lovely young man grabbed my hand and held my arms. He introduced himself as Gus. He said ‘I was with Ella. I held her hand the entire time. I did not let it go and she squeezed it tightly’.”
Mrs Mills explained that Gus and Tim also gave her “something so incredibly special” in knowing Ella was not alone in her final moments.
“I brought Ella into this world and I never wanted to think about her leaving it alone and she didn’t. She was with these beautiful people. The world has lost the brightest star. That she will never have the life she wanted for herself although she did so much in her 20-and-a-half years and she wont have time to forge deeper bonds with her beautiful Columbia friends,” she continued.
“We didn’t want you to go Ella and we know you didn’t want to go either. We will love you forever. There will never be a time that I’m not your mother. I’ll never understand and it will take me a long time to accept that it was your time – your time to shine. Sail on silver girl”.