The cycling fatalities: ‘Never cycle in Ireland’
Three tragic deaths show how a split second can change everything for a vulnerable cyclist
Petra Riedel: ‘I will never cycle in Ireland’
Petra Riedel (50) from Duisburg in Germany died on April 21st, 2012, when she was hit from behind by a car driving along the Bandon Road about 10km south of Cork city. Riedel, who was living in Cork, had been cycling along the northbound hard shoulder of the N71 dual carriageway. She was forced to move into one of the vehicle lanes when the hard shoulder came to an end. She died instantly.
On the N71 Bandon Road about 10km south of Cork city a small wooden cross sits buried in the long grass on the side of the dual carriageway. Inscribed on this weather-worn post is one name – Petra. It is marked April 21st, 2012, and accompanied by a solemn “RIP”.
Almost exactly six years ago a small group of people gathered at this otherwise non-descript stretch of road to plant their modest memorial in the west Cork soil. Anne Riedel watched silently as her father Thomas pounded the small stick of wood into the ground. Only a few weeks had passed since her visit to see how her mother was settling into her new volunteering role in Cork. Now she was back in this foreign country, standing on a grassy embankment and trying to make sense of the life-changing events of the previous days.
Petra arrived in Cork city in late 2011. Her only daughter had recently moved away from home to university and Petra had suffered from depression in her absence.
She had previously studied education and worked with people with disabilities in Germany. She was looking for volunteer opportunities when she came across the L’Arche organisation. The community scheme, which was founded in France in the early 1960s, offered volunteers the chance to work, live and develop friendships with people suffering from intellectual and physical disabilities in countries around the world.
Petra, who already had a deep love of the Irish countryside, signed up to the year-long project in Cork city and packed her bags.
“She loved it, it was exactly what she needed to do and she was so at ease,” remembers Anne, who visited her mother in Cork in early April 2012. “She was assigned to one woman in particular who had been a victim of abuse as a child. My mum was the first person in many years who was able to reach out to her, they had a very strong connection.”
Petra had originally planned to spend a year in Ireland. However, Anne’s mother immediately felt at home in Cork and started making plans to stay longer. “She fell in love with Ireland and felt she belonged to the country. She hoped my dad would come and join her.”
Petra developed a strong friendship with Maria Lezama who works with Cork’s L’Arche community. “She just felt in coming to Ireland she had come home to herself, that whatever felt missing from her life she had found it.”
Maria, who is originally from Trinidad, remembers the day Petra arrived into the office with her new bike. A passionate cyclist, Petra had been planning since the moment she arrived in Ireland to buy a bike. “She was like a child on Christmas day, she was so excited. That was only five days before the accident.”
Petra had also told Anne she was planning to buy a bike. “As a family we always cycled everywhere, we never had a car. My parents were huge cycle enthusiasts, they cycled everywhere.”
Shortly before she left, Anne, who had spent a year living in Dublin when she was 17, advised her mother to take extra care on Irish roads. “I went to school in Portmarnock and I always took the bus. I hated it but I knew I had to do it because it was too dangerous to cycle. I told my mum to be careful, that there was no cycle infrastructure on Irish roads.”
On April 21st, 2012 – a bright, sunny Saturday afternoon – Petra cycled her new bike out of the city for a day trip around west Cork. She needed to be back home by early evening as she was meeting friends, including Maria, for dinner. Meanwhile Kathy Foulds, the co-ordinator of the L’Arche Cork volunteers, was preparing to go out for dinner with her family to celebrate her 60th birthday.
Shortly before 5pm Kathy’s phone rang. She picked up only to hear one of her L’Arche colleagues sobbing down the line. The volunteer explained that a garda had just called to the Dóchas house where Petra lived with the news that she had been killed on the road an hour earlier. Petra had been cycling around a bend on the Bandon road where the hard shoulder comes to an end when a car hit her from behind. She died instantly.
Back in Germany, Petra’s husband Thomas had turned off his mobile phone for the afternoon. Kathy used another emergency contact and rang the local pastor in the town of Duisburg where the family lived. He then contacted Anne’s boyfriend who jumped on a train to the town of Luneberg where Anne was studying.
“When the bell rang that morning I thought it might be a parcel,” remembers Anne. “But there was my boyfriend standing with his mum. The first thing I thought when he told me she was dead was that I needed a black dress for the funeral. I couldn’t cope, I wouldn’t let it sink in.”
Anne eventually contacted her father who came to the train station to pick her up. From there they got a lift to her mother’s hometown where Anne’s grandparents lived. “They weren’t at home so we didn’t know what to do. We just wandered around and then saw them on the street. My grandma fell down and passed out when we told her.”
The following day the father and daughter flew to Cork. A fluent English speaker, 21-year-old Anne had to act as a translator with the gardaí and undertakers. “We spent about four days in Ireland and they were the most helpful days in the grieving process. Irish people just accepted the death.
“In Germany they’re very correct, they ask all the details. But in Ireland it was never ‘what happened’, the question was how we could deal with this and make it ok. It just felt like a ridiculous death, it was a cycling accident.”
The L’Arche community organised a wake for Petra before her body was flown back to Germany. “She had gone to wakes a few times during her time in Ireland and she loved Irish funerals. I was happy that she got the best of both worlds, she had an Irish coffin, an Irish wake and a German funeral.”
L’Arche also arranged for their woodwork project to carve a small cross with Petra’s details inscribed across the middle. It was Maria who held the cross as Thomas drove it deep into the damp soil.
“The sound of that pounding of the cross into the ground was like the pounding into reality that she was gone. She was only with us for five months but it felt like five years. Everybody got along with her, she was somebody with such a warm spirit who was very caring and had a great sense of humour.”
In the weeks and months that followed Anne struggled to come to terms with her mother’s death. Before the incident she loved every moment of her university studies but now she found it impossible to concentrate. “I started having panic attacks and I couldn’t cope with the pressure of exams. If I couldn’t reach my dad on his phone I immediately thought he was dead. When the accident happened my trust in life fell apart. I totally lost my trust in my ability to do anything.”
Anne and her father returned to Ireland the following year for the trial hearing of her mother’s death. The man who had knocked her down sat with his wife across the gallery from Anne.
“It was the first time I saw him. His lawyer had said he was very sorry and couldn’t go on with his life because of what happened. I cannot explain it but somehow I told him it was okay. I said: ‘It’s enough that we have to cope with this, don’t let it ruin your life.; His wife came over to me after the hearing crying. I hugged her. Then I hugged him too.
“It was a surreal moment but it really helped me. He didn’t do it on purpose, it was the road’s fault.”
A few years after her mother died, Anne gave birth to a baby girl. “The first six months were awful. I was really depressed and I missed her so much. But I had to be strong for my kid, for my boyfriend and for myself. My daughter has definitely helped me but it’s still painful that she doesn’t have a grandmother. But I’m building a new identity that makes me a mother, not a daughter.”
Anne avoids travelling in cars and uses her bike to get around in Germany. “I don’t have a driving licence and I’ve decided cars are like guns. I don’t want to have the responsibility to run over someone.”
She still feels a deep connection to Ireland but will never cycle on this island. “My mum loved cycling and feeling free on her bike. She also loved Ireland. But I will never cycle in Ireland, I wouldn’t feel safe on Irish roads.”
Eugene Maher: ‘I hate that man for what he did’
Eugene Maher (62) from Fairview in Dublin was seriously injured on June 30th, 2015, while crossing with his bike at a pedestrian green light on the Clontarf road. He died that night from head injuries.
Eugene Maher knew the cycle to Dollymount Strand like the back of his hand. For decades he had cycled the familiar route down Griffith Avenue, along the Clontarf promenade and on to the stretch of sand along the north coast of Dublin Bay.
“Cycling was his passion,” remembers Eugene’s daughter Lisa. “He loved to keep fit and he loved the sea air. He’d go and sit at the lighthouse at Dollymount where he’d ponder the world and get lost in his thoughts.”
Born in Fairview, the 62-year-old often cycled the length of the promenade to Howth in his youth. “That same route, it never changed. Some of his ashes are buried out in Sutton graveyard and some of her ashes are at the lighthouse in Dollymount.”
On the final day of June 2015, Eugene woke up to a rare Irish occurrence – clear skies, sunshine and very warm weather. Having left his pensionable job to set up a business with his wife Marie, he worked from home in a small purpose-built office in the back garden of the family’s home in Drumcondra. He was scheduled to have a meeting that Tuesday afternoon but when it was cancelled he decided to go outside and enjoy the sunshine.
“The sun was splitting the stones and I think it was the hottest day of 2015,” says Lisa. “He was a fitness fanatic but he was super cautious. He’d walk half a mile down the road to cross at the pedestrian lights and always cycled on the footpath, never on the road.”
After cycling his usual route to the strand, Eugene turned the bike around to head home for his dinner. He cycled from the seafront cycle path to the Alfie Byrne road, crossed at the lights, and continued his journey along the footpath towards the pedestrian lights outside the West Wood gym on the Clontarf road.
Meanwhile, unknown to Eugene, a car filled with a group of young men was travelling at speed down the coast road towards the Clontarf road intersection. He did not hear the cheering and roaring coming from the vehicle as it swerved into the bus lane and sped past the rush hour traffic stopped at red lights.
As the pedestrian light turned green Eugene set off across the road. Commuters heading home for the evening would later describe the screeching of brakes and a loud scream a split second before the sound of impact.
The driver tried to stop the car by doing a handbrake turn which caused the car to spin and hit Eugene at full force. Once the car had come to a halt, one of the passengers stepped outside. He was then dragged back inside the vehicle as the driver sped off through Fairview in the direction of Marino.
“They took no regard for that red light and hit my dad at 70km/h. My dad went up on the roof, the windscreen, the bonnet and then hit the ground. He was knocked unconscious instantaneously.”
Lisa later learned that a consultant from Beaumount Hospital happened to be cycling by just as the collision occurred. The emergency services were called and the doctor arranged for Eugene to be transferred to Beaumont. When the paramedics arrived they used the emergency contacts on his phone to call his wife Marie.
“My mam had the dinner on the table. She answered the phone asking ‘where are you, you’re late?’. The paramedic told her she needed to go to Beaumont.”
Lisa had spent that Tuesday afternoon enjoying the sunshine in the back garden of her home in Ashbourne with her two young sons, Harry and Jack. Like every week, she was planning to visit her parents in Drumcondra the following day. Shortly before dinner, at around 7.30pm, the phone rang.
“My mam said: ‘Your dad’s been knocked down but I think he’s okay.’ Something inside me said this isn’t right but she said ‘I’m calm, I’ll see you in the hospital’.” Lisa left her partner Darren to look after the boys and jumped in the car.
She got in touch with her brother, who had been coaching a football game, en route to the hospital. As soon as she explained to the receptionist in Beaumont Hospital who she was, a nurse appeared and led her briskly through the emergency department to meet her mother.
“They brought us tea and coffee and were making a fuss of us. I said to mam, ‘they don’t do this normally’.”
A short time later a garda came into the room and explained to Lisa and her mother that Eugene had been knocked down in a hit-and-run but that gardaí across Dublin were searching for the driver. Then the doctors arrived in the room.
“I’ll never forget that doctor looking at my mam and saying ‘I’m very sorry, there’s nothing more we can do’. She went into shock and I screamed, I lost it completely. I still feel like I’ve never left that room. You get trapped in a moment and your whole world comes crashing down. When I think back to that room it cripples me from the inside out.”
Initially the family was told they would have 24 hours to say their goodbyes to Eugene. However, at 11pm a nurse urged the family to get to the ICU as soon as possible.
“We were told it was a matter of minutes, that his vital organs were shutting down. He was propped up in the bed with bandages and blood. It wasn’t the way I wanted to see my dad in his final moments.”
Lisa, her mother and brother were with Eugene when he died shortly before midnight on Tuesday, June 30th. “That was it. My whole life was turned upside down in a matter of hours.”
Six days later, 27-year-old Christopher Coleman was arrested for driving his car into Eugene and later pleaded guilty to dangerous driving and causing his death. He was sentenced to 2½ years’ imprisonment and disqualified from driving for 15 years. In 2017, following a review of his sentence by the Director of Public Prosecutions, Coleman’s jail time was increased by nine months.
“I hate that man for what he did. In a split second he took control of every aspect of our life. It’s so hard to accept it but at the same time if I harbour those feelings it’s like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. I’m speaking for myself, not my mum or brother, but I can’t keep that hate inside me because it affects every part of my life.”
On July 10th, 2015, the family held a memorial ceremony in the hall of O’Connell Secondary School where Eugene had attended as a boy. Lisa arranged for friends and family to stand up and speak about her father with one speaker reflecting on each decade of his life.
“We had over a thousand people there, the whole area came to a standstill. My friends spoke, my mum and dad’s friends spoke, everyone had a chance to talk about who Eugene Maher was. He was loved by the masses and people came home from all different parts of the world to celebrate him.
“He was an extraordinary man and had an extraordinary funeral. I feel it was part of our healing. When we look back on the funeral it wasn’t sad, it was powerful and unique and I know it’s what he would have wanted.”
Nearly three years on, Lisa is still coming to terms with the loss of the man she says was her “best friend”. “I never thought it would be me. We can all have an impact if we’re safer, slow down and we don’t use our phones while driving. Don’t let my story become your story.”
Tonya McEvoy: Mam said ‘we think she’s dead’
Tonya McEvoy (34) from Rathfarnham in Dublin died on February 12th, 2017, following a collision with a vehicle in Rathcoffey, in Co Kildare, during a trip with a dozen other cyclists.
When Tonya McEvoy signed up to the bike-to-work scheme she knew very little about cycling. She had recently started a new job as a childminder and was fed up waiting for the bus and sitting in rush hour traffic. When a friend at a gym class suggested she join a cycle club called Orwell Wheelers, Tonya turned to her best friend Jennifer Mulligan-Rabbitt for advice.
“She had been quite self-conscious for a number of years but then got really into exercises and nutrition and her confidence started to grow,” says Jennifer, speaking on the phone from her apartment in London.
“She also wanted to find Mr Right and we joked that there were lots of men in cycling clubs. But then she got really passionate about cycling. It gave her a new lease of life.”
Tonya’s younger brother Keith McEvoy also noticed a change in his sister’s demeanour after she joined the club in 2016. “She invested so much time in it and did lots of classes on anything related to cycling. She bought two bikes, one for work and the proper racer bike to do the spins with her cycling club. She enjoyed meeting new people and would always tell us stories about the different people in the group.”
On Sunday, February 12th, 2017, the 34-year-old set out on one of her usual Orwell Wheelers morning cycles. She and Jennifer had been texting back and forth the night before while Tonya spent the evening baking with her mother. Tonya had lived with her parents since moving home from Australia in 2008 but was saving for a deposit to buy a home.
“She was usually really social but had a nice night in with her mum and they made buns,” says Jennifer. “She texted [to say] she was going on a cycle the next day. I wrote back the following morning but it never delivered.”
Keith was in his ex-girlfriend’s apartment in Sandyford when the phone rang on Sunday morning. His five-year-old daughter Hannah was in his parents’ house and he was expecting her to call. Instead, he heard the panicked voice of his mother Patricia.
“She said ‘you’ve got to get home, Tonya’s been in an accident’. My whole body froze but then I thought, she’s gonna be okay. Her friend had fallen off her bike a few weeks before and hurt her knee, and Tonya waited with her for the ambulance to arrive. I thought it was that sort of scenario.”
Keith’s split second of relief was quickly shattered. “Mam said ‘we think she’s dead’. I was in a panic. I had to get home because I knew it was just Hannah and my mam there by themselves.”
Shortly before Keith spoke to his mother, two representatives from Orwell Wheelers had called to the family home in Rathfarnham. They explained that Tonya had been in an accident and drove Tonya’s father Brian and sister Ciara to the village of Rathcoffey in Co Kildare. They were met by gardaí and were told to drive on to Naas hospital where they discovered Tonya had died.
In London, Jennifer had been waiting all morning for Tonya to reply to her message. “Tonya was reliable as clockwork, she would always write back. I checked my phone a couple of times and said to my husband ‘that’s a bit weird’.
“By 4pm I knew there was something wrong so I sent her a Facebook message but heard nothing back.”
When Jennifer saw a text appear from Tonya’s sister asking that she call she felt sick to her stomach. “Poor Ciara had to break the news to me. I just kind of sat there for a long time. Then I just started booking flights.”
Jennifer and her now-husband Ciarán flew to Dublin the following day. “I remember the airport was horrific. People were going away on holidays and here was I going home to a funeral. It felt confusing and weird.”
That same morning, Keith was tasked with the job of covering his dad’s milkman shift. “He’s self-employed so he couldn’t call in sick and needed to deliver to shops and restaurants. I’ll never forget it, everyone kept asking ‘where’s your dad?’ and I had to explain to every customer what had happened. It became harder and harder each time. I went into one shop and saw her photo on the front of the Herald. I started shaking and just turned away and walked back to the milk van. I wanted to burst out crying but I thought it’s not my character, men are meant to be tough. So I just bottled it in.”
Keith was not able to hide these emotions at Tonya’s funeral two days later. “Myself, my brother, my dad, my two uncles and my sister’s partner carried the coffin. It was a massive turnout and the Orwell Wheelers did a guard of honour in their cycling jerseys. I was asked to say a prayer but when I stood up I just broke.”
Less than four months later, Jennifer stood at the altar of a church in the west of Ireland and said her marriage vows to her husband. “We kept the bridal party as it was, there was no replacement bridesmaid for Tonya. We had a candle lit for her all morning but nothing can replace someone’s laugh or smile. All I could think about was she would love this and should be here with me.”
More than 14 months on from her death, Keith is finding his sister’s absence increasingly difficult. “I know people say it gets easier as time goes on but to be honest it’s been the opposite for me. The longer it goes on the harder it gets.
“Sometimes I get angry, why would they take her away from me? It still doesn’t feel real.”
Jennifer also struggles to accept that her best friend is no longer a phone call away. “There’s no real logic to it. She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and in a split second, she was gone. She had all these plans; she was going to buy a house, she wanted to meet a man and travel again. We had so many good times ahead of us.”
“She was a lesson to everybody, she paved her own way and for me she was an inspiration. She did things in her own way and loved life.”