Louise and Niamh Doyle’s last Christmas together was a good one.
They laughed and they joked, they ate and they drank. They snuggled up on Louise’s sofa with her daughter, Rachel, while they chatted and watched TV.
For Louise, that Christmas of 2014 is filled with good and treasured memories. Twelve days later, her sister Niamh had her life snatched from her. She was just 19.
Last Thursday week, Dayna Kearney (23), the driver of the car in which Niamh died on the N78 near Athy, Co Kildare, was acquitted at Naas Circuit Criminal Court of dangerous driving causing death, and of driving a defective vehicle.
Also killed in the car with Niamh on January 6th, 2015, were three of her and Dayna's friends – Gemma Nolan and Ashling Middleton (both 19) and Chermaine Carroll (20).
The 3½ years since then have seen Louise struggling to come to terms with the loss, while trying to find out the hows and the whys of the tragedy as she navigated the sometimes bewildering world of policing and law.
Louise’s story is one of enduring love for her sister; of quiet but firm determination to cope with has been thrown at her, to represent Niamh in the years after her death, and to keep her name and memory alive.
“We had a lovely evening,” Louise says of that last Christmas night. “We were sitting down, chatting away, and I said to her: ‘Do you know, I think that’s actually the best Christmas I ever had.’”
Niamh, Louise and Rachel were particularly close. With just six years separating them, Rachel and Niamh were more like sisters than aunt and niece. And Louise, being a 20-year-old mother herself, completed the youthful trio.
Niamh spent a lot of time in Louise’s house in Graiguecullen on the edge of Carlow town and often looked after Rachel. On the night before her death, she baby-sat Rachel.
“I dropped her home to Mammy’s that night,” says Louise. “She had no key to get into the house, so she stood at the gate and waved at me. I said, just let me know that Mammy’s there to let you in.
“She waved goodbye and that was the last time I saw her.”
Niamh and her friends died around 10.30pm on January 6th. They had spent the evening ice skating in Kilkenny and were on their way back to Carlow.
Louise was at home and remembers exactly what she was doing when word came through, and how she reacted in the days that followed.
"My partner was going through the Journal on his phone and this article came up about four girls killed in a car crash. He went into it and he clicked back out of it. He said, 'Do you know what, I'm not going to read that. We're having a nice time – I'm not going to read anything like that.' So he put the phone down.
“We went on to bed and never thought anything of it and I got a phone call between 3 and 4am in the morning . . . My father rang me – my brother was just after travelling back to Australia where he worked and I thought there was something wrong. My father said: ‘It’s Niamh, it’s Niamh – you need to come up to the house.’
“I said, what are you talking about and he said, ‘Niamh is dead, Niamh is dead’ – that’s all he kept saying. And I said, ‘Jesus, Daddy, will you go back to sleep!’”
Louise and Niamh’s father, Ber, had a habit of talking in his sleep and Louise was convinced he was at it again.
Handing the phone to her partner, she asked him to ring her mother, Veronica, to get her to, as she thought, wake her father up and get him off the phone.
But her father was not sleep-talking.
“So that’s how I found out,” she says simply. “From then onwards, I went up to the house and I still didn’t believe it.”
It fell to Louise to go to Naas hospital to identify Niamh’s body, taking Rachel with her, at her daughter’s insistence. On the way, she feared what she would see when she got there.
“She looked like she was asleep,” Louise recallsin an interview, determined to talk about the crash, about how she and her family coped, about how ordinary people cope with tragedy, and its aftermath.
“She was the only one, out of all of them, [whose injuries did not show]. I went to see the other girls at their wakes and it was. . . you’d never forget what they looked like.”
Niamh died from internal injuries. Her body was released after the postmortem and taken to Carpenter’s funeral home in Carlow. Louise took charge – buying Niamh’s funeral clothes in River Island (and a matching set for Rachel) and also Niamh’s favourite make up from the MAC cosmetic range.
“I wanted to be her big sister, to make sure that she was perfect in her last moments, to make sure that she . . .” her voice trails away as she searches for the right words. “I could hear her saying to me, ‘Do not let anybody come into [the funeral home] and see me without my make-up on.’”
In her coffin, Niamh was dressed as Louise had ordained – a blue-navy check shirt and necklace (“she loved big necklaces, you know, real vintage, and so I bought one of those”), denim leggings, Nike runners and a pair of odd socks.
“She always had odd socks on,” laughs Louise. “She just never had a pair of [matching] socks, even the day she passed away.”
On one of Niamh’s fingers, Louise placed one of her own rings. Niamh’s boyfriend, Shane, bought her a watch and put it on her wrist.
With the help of two friends, Louise made sure Niamh’s face looked her best. The morticians had washed her body and her big mop of thick dark hair had gone curly.
“So I pinned it all up lovely,” says Louise, lifting her own hair up onto the top of her head to show, “and we put her eyeliner on. She used to stare at me doing my eyeliner and that’s how she learned to do it. It became our trademark.”
The three women made Niamh up fully – painted nails and a face to turn heads: foundation and bronzer, blusher and highlighter on her cheeks.
“It took me a while to touch her. I remember the guy saying in the morgue, ‘You can touch her’ and I said, ‘No! I can’t – I can’t touch her because I don’t want to feel how cold she is.’ Because she looked perfect, like she was just asleep.’
“So it took me a while to touch her but when I did, I could hear her saying: ‘Make sure that’s perfect, make sure this is perfect.’ Maybe she was there, maybe she was saying it.
“Maybe it wasn’t in my head but that’s what I done . . . I done all that for her.”
Finally, Louise dressed the funeral-home room where Niamh would lie in repose with flowers and photographs, and examples of Niamh’s art. She was a talented artist.
The deaths of four young women, who were close friends and lived close to each other, traumatised all of the families affected, but also the wider community in Athy and Carlow.
“The people came flooding and it was manic,” says Louise. “It was really upsetting because people were touching her – her make-up was starting to come off. There were so many people coming.
“There were people that I didn’t even know. At one stage, there was this guy come in and he was drunk and we thought he was going to fall in over her. He was just off the street.
“I think he just saw the crowd come in but, you know like, it was very distressing. That was very distressing for Rachel. She just sat there through the whole thing. Eventually I got her out of there.”
Before Niamh’s coffin was closed, her and Louise’s brother Kevin, who returned from Australia having only just got there after spending Christmas in Carlow, placed a pendant containing a family photograph.
Louise, Rachel and Shane laid roses and dried flowers in the coffin, and a pouch of roll-your-own tobacco.
Louise did not stay to see the coffin closed. At the funeral in the Church of the Holy Family in Askea, Carlow, four days after her sister's death, she was on "autopilot", as she describes it. The chief mourners were Niamh's parents, Ber and Veronica, Louise, Kevin, Rachel and boyfriend Shane. Veronica Doyle lit a candle on the altar.
Ber told the congregation of a remembered conversation with Niamh. Asked what quality she admired most, his daughter replied “kindness”, saying it was something Veronica had taught her.
The music reflected Niamh’s loves – songs by Walking on Cars, James Vincent McMorrow and (a big musical love shared with Louise) the Coronas. They had talked about a Tommy Tiernan video , but that was one too far for the priest.
After the funeral Mass, Niamh was buried in St Mary’s cemetery, beside her friend and fellow crash victim Gemma Nolan.
The Garda Síochána investigation into the N78 crash quickly pointed in one direction – the scuff marks and debris on the road, the positions of the two vehicles when they came to standstill, and eyewitness accounts .
The Polo, driven by Dayna Kearney, had veered on to the wrong side of the road, twisting on its axis as it went, and smashed, left side-on, into the front of a VW transit van.
The van was driven by Przemyslaw Gorkowy (30) and his passenger Mariusz Wawrzos (35), both originally from Poland. They were on their way from Athy to Carlow where, by coincidence, Gorkowy lived barely a few metres from Gemma Nolan, one of the girls lying dead in the Polo, as Gorkowy and Wawrzos' van burst into flames.
Luckily for Gorkowy, he only had slight injuries. Wawrzos fared worse, spending time in hospital, but neither man suffered life-changing injuries.
In the days after the crash, Gorkowy played the horror over in his mind. “I just keep seeing the accident again and again and again,” he told reporters. “I am lucky to be alive. I thought I was going to die. I cannot stop thinking about the girls.”
Louise Doyle had other things to think about. Three weeks after the funeral, she was pregnant with Mikey, her now three-year-old son.
“Everybody was saying ‘That’s great!’ but it wasn’t,” she remembers. “It was horrible. Not that I didn’t want the baby – I wanted it! But the whole experience of it was just traumatic.”
Louise suffered intense bouts of morning sickness and she worried that her grief over Niamh’s death would somehow impact on the baby growing inside her.
Her memories are blurred but she recalls very clearly having a photograph of Niamh present while she was giving birth.
“And then all hell broke loose –post-natal depression and the grief . . . [it] came at me like a ton of bricks. I was actually delusional walking around – I didn’t know where I was going, I didn’t know if I could cope with the baby, I didn’t want to be left with the baby on my own. I was just so afraid, so depressed, so angry – everything!”
Eventually, Louise got through her depression unscathed, as did baby Mikey. But her relationship with her partner did not survive, linked she has no doubt to the trauma of the crash and Niamh’s death.
About a year afterwards, Louise began to wonder what, if anything, was going on with the Garda investigation After such a high loss of life, gossipy rumours were inevitable: most centred around drink and drugs and speed – even though in time, all would be shown to be untrue.
Neither of the drivers had been speeding and neither they, nor any of the passengers, had been drinking or taking drugs. No evidence, either forensic or visual, supported any suggestion of speeding.
Eyewitness evidence, from Gorkowy and Wawrzos and the driver of a third vehicle travelling behind them, suggested the Polo’s speed was well below the 100km/h limit on the N78.
The Garda Síochána has a system of family liaison officers (FLOs) whose role is to keep relatives informed about the progress of investigations after major events, such as a fatal road traffic crash, or a kidnapping or murder.
Ber and Veronica Doyle were the primary point of contact for the FLO about the investigation into Niamh’s death. After some months, however, the parents found the contact too upsetting to continue.
After that, Louise now had no way of knowing, even second-hand, what was going on.
“That’s when I started looking for answers,” she says. “That’s when I started getting frustrated. The questions were like: the car, where was [Niamh] sitting? We don’t know. What’s the situation with the court? Where do I go when I go in there? Will the person, the driver, be beside me? What is the charge and what happens next?
“I just wanted to find out the whole layout [of the court], the procedure of what goes on.
“I rang the gardaí and was told, oh yeah, just go up to your local court clerk and they’ll explain to you.”
Frustrated, she went online and found Parc, the road safety group that supports families. Parc sent her leaflets and tutored her how to approach the Garda to ask for a FLO liaison.
A liaison officer was eventually assigned to her but Louise found the service erratic. Emails were left unanswered for weeks and then at times only the day before a court sitting, not leaving her enough time to get off work.
At times, some gardaí behaved, in her view, inappropriately (appearing slovenly dressed or smoking in public); or appearing at times to be more concerned for the accused rather than providing factual information sought by the victims.
Early on, Louise went to a Garda station to ask questions. She was taken to an interview room and was disconcerted when she saw her image on display on on a TV-type monitor.
“He would answer in a roundabout may, not specific. I was worried. . .” she recalls.
She asked about the state of the VW Polo, amid rumours (which were accurate) that it had no NCT and was in some way defective (while mechanically sound, the car’s tyres were linked forensically to the cause of the crash) but could not get answers and felt the system supposed to assist her was in reality “cold and unresponsive”.
A brighter moment occurred in early summer 2016 when Parc invited her and another family of a road fatality to meet then Garda commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan.
The meeting took place inside the Garda Officers' Club, the Victorian house in Garda Headquarters, and involved O'Sullivan; the deputy commissioner, John Twomey; a chief superintendent; Susan Gray, the chair of Parc, and two members of a Mayo family who had lost a son, who had been run down late at night.
O’Sullivan was very empathetic.
“I found her easy to talk to and she listened,” says Louise. “She did comfort me because I got quite upset, talking about my sister.”
O’Sullivan got up from her seat and sat beside Louise, putting her arm around her. While O’Sullivan stood by her officers – “You have to understand that guards are guards as well. They see an awful lot and they’ve been through an awful lot themselves,” she said, according to Louise – she nonetheless exuded empathy and understanding.
The liaison service improved after the meeting, according to Louise.
Regarding the judicial process, the alien, “other world” nature of the courtroom intimidated. Repeated adjournments occurred; Louise thinks there were at least four) without, it seemed to her, much consideration for victim families who had to rearrange their personal or working lives, anxiety multiplied on top of raw emotion.
When the case finally came to trial earlier this month, on July 10th, at Naas Circuit Criminal Court, Dayna Kearney cut a sad and lonely figure.
Though supported by her family, she was dressed all in black, looked deeply numb, and was, said her defending barrister, attending counselling since the crash.
Relatives of the four dead young women, including Louise and her ever-present friend and supporter, Mary Brennan, packed the court and listened attentively to the evidence.
It suggested that inadequately inflated tyres, the front-left and rear-right in particular, caused the car wobble – or move like a snake, according Mariusz Wawrzos – and veer, or yaw, across the road and into the oncoming van.
There was no obvious animus shown to Dayna Kearney – a feeling perhaps shared by the jury when, after a case lasting under three days, they acquitted her after about 20 minutes’ deliberation, deciding she was not to blame for any condition of the car that might have contributed to the tragedy.
Ms Kearney could walk out the court a not guilty person, said the judge, but she would have to live with what had happened for the rest of her life. But so will everyone else affected.
“My story comes from love,” says Louise. “It’s not to slate anybody – to slate the gardaí or the girl. It’s just a story that I’m telling. Niamh deserves it, 3½ years down the line.”
Paying tribute to the two Garda FLOs present during the trial, she said they were attentive and helpful, one even phoning her the day after the verdict to see how she was coping.
“That was lovely,” Louise said this week. “I had issues with them at the beginning and during the investigation but at the trial, they really came through.”
Three years on, it is the simple questions that still remain. “Where was [Niamh] sitting in that car,” she says. “What did they do that night? What happened? That’s the main thing – wanting to know. For some reason, I really want to know what seat she was in.”
That information may come out at an inquest. All she knows now is that her sister is in her grave but is also in Louise’s heart and her thoughts – every day and for always. Louise Doyle works in education and, with Carlow Regional Youth Service, has helped establish a bursary in memory of her sister. She is also a victim support officer with Parc – parcroadsafety.ie