Dark days in Donegal as fatal crash leaves communities shattered

As funerals of four young victims took place, prayers were offered that people would ‘exercise extreme care on the road’

The funeral of Micheál Roarty in Dunlewey, Co Donegal. Photograph: Michael McHugh/PA Wire

A pair of bollards lit up green marked the entrance to Gortahork on Wednesday evening. “Slow. Wake Ahead,” laminated signs read.

Big men in hi-vis jackets, their shoulders hunched against the cold or the grief, directed traffic into spaces outside the An Garaiste shop. Groups of young people – boys in hoodies, girls in giant scarves, all of them much too young to be attending a wake for one of their own – streamed up the icy road.

To be going to one wake was inconceivable; to be going to four was more than some could stand.

“I went to four wakes last night. It was unbearable,” said Enya Quigg, a young woman from Falcarragh. “Even before you got into the house, everyone was in convulsions of tears.”


Outside one house in Gortahork, there was a sign, "Wake House". This was where family and friends of Daniel Scott were gathering to remember a man described at his funeral as a "dapper dresser", who loved his suede shoes and his hair gel almost as much as he loved his football – and who loved his girlfriend Helen most of all. He had been supposed to fly to Denmark to start a new job next week.

Mourners carry the coffin of Daniel Scott at Christ the King Church in Gortahork. His funeral was told: “Life is busy, we are all in a rush and in a hurry, we all have deadlines. But deadlines sometimes can result in dead lives.” Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

All of that was taken away “in the blink of an eye” last Sunday night, said Fr Sean Ó Gallchoir, “with devastating repercussions and consequences”.

Three other wakes were happening at the same time in other houses in other parts of the west of the county. Shaun Harkin’s and John Harley’s in Falcarragh; Micheál Roarty’s in Dunlewey. All four young men were killed in the same single-vehicle collision near Magheraroarty just before 9pm on Sunday.

“Four young men, full of hopes, full of dreams, full of plans full of aspirations, full of ambitions, full of ideas, all gone in one fell swoop. Four families, broken, shattered, devastated, bereft,” said Fr Ó Gallchoir.

They were "four stand-out fellas, who everybody would have known and everybody would have respected and everybody would have loved. Any room that they were in was better off for having them in it," said Cllr Seamus O'Domhnaill, cathaoirleach of Donegal County Council, who is from Falcarragh. He knew the young men personally.

What happens to a community as tight as this, when four young men – four individuals who were supposed to be the next generation of leaders – die on the side of a road on a Sunday night?

There is silence, in the first instance. Everybody commented on the silence. At Harley's funeral, the priest, Fr James Gillespie, spoke about the terrible quiet in Harley's family home on Sunday night when he was called there at 11pm. Now, he said, "there is a stillness and a silence in the community. Everyone is mourning".

In Gweedore, too, the community is “semi closed down. Nobody is really talking about anything else, other than the tragedy. Everybody is somewhat numb. The numbness is going away, and now it’s kind of disbelief,” said O’Domhnaill.

Walking around the town of Falcarragh, “there’s a whole air of coldness and sadness. Everyone you speak to, they can’t believe it,” said Quigg as she closed up her cafe, where the boys used to come sometimes for breakfast after training.

For two days, from early morning until late at night, a steady stream of cars had been passing by outside, pulling up a few yards further along at the church where buses were waiting to take mourners to the home of Harley.

Mourners carry the coffin of John Harley at St Finian’s Church in Falcarragh. John was remembered as a kind, charming, “sound man”. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

All we can do now, she said, is “get through tomorrow and be there for the families. There are three coaches taking people from funeral to funeral. Tomorrow is going to be a tough day.”

On Thursday, those shattered communities buried their young men, one by one. The funerals began shortly after sunrise, and continued almost until the sun went down.

First Shaun, then Micheál, then John, and finally Daniel.

A “terrible tragic tear-filled Thursday,” Fr Ó Gallchoir called it, at Shaun Harkin’s funeral. “A Thursday of torment and trauma; one of the saddest and darkest days in the history of this community,” the same priest said later in the same church at a different funeral, this time Daniel Scott’s.

After a day like that, images coalesce into a collage of grief. Solemn, small children carrying a heavy wooden crucifix in front of a coffin.

The quiver in a younger sister’s voice, as she offers up a prayer of thanks for the memory of the love of her big brother, Daniel.

A debs photo carried to the altar by John’s girlfriend. The wreath spelling out Micheál’s nickname, Roycee.

The guards of honour formed by schoolchildren, and clubmates from Dunlewey Celtic and Glenlea United soccer teams, and Cloughnageely and Gaoth Dobhair GAA football teams.

Hundreds of mourners, huddled together in freezing temperatures outside the tiny Sacred Heart Church in Dunlewey, in the shadow of a spectacular, snow-covered Mt Errigal.

The community rallying, helping to grit the roads, direct the traffic, make sandwiches and soup.

The many references to the dead young men’s “second family” – each other, and their wider circle of friends.

Some of those friends and clubmates, stoic earlier in the day, were falling apart by the third funeral, numb again by the fourth. Their faces, framed by stiff white collars and black ties, began to look rubbed raw with grief.

Sport and friendship means everything to the young people in these communities. A group of eight from the area, who have emigrated to Australia, flew home last week to say goodbye to their friends, having just been home at Christmas. Others came from Dubai, the United States, Scotland, England.

It was a day of grief and a day of stories, told in Irish and in English. There were stories about their many sporting achievements, their loyalty, their friendship. Kind, charming, “sound man” John, once said Friday was his favourite day at the pub in Falcarragh where he worked for a time, because that was the day the older people got their pensions, and came in for a pint, Fr Gillespie recounted. But though he loved football, he didn’t love training, claiming it was “only for people who need to improve”.

There were stories about Daniel: his love of selfies and social media, and the intellect that saw him become a civil engineer who worked all over the United Kingdom and Denmark, whose career highlights included working on a building for Facebook.

Shaun was “full of conversation” and “wise beyond his years”, and knew all his neighbours, old and young – and visited them all.

The funeral cortege of Shaun Harkin makes its way to Christ the King Church in Gortahork. Shaun was remembered as someone “full of conversation” and “wise beyond his years”. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Micheál, or Roycee to his friends, was a “giant of a man, who was loved by many because he loved many”, said the priest who buried him, Fr Brian Ó Fearraigh. A “fabulous left foot, and a fabulous character,” said Brendán Ó Baoill, public relations officer of CLG Ghaoth Dobhair, where he played at all levels.

He was “a very likeable, very sociable fella. One of his main traits was that he was very considerate,” said his former school principal, Noel Ó Gallchoir, who recalled that Micheál had a very serious illness a few years ago, which nearly killed him.

The community has not yet even begun to come to terms with the loss of these four young men. “A whole community numbed and in shock. Not just this community . . . but the whole of the nation is stunned,” Fr Ó Gallchoir said.

The people of Donegal, and of these communities in particular, have been here before. Since 2010, there have been 11 collisions resulting in multiple fatalities in the county.

“The younger lads, this is the first time they have experienced the loss of somebody in such tragic circumstances. Our older lads, they have gone through it before,” said Ó Baoill.

Micheál Roarty is the second member of the club they have lost to a car crash. In 2007, Hugh Sweeney "died in a road accident just a couple of hundred metres from where Micheál Roarty lost his life". This brings it all back, he said.

The club has been offered counselling through the HSE and Donegal County Board. “We’ll follow their guidelines. It’s usually when everything settles down that some of these lads will need support.”

Thursday, perhaps, was not the time for tough questions to be asked, or for road safety messages to be hammered home. At some of the funerals, a version of the same prayer was offered up, asking that people would “exercise extreme care on the road”.

Fr Ó Gallchoir repeated the message that “the car, as we can see, is a lethal weapon” and that we have a “great responsibility when we go in a car . . . Drive safely so that no harm will befall anybody . . . Life is busy, we are all in a rush and in a hurry, we all have deadlines. But deadlines sometimes can result in dead lives,” he said at Daniel Scott’s funeral.

And yet, even on the day they buried four of their own with broken hearts, that message didn’t seem to be getting through to everyone.

As a line of cars drove from the first funeral at Gortahork to the funeral at Dunlewey, staying under the 100km speed limit in icy conditions, three separate drivers got impatient, and pulled out, overtaking on a road with an unbroken white line down the centre.

The same thing happened twice more on the road back from Dunlewey to Falcarragh for the final funeral of the day.

The road that leads through Glenveagh National Park to Falcarragh makes for what must be one of the most spectacular drives in the country, but by Wednesday afternoon, it had become almost impassable with snow and ice. And yet, carved into the ice were tyre marks forming a series of perfect circles.

Someone had been here in between the wakes ending and the funerals beginning, spinning their car around to perform doughnuts on the ice.

Life is “precious, fragile, brittle, easily broken,” said Fr Ó Gallchoir at Daniel Scott’s funeral, the last of the day on Thursday.