Tributes paid to ‘caring’ Cork couple who died in London fire

Joe and Ann Whelan died in house fire in UK in February while caring for a sick relative

Generous tributes were paid and fond memories were recalled on Saturday at the funeral of a Co Cork couple who died in a house fire in London earlier this month while caring for a sick relative.

Hundreds of mourners packed St Colman's Cathedral in Cobh for the funeral Mass of retired couple Joe (74) and Ann Whelan (68) who died in a house fire in Hornchurch near Romford on February 6th. The couple were looking after Mr Whelan's older brother, Jim (76),who also died in the fire.

Parish priest Fr John McCarthy said the Whelans were kind and generous and hospitable people and that was typified by “the care and concern they showed for Jimmy and the fact they were on a mission of mercy to visit him in his time of need when they died”.

He said as news began to trickle back to Cobh of the tragedy, there was a huge outpouring of sympathy and support for the couple’s adult children, Hugh, Mark and Joe amid the sense of shock and disbelief which had reverberated throughout the community.

“These few days have made us aware of how connected to one and another we are while it has also made us aware of the fragile nature of our lives and how much we treasure the most basic things and what we value most - the close knit family we have been blessed with,” he said.

Fr McCarthy asked people to remember the late Jim Whelan’s children, Martin and Joanne in their prayers as he urged people to continue to support the family.

“Our hearts go out to you for the painful journey you had to make to London and the farewell you are saying today,” he said.

Each of the couple’s three sons spoke, with Joe recalling how his parents put their own lives on hold in 1990 when he and Hugh went to the UK for work and his parents came over for a year to make sure they settled and were okay.

“That was the type of loving and caring parents we had,” he said.

Hugh Whelan said if his parents were to be compared to anyone or anything, it would be with "a pair of swans - one partnership through life, they were devoted to each other and dedicated to one another's well being and happiness, sharing over 50 years of marriage together".

“We can take comfort from the fact that they were helping someone else when they passed - they would have wished for that. They left us prematurely but they left together and left peacefully, we would have wished that for them. They were united in life, it’s only fair they were united in death,” he said.

Mark Whelan thanked all those who had assisted them over the past fortnight or so, including Irish consular staff in London, the staff at Essex County Coroner's Office and Queen's Hospital in Romford, local police officers and the 20 plus fire fighters who tried so heroically to save their parents. He also thanked the London undertakers and local firm Henry Black Funeral Directors for helping to repatriate his parents' bodies so smoothly.

Mark noted his father had served in the Naval Service and it was gratifying to see so many of his old ship mates among the mourners.

He also thanked the Naval Service for draping his father's coffin in the tricolour before the two coffins were carried down the aisle to the sound of soprano Eileen Plummer singing Johnny Duhan's The Voyage as they began the journey to the Old Church Cemetery for burial.

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times