Heartbreak over girl who went to shop and never came back

Irish families grieve on World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims

 Margaret and Thomas Kavanagh from Kilmainham, Dublin,  at the grave of their daughter Janice who was killed by a drink-driver who ran a red light at a pedestrian crossing.  Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Margaret and Thomas Kavanagh from Kilmainham, Dublin, at the grave of their daughter Janice who was killed by a drink-driver who ran a red light at a pedestrian crossing. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

Shortly after 6pm on Thursday, December 5th, 1991, 10-year-old Janice Kavanagh and a few pals set off from their estate, Ceannt Fort, near Kilmainham in Dublin, walking happily to the local shop.

A path leads down from the cluster of terraced homes perched high above Mount Brown, and passes through a wrought iron archway leading out onto the main road, a well-used connection between Thomas Street and Kilmainham.

Despite the time of year, it was mild and dry; that particular December was the driest for 100 years. As the youngsters set out to buy ice creams, a man left a pub nearby, got into his van with a passenger and began to drive.

The girls made their way across Mount Brown using the traffic light-controlled pedestrian crossing. They went to the shop beside the garage, bought their treats and started to walk home again.

Janice waited once more at the pedestrian lights. When they turned green, she began to walk. By now, the van was coming down the hill, heading towards Kilmainham. It went straight through the red light, hit Janice and flung her into the air. It drove on without stopping.

Members of the McGuinness family, who lived on the main road and were by coincidence friends of the Kavanaghs, were travelling behind in their UPC cable television van, and saw everything.

Passersby rushed to help Janice. Some of the children ran into Ceannt Fort to raise the alarm at the Kavanaghs. There, her mother Margaret was looking after her sisters, Deborah aged 13 and Lynsey aged 4½.

Quickly, neighbours rushed to help. Margaret ran down the path towards Mount Brown. As she ran, she thought to herself, ‘Broken arm, maybe broken leg’. Down at the pedestrian crossing, a doctor told her an ambulance had been called.

Janice lay on the ground. There were no visible signs of injury, but she did not answer when Margaret called her name.

By then the McGuinnesses had given chase after the hit-and-run driver drove down Mount Brown and along the Old Kilmainham Road. At one stage, the van being pursued stopped, the passenger got out and ran away before the van took off again.

At traffic lights in Kilmainham, one of the McGuinnesses got out of their van, ran to the other van and grabbed the driver. Did he know what he had just done, he shouted. “I didn’t do anything,” claimed the driver. A call was made to the Garda. He was taken to Kilmainham station.

Janice was brought to Crumlin’s children’s hospital and rushed into an examination room. Her mother waited outside. Following an agonising half an hour, doctors emerged. There was nothing more they could do, they had tried everything.

Her daughter’s spine had been damaged so severely by the impact that she had probably died instantly and painlessly. But dead she was.

 

Remembrance

This weekend, the Irish Road Victims Association will participate, as they always do, in the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims, which are likely to number close to 200 Irish fatalities this year. The association supports and comforts bereaved relatives and friends of road victims, including the Kavanagh family.

A full 25 years after the senseless death of Janice, the emotions remain raw for Margaret and her husband Tommy, Janice’s father. In their home, Janice remains as much a part of the family as it is possible for her to be and occupies a huge part of everyone’s thoughts.

For a quarter of a century, Tommy has gone to sleep each night with a tracksuit top that belonged to Janice under his pillow: “It’s in bits, torn to shreds,” he says.

“When I go to bed, I kiss that tracksuit. When I get up in the morning, I kiss that tracksuit. It’s the first thing I do going to bed and the first thing I do getting up in the morning. Still. To this day,” he told The Irish Times, as he sat in an armchair.

“Her schoolbag hasn’t been opened,” says Margaret. “I have all her clothes, schoolbag, the lot, from the day she came in that day, from the moment she came in, upstairs in the wardrobe.”

Above the fireplace, Scrabble letters are arranged in a frame to spell the names of everyone in the family – Margaret and Tom, Deborah and Lynsey, Ian, a much-loved son born after the tragedy, and Janice, a central and vital part of the family mosaic. Opposite on the other wall is a composite photograph showing Margaret and Tommy on their wedding day and their four children.

Ian was born a little over a year after Janice’s death and brought life and joy back into a home left filled with grief after Janice’s death. The sister he never knew is also part of Ian’s life. A year ago, he got a tattoo etched high up on his left arm, his memorial to Janice. It contains images relating to her life and likes: a dancing majorette, the song that was number one on the day she died (Elton John and George Michael’s duet of Don’t let the Sun go down on Me), an angel and her name.

Margaret and Tommy agreed to talk about the family’s loss, and coping with it, in the hope that it might help others going through a similar experience; and also to warn errant drivers: this is the pain you inflict on others.

The days immediately after the tragedy remain something of a blur for Margaret and Tommy. When told the news, Margaret says she went numb: “I could not talk. I just . . . It tore . . .” – the words don’t always come easy.

“I just went numb. I talked to nobody. I went into shock and I was just like a rag doll. I can only remember the night it happened. I can’t remember the church. I can’t remember anything after that. We can’t remember the church.

“We can’t remember who was here [in their home], who was at the church, we just haven’t got a clue,” she goes on. Once the funeral was over, the first hurdle was Christmas.

“That Christmas, we just had to deal with it,” says Margaret. “We had to do a Santy for the 4½-year-old [Lynsey].”

“Yeah. We went into town,” says Tommy.

“You had to go into town and actually buy toys,” says Margaret. “We thought when we went into town, everybody was singing and getting on with life, and we thought life should stop because we’d lost our child. But life doesn’t stop; life just goes on.”

Margaret received some counselling, but when she became pregnant in the spring after Janice’s death, the imminent arrival of Ian became her focus. After his arrival in January 1993, she immersed herself in caring for him and Janice’s two sisters.

About five years later, Tommy’s GP warned him: “Keep an eye on Margaret, she hasn’t grieved yet.” He told Tommy: “It’s going to happen . . . it has to happen . . . She’s too strong and it doesn’t work that way.”

A year later, Margaret had a breakdown.

“I’d just sit in a corner, not go out, didn’t want to see people, just sat in a corner, just leave me to die, crying, not wanting anybody, angry, just leave me alone to die here. That lasted about a year and a half,” says Margaret.

She went to her doctor and with the help of medication and lots of talk, fought her way through the depression. “It was a struggle,” she says. “He had been at that stage. but I hadn’t.”

Seven weeks after Janice’s death, Tommy returned to work at CIE in Inchicore where he was a crane driver. Workmates were outstandingly caring and helpful in a quiet, male sort of way.

There was the occasional squeeze on his arm, a “How are you?”, with an answer not really being sought but empathy expressed; or a simple “Good to see you Tommy”; or an invitation to a game of cards or the suggestion of going for a walk.

Tommy remembers how he felt then. “I really didn’t know where I was. I went back to work, came home, I watched television, I went on a holiday with the kids and I don’t remember any of it. I just carried on . . .

“I really didn’t care if I died, because you think if you go, you’re with her. But it’s so selfish; you forget about talking to the others that are there.”

Two years ago, he, too, went for counselling at the urging of colleagues in St James’s Hospital, where both he and Ian now work. Therapy was difficult to embrace. He had just one question for his counsellor: “I said I’m going to be straight with you, my only question is ‘Can you bring her back?’ He said ‘I can’t’.”

Today, he has one, serious regret. For all the years after Janice’s death, both he and Margaret were unable to have family photographs until Ian graduated, aged 19, from Inchicore College of Further Education on Emmet Road in a Royal Hospital, Kilmainham ceremony.

But why? “Because she wasn’t there,” said Tommy. Margaret says: “We were thinking of the loss of Janice, [of her] not being in the photograph.”

“I see mistakes that I made,” says Tommy. “You kind of went through years, and you were there, you went on holidays with them but you don’t remember them . . . If I was talking to someone now that this happened to, I’d advise them, if they had kids, get photographs. Think of them. I should have been thinking of Ian . . .

“Ian growing up has no family photographs.”

 

Cry easily

A quarter of a century on, Margaret and Tommy cry easily and openly. They cried last Sunday. “You said something to me, or I said something to you, about Janice,” says Margaret “and I started to cry and he started to cry. There was only the two of us here. That’s 25 years later; it’s 25 years, but a part of us is missing.”

“I don’t care whatever they say, you’re never the same again and no one will know what it’s like unless it happens to them,” says Tommy. “People will say, ‘Oh, I can imagine’. You can’t. I’d say that everyone means well, but you can’t imagine.”

But life also brings great joy. Three and a half years ago, Deborah (now 38) gave birth to a daughter, Robin, and a year and a half ago to another girl, Zara.

A year ago, Lynsey, who is now 29, and her partner Neil, went to Palmerstown looking to buy a house. Viewing one, they drew open the upstairs curtains and saw the room looked out over the cemetery, directly across to where Janice was laid to rest in December 1991. It was the clinching reason to buy.

The man who drove the van that killed Janice was four to five times over the then legal blood/alcohol limit. And he was a recidivist, a small-time criminal with a long record and multiple convictions for driving offences and burglary. Five months after killing Janice, he was caught once again drink-driving.

When he appeared in court charged with Janice’s death, neither Margaret nor Tommy could bring themselves to attend. “I didn’t want to see the man’s face,” says Margaret. “I actually didn’t want to see his face.”

It is a testament to her and Tommy’s kindness in the face of such a tragedy that they asked that the man not be named when telling their and Janice’s story. “Whatever about what he did, he has a wife, and children and grandchildren. They don’t deserve to be hurt,” says Margaret.

The man was convicted and served three years of a five-year prison sentence.

Tommy visits Janice’s grave in Palmerstown Cemetery every fortnight, talks to her and finds solace in his faith. Margaret also believes in God, but finds it hard now regularly to visit the grave and see the photo on the headstone of the little girl whose life promised so much, confining herself to special occasions such as Christmas.

A small plaque by her headstone expresses something of the family’s heartbreak and enduring love for the little girl that went for an ice cream 25 years ago and didn’t come home.

“We cannot bring the old days back, when we were all together,” it says. “The family chain is broken now but memories live forever.”

Janice is in grave S-33-D, immediately beside her grandparents, Con and Bridget, who bought their plot beside her, immediately after she was laid to rest there.

The man whose drink-driving cut short Janice’s life died in July 1997. By extraordinary coincidence, he is buried in the same graveyard, little more than a stone’s throw from where she lies.