Traveller families hit by fire disaster prepare for anniversary
Masses on Monday to commemorate 10 lives of young Travellers lost a year ago in Carrickmines
Jim and Josie Connors with their grandchildren Jim (2), Tom (5), John (6) and Mick (8) at home in Ballyogan Road, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Traveller memorial at the Carrickmines halting site where 10 people perished last year
Two memorial Masses on Monday will remember 10 young lives lost a year ago, in one of the worst fire disasters in the history of the State.
The lives of Thomas Connors (28), his wife Sylvia (nee Lynch, 30), and their three children, Jim, (5), Christy (3), and six- month-old Mary will be celebrated at 10am on Monday at Balally parish church in Dublin.
Shortly after, at 12.30pm, Willy Lynch (25), his partner Tara Gilbert (27) who was pregnant when she died, her daughter Jodie Gilbert (9,) and their daughter Kelsey (4); and Jimmy Lynch (39) who was Willy’s and Sylvia’s brother, will be remembered at the Church of the Holy Redeemer in Bray, Co Wicklow.
They died together as they slept in one large mobile home as it was engulfed by flames and black smoke in the early hours of Saturday, October 10th, 2015. Their mobile home was one of five on the “temporary” Traveller site – that had been there for eight years – on Glenamuck Road, Carrickmines.
The two young families had spent the Friday afternoon together – first in Fassaroe in Bray, where Sylvia’s brother Willy lived with his fiancee, Tara, and the children.
Later, they all decamped to Thomas and Sylvia’s home, a 10-minute drive away on Glenamuck Road. One of the older Lynch brothers, Jimmy, joined them and stayed overnight.
A year on, the Glenamuck site has been cleared of all remnants of the lives once lived, and lost, there. The entrance is fenced closed and a newly planted hedgerow surrounds the site.
One item does remain however – a statue of the Virgin Mary and child that the extended Connors family had put near the entrance. Beneath it, a discreet reminder – a small, black, polished granite memorial stone, erected recently by Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, is inscribed with gold lettering. “Their lives a beautiful memory. Their absence a silent grief, 10-10-2015,” is in the centre, with the names of the two families listed on either side.
As the Connors, Lynch and Gilbert families steel themselves for Monday, questions about that night remain, amid concerns about the surviving children’s future.
Jim and Josie Connors – Thomas’s parents – are now bringing up Thomas and Sylvia’s two surviving children. They include Tom (5), who was pulled from the fire by his uncle John (16), and Mick (8), who slept that night at the foot of his grandparents’ bed, in another mobile home on the site.
Jim recalls being woken at about 3.30am by shouting. Two of his sons John and Jim were trying to get into the blazing mobile home. “I looked out. I didn’t know what was going on.”
He had used, over the years, a power hose to clean the site, connected to a hydrant directly outside. However, after complaints, he says the county council cut the water to the hydrant and welded it closed “a few months” before the fire.
The council says a working water hydrant was within 50 metres of the site “which Dublin Fire Brigade used without any impediment” that night.
Until the fire brigade arrived, however, Jim “had just a garden hose that you wouldn’t fill a kettle with”.
He has arthritis, and couldn’t get into the blazing van.
“So I said to John [his youngest son] ‘The only chance we have is if you go in and feel around for one of them’. You couldn’t see your hand for the black smoke. When he handed me out Tom, I thought he was dead. I handed him to my daughter-in-law and she got him to the ambulance man.”
Asked if there was any shouting from inside, he says: “No. There was no shouting. I suppose if the fire didn’t take them, the smoke did.”
Baby Mary had also been rescued and put in another caravan. Thomas and Sylvia’s caravan had been placed right next to this other caravan by the council some months before and the fire spread to it.
“We just put her there asleep in Kathleen’s bed, We thought she’d be safe. We didn’t think it would go up too.”
Though she was rescued again, by a fire brigade paramedic, Mary died later in hospital of smoke inhalation. “There’s nothing we can do now. There’s nothing we can do.”
Their immediate concern is for Tom and Mick, and their own health. Josie worries what would happen to the boys if she and Jim became ill.
In particular they say the site where they are now is “dangerous”. Original plans to place them on a site at the end of Rockville Drive, a residential road nearby, fell through after protests by the residents.
And so, the family – of 10 adults and seven children – was placed in five mobile homes on a site nearby, beside Ballyogan recycling centre. Each of the five families pays €26 a week rent to the council to stay there.
It is also the site of the former Ballyogan landfill. No-smoking signs around the site are due to the potentially lethal and highly flammable methane gas emitted by over three million tonnes of rubbish buried underneath.
Josie says she has been getting bad headaches since moving there and has seen “jet-black” rats on several occasions.
Electric pylon cables cross overhead, while wind coming down off the Dublin mountains blows dust up from the gravelled surface into the vans, making breathing sometimes difficult. In addition, the family is concerned a height barrier at the entrance means emergency services cannot access the site.
New group site
The council says a new, permanent group housing site, off Glenamuck Road, will be ready for the family in July. Though happy about this, the Connors family would like somewhere else in the meantime.
“It’s not about liking it here,” says Josie. “It’s about a place that’s safe for the childer. They are on inhalers. We’re all on tablets for our nerves.”
Generally Tom and Mick “seem to be coming on grand”, she says. Asked if they talk about their parents, she shakes her head. “Never. Mick seems to know. He’s clever. If you talk about it he goes out of the room. He doesn’t want to listen.
“Tom does know. I put a film on there the other day and he started to say: ‘Oh yes, me and Jim . . .’ and he stopped. He didn’t say any more. Mick must have been after saying to him, ‘Don’t say anything about that in front of JoJo.’ So they are keeping it to themselves. Eventually they will talk about it, I’m sure.
“Jim and me, we just want somewhere safe for them to begin to get over it. It’s something that will never leave our minds. But here, we’re in an awful state. I know there are people who are in a worse state, who are homeless, but we don’t want anything like money. Money is no use to us. We just want somewhere safe.”
A spokesman said the county council was “working and will continue to work with the families to ensure the temporary accommodation at Ballyogan is comfortable and safe”.
“The site has protocols around safety and security and these are in place to ensure the wellbeing of the families, ensuring that there is access to emergency services. The council was satisfied that there was no danger in accommodating the families on the site at Ballyogan and this continues to be the case. There is weekly environmental monitoring and routine site management provided.”