The people of Donegal and beyond have expressed their gratitude for Creeslough parish priest Fr John Joe Duffy, following an agonising week of funerals in the small village.
Tributes have been paid to Fr John Joe, who has been described as ‘a constant source of comfort for those facing their darkest days’ in the aftermath of the explosion at Applegreen service station in the village.
Fr John Joe arrived at the scene shortly after the fatal explosion, and he remained there as desperate and bereft loved ones gathered at the scene to wait for news as the tragedy unfolded.
Donegal Daily reports: “When that news came, and it was the most devastating, Fr John Joe was there. He was there with a hug, words of solace and sometimes just in silence when words could not be found. Emergency service personnel, gardaí and others were also cocooned by his pastoral care.”
The village’s parish priest, who knew most of the victims personally, and would see some on ‘an almost daily basis’ united the devastated community through holding masses, rosary and prayer services in the parish in the days following the tragedy to give people strength through prayer.
Ahead of this week’s funerals, which commenced in St Michael’s Church on Tuesday as 24-year-old Jessica Gallagher was laid to rest, many locals expressed their gratitude to Fr John Joe online, as he was faced with the most difficult and challenging time of his priesthood.
Donegal Page carried a tribute to the local priest from Bill Flynn, in a post which has received thousands of likes and shares on social media. Mr Flynn described Fr John Joe as “a wonderful human being, the right person at the right place and time” who has been a “constant presence” for the people of the area at their darkest hour.
“What he has done over the past week is simply amazing. After such immense tragedy in his parish last Friday and beyond he has managed to be there for everyone, a constant presence and then topped it all with his personal, individual funeral for those who were lost in the disaster,” Mr Flynn told Donegal Page.
“Yet, through his own grief, he was composed and delivered each funeral service stressing all the individual stories and talents that summed up the lives of those who perished in Creeslough. We all now feel that we know so much about these 10 souls that we feel we know them personally. Fr Duffy, is a truly caring, gentle man who gives comfort to his neighbours, the people of Creeslough, and the Emergency Services.
“Thank you Fr Duffy for giving such dignity to all those affected throughout the Creeslough area. Rest In Peace to the 10 souls who have departed this life too early”.
Speaking of attending the scene of the tragedy last Friday, Fr John Joe said that praying over some of the bodies of those who so suddenly lost their lives was one of the most difficult things he has ever had to do, as he described the victims as ‘family’.
“They were part of our family, because our community is like our family,” he told the press.
“We know each other so well, we’re in contact on an almost daily basis.
“I stood with members of the local community, members of the emergency services, as people were being brought out, together with Father Pat McGarvey, a native of the parish here. There was one and both of us present for all the people who came out and prayed with the families.
The parish priest said it was “harrowing” to pray with loved ones who were waiting for updates, adding: “You could see in people’s eyes, that sadness. It was just harrowing to be there for the people who didn’t know, and it was harrowing for those who were trying to help them.”
Fr Duffy said that it means so much to the people of Creeslough “to be in the thoughts of people across the nation”, adding that the local community are “being carried by the prayers of the nation, from north to south, east to west, and from those from our parish and other communities”.
Speaking to BBC News NI, Fr John Joen said that Creeslough needs continued “thoughts and prayers,” as he said the tragedy has “taken its toll on us all”.
“We need them because how is anyone here expected to come to terms, to cope with what has happened?” he said, after celebrating the funerals of victims Jessica Gallagher, a gifted and newly qualified fashion designer, 24, and Martin McGill, 49, a ‘lovely man’ who cared for his elderly mother, within hours of each other.
On Wednesday, the funerals of Catherine O’Donnell and her young son James Monaghan took place, also in St Michael’s Church. The mother and son were described as inseparable in life, “always side by side”.
James O’Flaherty, 48, was also buried on Wednesday, with his son, Hamish, 12, movingly addressing mourners as he remembered his beloved dad at the funeral mass in St Mary’s Church. Derrybeg.
“I’d like to say something which I have learned in the past week,” Hamish, who had been sitting in his father’s car when the blast went off, said. “I’d like to say that we should be grateful. For your families, cherish them, be grateful because they won’t be there forever so use the time you have wisely.
“Also be grateful for your life, that too will not last forever but be grateful for you will be able to rest after all of your hard work. Be grateful that God has given us this life and all the things in it; our families, our friends, our home and this world. It is awash with hope and love that God has given us,” the wise young boy said.
Leona Harper and Martina Martin were buried on Thursday. Leona, one of the youngest victims aged just 14, was described as “a little lady with a big heart”.
Fr Michael Carney told mourners at St Mary’s Church in Ramelton that Leona, “a little miracle” conceived after her mother was told she couldn’t have any more children, lived life to the full.
“She has made her unique contribution, left her imprint and contributed to the lives of those she loved, lived and laughed with,” Fr Carney said.
Martina Martin, 49, worked at the service station. The mother of four “lived for her children”, the congregation was told. Devastated family and friends heard how Martina was the “ultimate mammy bear”. Fr John Joe Duffy said that Martina, who was due to celebrate her 50 birthday in just under a week, was sensitive to the needs of other people, and demonstrated patience and hard work.
“If we were having a bad day, her quick wit would lift us up and she cared for her customers in another way. Martina had in her that resolve and that determination to overcome all challenges in life. We will always remember her and we will always pray for her,” Fr Duffy said.
On Saturday, the last of the ten funerals, which have taken place over just five days, were held. Creeslough’s youngest victim, five year old Shauna Flanagan Garwe, and her dad, Robert Garwe, 50, were cremated after a funeral Mass in St Michael’s Church. The child, who had started school just weeks ago, had gone into the shop with her father to buy a birthday cake for her mother. She was later found in her dad’s arms.
The coffins of the father and daughter were carried into St. Michael’s Church side by side, as the little girl was remembered as “a radiant beacon of light, happiness and joy”.
Father John Joe Duffy said that the wonderful little girl “loved her style”, telling mourners:
“She was a girl with beautiful shiny shoes and fantastic coats. She had a spare pencil case for school which had her mirror and other bits to make sure she looked her best.
“A truly wonderful girl who left a lasting impression on all she met. She was a radiant beacon of light, happiness and joy.”
Some of Mr Garwe’s family had made the journey from Zimbabwe to attend, as the funeral heard that the father and daughter were “a little unit” who were “always together”.
Staff from Edenmore creche in north Dublin, where Shauna attended as a toddler, were also in attendance.
Symbols of their lives were presented for the offertory, including Shauna’s toy dog Kylo, a catapult to represent their love of hunting together, and Shauna’s pink scooter.
Shauna loved painting and drawing, and had an artistic ability “far beyond that of a junior infant” according to her teacher. Her love for animals meant she might have made a great vet, Fr Duffy said, adding that she often spoke about her mammy, Aine, and daddy, Robert, in school.
“She was so caring. If she saw a classmate upset or in need of help she was sure to run over and hug them and help them,” Fr Duffy added.
“Aine, we would love to be able to reach into your heart to take away your pain,” Fr Duffy told Shauna’s mother, Robert’s partner.
“But with great love, there is great pain.”