By Noelle Mann
For the Irish Traveller community, the morning of Saturday, the 10th October 2015 will be forever associated with the tragic fire at a halting site in Carrickmines which took the lives of ten family members and an unborn child. Thomas Connors, 27, his wife Sylvia, 30, and their children Jim, five, Christy, three, and six-month-old Mary; Willie Lynch, 25, his partner 27-year-old Tara Gilbert, who was pregnant (the baby has been named Angel by her surviving family), and their daughters Jodie, aged nine, and Kelsey, four; and 39-year-old Jimmy Lynch, Willy’s brother, were all lost in the blaze. In the two years since they lost their beloved relatives, the Lynch, Connors’ and Gilbert families have lived through the hardest times anyone could possibly imagine. However, what makes the situation much worse for them is the fact that they have not yet been told exactly how the fire started. The report has been scheduled for release on numerous occasions, but the date appears to be put back time and time again. Without this last piece of information, how can the families finally accept what happened?
Talking to John and Kathleen Lynch at their home in a group housing scheme in Bray, County Wicklow, their grief and anger fills the room, their house is cosy but overcrowded, since they are currently caring for two of their grandchildren in addition to their five youngest children, in a three bedroomed house. “Since everything happened, it has changed our family completely,” explains Kathleen. She tells me about the confusion and anxiety of that terrible morning, where the media was reporting that a fire had destroyed a halting site in Dublin, but nobody knew any details at the start. “We were just calling everybody, trying to find out what had happened” says Kathleen. John recalls, “I phoned every hospital, searched round everywhere, to try to find out where my family were, but they weren’t anywhere.” When the full horror of the events came to light, Kathleen says, “It was unbelievable. How did so many people pass away at once? We don’t have any answers.” John is painfully aware of the disgraceful rumours that have been shared on social media that the family themselves were somehow responsible. They now just want the truth to be told. The recent fire in Clondalkin, Dublin has also brought back painful memories for the family. Annmarie O’Brien perished with her two small children when a fire broke out in an apartment on the Kilcronan Estate on Wednesday, the eighth of March, earlier this year. Her sister and niece who were visiting her also passed away in the fire.
The Lynch family suffered further loss both before and after Carrickmines. In fact, John tells me, the tragedy happened near the anniversary of his mother Mary’s passing. “As Travellers, we like to have everything done in the year after, before the anniversary. We had just got Mary’s headstone sorted and things in order for her. We were going to have a happy gathering for her. We had Christmas ready. Then this happened.” Kathleen’s mother Sarah McDonald also died very recently. “She would visit us and loved seeing the children. She had COPD, but really she died of a broken heart over what happened” Kathleen believes. Later, her son Ben Lynch told me that “there wasn’t three months going by without a funeral in the family. We’ve lost a whole generation.” Little granddaughter Sylvia, who is named after her late auntie Sylvia Connors, has been a source of both hope and heartbreak for the Lynch family, as she was born with a medical condition that required several operations, but thankfully appears to be in better health now.
Everyone who drives and walks by here blesses their face.
Ben and Sindy Lynch and their children live in the house around the corner, and Ben shows me the beautiful grotto that he built at the corner of their road, known locally as “Lynches’ Corner”. Our Lady stands in an alcove, surrounded by flowers, candles and plaques which are dedicated to the family members who were taken too soon. The embankment next to the grotto is decorated with colourful plants and a miniature barrel top wagon. Ben explains that he can walk out of his door in the morning and it will be the first thing he sees. “I go to church every morning, when I see it outside.” He says that for him the grotto represents his lost family members, and that he also built it “for everyone in the estate who lives around here” as they were so supportive to his family. “Everyone who drives and walks by here blesses their face. It’s a place for memories. It’s our memories of them and everyone else’s memories of them all.” At the recent anniversary of the tragedy, the entire estate came to pay their respects, bringing candles, flowers and balloons.
The house that Ben and Sindy are living in was previously the family home of Tara and Willy, their daughters, and Jimmy, who were all lost at Carrickmines. Ben tells me that “it took six months to walk into one room, and eighteen months for the final room” as the memories were so strong and upsetting. Not wanting to throw anything away, Ben has stored every single item from each room safely away. “Every little thing meant something to them, you know? The little girls loved their animals and make-up and boots. Even a little electric guitar, I couldn’t just throw it out. It would be wrong.” He says that, “We wanted to fill up all the rooms with lots of love and make it a happy home again.” The house is also filled with photographs and religious statues to remember those who no longer live there. Ben tells me that the family have a touching Christmas tradition where they wrap up presents for the children who have passed away and take them to visit at the graveside. Ben and Sindy’s own children then get to unwrap the presents and play with the toys. “There’s no sense in keeping them wrapped up. It’s a way for the kids to remember them in their own way” he says.
The families of Carrickmines have mourned and cried. Now they just want justice.
Ben is very open about how his work at Enniskerry Boxing Club has helped his mental health, but he is also proud of their achievements. “We had the youngest ever Irish Champion at twelve years of age in Daina Moorhouse. She’s also the youngest ever European Youth Championship Gold at fifteen. She only lives half a mile down the road from Katie Taylor.” A former boxer himself, Katie was Ben’s sparring partner for ten years and he was coached by her father in the mid-nineties. The kitchen press is full of trophies and an old competition programme from one of Ben’s youth competition bouts. He now uses his experience to coach the rising stars of the club. “I had to do something. And bringing the best out of them helps me too. It keeps you young” he says. It certainly keeps him busy, as the young boxers train three times per week, plus extra sessions when preparing for a competition. Ben has struggled with his grief, as have other members of the family, but he tries to focus his energy on the boxing coaching and his own children. “I would stop and think about it, how they died, and I wouldn’t be able to leave the house for three days” he explains. But despite his pain, he is also angry that the fire report hasn’t yet been published. “There were measures taken afterwards, but Travellers had been talking about this for years and no one ever listened. They keep delaying it, the cause of the fire. We needed the safety measures before, not afterwards.” Ben is also angry, and alleges details have been left out of the media and states, “The truth needs to be told.” The families of Carrickmines have mourned and cried, been shifted around, and are still left waiting for closure. Now they just want justice.