On a trip to Cresslough this week, we discovered that the still-grieving residents are determined to make the festive season as normal as possible
Eleven weeks ago, ten people lost their lives and another eight were hospitalised when a huge gas explosion ripped through the forecourt of a filling station.
In that moment, the heart was torn from the picturesque Donegal village as residents struggled to come to terms with what happened.
But on a trip to Cresslough this week, we discovered that the still-grieving residents are determined to make the festive season as normal as possible.
“We owe it to the next generation,” said Liam McElhenny, chairman of St Michael’s GAA club in Creeslough.
And his club recently set aside their unspeakable heartbreak to celebrate an under-13 GAA cup win as though it was an All-Ireland final.
A single goal separated St Michael’s when they fought off stiff opposition from Glenties-based Naomh Conaill to scoop the Donegal Division Two football final a few weeks ago.
And the victory gave the close-knit Creeslough community a much-needed boost.
Liam told the Sunday World that he would never forget seeing his victorious young players line up at the Applegreen Service Station to remember those who died.
“We brought the championship-winning side up to the service station for a team photograph.
“The boys dedicated their win to those who lost their lives on that dreadful day.
“It seemed as though the entire village spontaneously turned out to see it. It clearly meant a lot to everyone. And it was a very emotional moment,” he said.
The club chairman added: “That image will remain with me for ever.”
Although he’s a native of Glenties, former Donegal County side manager Jim McGuinness played a crucial coaching role for the St Michael’s side which included two of his sons. The Creeslough team ran out 3-7 to 2-7 winners.
Chairman Liam acknowledged the hard work and determination which brought St Michael’s cup glory.
“Our manager Paul Sweeney and his backroom team of Jim McGuinness, Neil Toye, Denis Sheridan and Bernie McGinley did us proud.
“It was a great lift for the parish. It was just what Creeslough needed,” he said.
But the club chairman is also mindful that Christmas Day will bring real sadness back to the village.
“We all knew Christmas was going to be hard for everyone and the bereaved families in particular.
“Many are still badly affected. There will be empty spaces at Christmas dinner tables in Creeslough and that’s heartbreaking.”
St Michael’s first team goalkeeper Dillon Magee was lucky to survive the Applegreen Service Station explosion when he sustained a serious foot injury.
But chairman McElhenny says he’s now well on the road to recovery.
“Dillon is doing well and we hope to have him back playing in the near future,” he said.
Liam also spoke about the central role St Michael’s GAC played in keeping the community together during the hours, days and weeks after the gas explosion ripped through the village.
“St Michael’s provided much-needed support for a great many people. We had a counsellor in place for anyone who sought extra help.
“But without doubt it was when we bought the Championship-winning team up to the filling station for the photograph, which brought the people out in their droves. It clearly touched their hearts.
“We were united in grief and it was our way of remembering those who died.”
Creeslough was made famous in the 1950s when local singing star Bridie Gallagher notched up a worldwide hit with the Percy French emigration ballad Cutting the Corn in Creeslough.
It was also a favourite in the repertoire of Donegal superstar Daniel O’Donnell when he regularly played in a local bar in Creeslough at the start of his career.
Creeslough is 15 miles from Letterkenny and around 30 miles from the Republic’s border with Northern Ireland.
A sign acknowledging the Bridie Gallagher connection stands at a bend on the road near the centre of the village which has a population of less than 400. It has become a local landmark.
And St Michael’s GAC has produced a special Christmas card to commemorate those who died.
A painted robin red breast has been superimposed on a photograph of the sign, with 10 tears – one for every victim – falling from the bird’s eye.
A Christmas tree with two fairy light angels overlooks a small seating area in the centre of the village.
A glass case housing a framed copy of a new poem marking the tragedy is surrounded by 10 commemorative candles.
Nearby, Siobhan Carr runs the busy Coffee Pod gourmet sandwich bar. And as the Creeslough tragedy unfolded, Siobhan and her staff provided a much-need service to the community by remaining open throughout.
She told us: “We were happy to help out at that time. Our people needed us to be open because the visitors and emergency people who came to help us needed food to keep them going.
“But somehow we now need to find a way of getting back to normal and I’m sure we will.”
Only one of the dead in Creeslough lost their life as a result of the actual explosion – it was falling debris which killed the remainder.
The 16-flat apartment block adjacent to the explosion site is now demolished and inquiries into the cause of the tragedy are ongoing.
At the Creeslough Post Office, Evelyn Mulligan – who was with her six-year-old son Marty – said she too was hoping the village would soon find a way of moving on.
“We need to work things out for future generations,” she said.
And English-born Marie Moore – who came to live in Creeslough 25 years ago when she married a local farmer – said she was aware the spectre of last October’s tragedy still dominated the village.
“People are still devastated by what happened. They are still in shock, but they are gradually working their way through it,” she said.
On January 30, a major fundraising concert will take place in Letterkenny to remember those who came to the aid of Creeslough in its hour of need.
Fr John Duffy, Parish Priest at St Michael’s in Creeslough, said many of the country’s top artists – some with a close connection to Creeslough or Donegal – will perform.
Acts include Brian Kennedy, Brian McFadden of Westlife (whose dad is from Creeslough), Keith Duffy, formerly from Boyzone, Mickey Joe Harte and country start Lisa McHugh.
The event at the Aura Leisure Centre will be co-hosted by Donegal superstars Moya Brennan and Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh.
Last night, concert organiser Joe Gallagher from Joe Gallagher Entertainment said: “We are happy to remember the people who lost their lives in Creeslough and we’re looking forward to a really spectacular evening.”