The shadow of the Creeslough tragedy loomed large over the Derry and Raphoe Diocesan Synod, on Wednesday 12th October, as people remembered the victims and prayed for those affected by last Friday’s disaster, which claimed the lives of 10 people.

Before delivering his Presidential Address, to the diocese’s first ‘in person’ synod in three years, Rt Rev Andrew Forster, reflected on the events of recent days which had brought heartbreak to Donegal.

Bishop Andrew told delegates that he hadn’t expected to be uplifted in Creeslough, when he visited the village on Saturday, and yet, as bleak and desperate as the situation was there, there were “remarkable shoots of love and tenderness breaking through, which touched the heart”. As the Bishop spoke, one of the victims, James O’Flaherty, was being laid to rest in Derrybeg.

“I am mindful,” Bishop Forster said, “that as we gather and prepare to conduct the business of the diocese, and do the routine but necessary work required to keep the wheels of diocesan life turning, there are people and there is a community not very far from here for whom ‘normal life’ has been shattered and put on hold. I am referring, of course, to the people of Creeslough and other parts of Donegal whose lives were visited by tragedy last Friday.

“Ten people died following an explosion at the local service station. Shauna and Robert, Leona, Hugh, Jessica, Martin, James, Martina, Catherine and James. Their ages ranged from 5 to 59. The victims included a mother and son, and a father and daughter.

“I was in Creeslough, on Saturday, with my good friend Bishop Alan McGuckian. I was there long enough to see the rescue operation become a recovery operation as the last vestiges of hope were extinguished for waiting relatives. The pain of that will stay with me forever.

“As followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to be people of hope and are called to spread the Good News of Christ’s resurrection. And good news has been thin on the ground, recently, but we are people of God’s hope.

“I certainly didn’t expect to be uplifted in Creeslough. And yet, as bleak and desperate as the situation was in the village, there were remarkable shoots of love and tenderness breaking through, which touched the heart: the remarkable compassion and warmth and generosity of the good people of that village; the grim determination of rescue workers – including neighbours – who defied exhaustion in the search for victims and survivors; the prodigious effort put in by the emergency services – firefighters, paramedics and ambulance crews – as they went about their duties in the most challenging of circumstances; and the sheer professionalism and sensitivity shown by gardai. Most impressive and humbling and indeed heartbreaking of all was the dignity and the faith of some of the relatives I spent time with.

“God’s love is honed by pain and, no matter how dark the morning may be, the light of his love is never extinguished. And as the Creeslough families lay their loved ones to rest – there are three funerals today – I hope they come to see and know clearly the light of God’s love deep within their lives.

“Two of our clergy are not here today because they are attending the funerals of victims of Friday’s tragedy: Rev Liz Fitzgerald, the Bishop’s Curate in the Gweedore Group of Parishes, and the Rev David Skuce – David is the Rural Dean – the parish in which Creeslough is is vacant at the moment and David has been giving support to that parish group.

“David was there through most of the night, on Friday – after the explosion – and most of Saturday, giving comfort and support. Yesterday evening, I spoke to Bishop McGuckian and he commented to me about the support that David has been to the people most directly affected, and said that he was a tower of strength to the clergy who are conducting funerals at this time.

Ladies and gentlemen, all of us are struck by the randomness of such a terrible and awful disaster – and it is truly a disaster. I would ask you all to stand, now, as we observe a moment’s silence.”

After the period of silence, Bishop Andrew shared a prayer for those affected by the Creeslough tragedy.

“Almighty God, father of all mercies and giver of all comfort, deal graciously, we pray, with those who mourn. Casting all their care on you, they may know the consolation of your love. Give faith and comfort, O Lord, to the bereaved of Creeslough. Strengthen them to meet the days to come with steadfastness and patience, not sorrowing as those without hope but in thankful remembrance of your mercy in the past and waiting for a joyful reunion in Heaven. We remember, today, those who this day, at this moment, are laying to rest loved ones. We pray for the clergy who are bringing care and comfort, most especially for Father John Joe Duffy, the local priest in Creeslough, and Bishop Alan McGuckian and the Rev David Skuce. In times of darkness, help us to see your light; in times of pain, may we know your healing balm; and in times of despair, help us to hold fast to your hope. This we ask in the name of the one who died for us and rose again, Jesus Christ, Our Lord, Amen.”

Later in the day, at Synod, one of the Honorary Secretaries, Bill Arnold – a parishioner in Dunfanaghy – which is about 10 kilometres from Creeslough – was given permission by the Bishop to address delegates about the tragedy.

“On Friday, when we heard the news,” Mr Arnold said, “everybody was in shock. We are one community. Dunfanaghy and Creeslough are inter-linked in so many ways: through a doctor’s surgery, football clubs, family relationships. I just want to thank the emergency services for their work, and the volunteers. The Church of Ireland has played a big part in that, both among the volunteers and also through the Rural Dean, my Rector, the Rev David Skuce.

“The Bishop has said he [Rev Skuce] was there most of Friday night and all Saturday, comforting people, along with Father John Joe Duffy, who is a personal friend of mine. On Saturday, I met Father John Joe. It was all I could do just to give him a big hug. Sometimes,” Mr Arnold said, “words don’t allow you to express your feelings. That was the only way I could do it. I attended two of the funerals yesterday and it was one of the hardest things – I was in tears – especially at the one in the morning, which I found more difficult than the one in the afternoon.”

Mr Arnold paid tribute to the prayerful and compassionate way in which Bishop Andrew had spoken on the media in the aftermath of Friday’s tragedy. “We’re so proud to have such a caring Bishop,” he said, drawing applause from delegates.

“Just to end on a positive note, if there is a positive note,” Mr Arnold continued, “the Republic of Ireland Women’s soccer team has qualified now for the World Cup in Australia – that’s a great achievement in itself – but the winning goal was scored by a Donegal woman who came on as substitute, she’s actually from Milforr, Amber Barrett.

“Amber Barrett’s grandparents are from Creeslough and she goes there quite regularly and I thought it was a lovely touch when she got down on her knees – in honour of the victims of Creeslough – and she just put her arm on her black armband. Some of you may’ve heard her on the radio this morning, and she spoke with dignity and humility. It was a great credit to her.”