Heartbroken Killyclogher mum Niamh Dolan is working to keep the memory of her son Enda alive through guitar workshops, fitness programmes and a campaign to change the law.
The stage is set for another week of electrifying music, but as she prepares to welcome this summer’s batch of enthusiastic young guitarists to Omagh, Niamh Dolan, will take a deep breath and smile – even though, as the song goes, her heart is breaking.
October 30 will see the launch of the 2018 Red Balloon guitar workshop in memory of her eldest son Enda, and, as always, the opening of the week-long event will prove a bittersweet moment for the Co Tyrone mother-of-five.
While spreading the joy of music is her favourite strand of the award-winning Enda Dolan Foundation set up in her son’s memory, it hurts with renewed intensity to realise she will never again hear him strum the chords himself.
This October will mark the fourth anniversary of the 18 year-old architecture student’s death at the hands of a drunk driver in Belfast, but the pain doesn’t lessen for his grieving family in Killyclogher.
Life for Niamh, husband Peter and children Dervla (19), Ben (16), Andrew 12) and Adam (9), was ripped to pieces after their doorbell rang in the early hours of October 15, 2014, and they were told the unthinkable – that Enda had been killed while simply walking home.
Three-and-a-half years on, Niamh still doesn’t sleep properly and says she and rest of the family relives the “total destruction, devastation and pain” of that night every single day.
Milestone birthdays and Mother’s Day are the worst, but the Enda Dolan Foundation – which received official charity status last month and was a winner in the recent Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards – is slowly helping her pick up the pieces.
“As well as guitar, another great passion of Enda’s was running; he didn’t really like the gym, so he would run to clear his head and keep fit,” Niamh says, “So we decided to make running a part of the charity’s focus as well.
“There wasn’t any grand master plan; the foundation just started from a casual conversation among friends and neighbours about doing the Omagh half-marathon in memory of Enda and it snowballed from there.
“The first year, 1,500 people signed up and that led to the launch of the popular ‘Couch to 5k’ running programme which helps people prepare mentally and physically for the challenges ahead.”
Away from running and music, the family is kept busy in other directions too – a defibrillator was recently donated to the local community in Killyclogher and a bursary set up for the best first year architecture student at Queen’s University.
There is also an important third strand to the foundation – campaigning for changes to the law, particularly in relation to sentencing and how families are treated in court.
But, while the running programmes and guitar workshops have become hugely successful, Niamh, a radiographer by profession, admits the campaign to bring about legal improvements is barely out of the starting blocks.
Enda was just 18 and in his first term at Queen’s – where he was following in his father Peter’s footsteps and studying to be an architect – when a van driven by David Lee Stewart ploughed into him from behind.
He had been walking to his student accommodation on the city’s Malone Road when he was struck, the driver continuing on for several hundred metres with the teenager still on the roof.
Stewart (31) from Belfast, had taken drugs and up to 13 drinks before getting behind the wheel. He was eventually sentenced to nine years – four and-a-half in jail and the same period on licence – for causing death by dangerous driving.
A passenger, William Ross Casement (21), escaped a custodial term and was given 50 hours’ community service.
Our experience of the court system left me disgusted and determined to help bring about change for other families.
“Our experience of the court system left me disgusted and determined to help bring about change for other families,” Niamh stresses.
“It was the lack of respect for the family of the victim that I found so shocking – everything from the low priority given to victim impact statements to things like having to share toilet facilities with defendants and their families at court.”
The length of sentences handed down by the court also left her appalled.
“We were obviously in deep shock at the time, but someone – we don’t know who – wrote to the PPS, complaining that the original sentence of three years was unduly lenient,” Niamh continues.
“The maximum period for causing death by dangerous driving is 14 years, but that has never been handed down in Northern Ireland. And, in another farce, driving bans are activated on the day of sentencing – they don’t really serve their purpose if someone is in prison.”
In the aftermath of the tragedy – which, in a cruel coincidence, was the date of their daughter’s 16th birthday – Niamh and Peter met with former PPS (Public Prosecutions Service) director, Barra McGrory, and also with former Justice Minister, Claire Sugden, to call for change.
If improvement comes, she says it will be a fitting legacy to her son, who had always been a high-achieving student, artistically as well as academically: a stunning charcoal painting in the family living room is a visual reminder of a talent tragically cut short.
It is self-portrait drawn by Enda for his GCSE art exam (for which he gained full marks) and depicts a young man playing guitar, head bowed in concentration, face partially hidden by his trademark shock of dark hair.
“He loved all type of music, rock in particular, and six months before his death, in a weird conversation, he chose the songs for his funeral – Sweet Child of Mine by ‘Guns N’ Roses’ and Free Bird by Lynyrd Skynyrd,” Niamh reveals.
“He also idolised The Hootin’ Annies, a group made up of older boys who had gone to the same school in Omagh. They played for hours in the graveyard at his funeral in what was the saddest of concerts.”
While she doesn’t run – or play guitar - herself, Niamh gains a sense of peace from the smallest of things: snatches of a half- remembered joke, images of coffee and chats over the kitchen table, a mischievous comment about what not to wear...
“Enda and I had a brilliant relationship,” she recalls. “He worked in Next in Omagh, so sometimes would pass on style advice, telling me, ‘You’re not wearing that; it’s far too old for you!’
“We would have a laugh and he would confide in me – not about everything, of course – but we had a relaxed relationship for mother and son.
“He loved family time and was sensible, but I know he had a fun, mad side too. Dervla later told us she would open the window for him to clamber in after an unscheduled night out, if we were all fast asleep.”
Looking back, she is immensely grateful she became a full-time mother and for the quality time it allowed with Enda; time spent ferrying him to school or to part-time jobs – or just sitting in the passenger seat while he learned to drive himself.
“I love that we did that together,” she adds, “but now, around nearly every corner on the local roads, there are heartbreaking memories.
“I remember the place he did his first three-point turn, the spot where he learned to reverse...”
He would be delighted, she believes, with the work being carried out in his name.
“The guitar workshops are my ‘baby’ and I especially feel his presence there,” Niamh concludes, softly. “I look at it all and say, ‘Enda, you would have loved this’.
“These are all positives, but the greatest result will be changes to the law to help other families. This is all I can do for him now and I don’t care how long it takes.”
The Enda Dolan Foundation is on Facebook @theendadolanfoundation
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