In the worst farming accident in Ulster in over 20 years, the family who adored Emma Spence were left devastated by tragedy.
It all started with trying to rescue a beloved dog after it fell into a slurry tank on the family’s farm in Hillsborough, Co. Down. Her father Noel, 58, brother Graham, 30, and rising Ulster rugby star Nevin, 22, died trying to rescue each other from a slurry tank.
Such were the bonds of family love that Emma bravely risked her life to save her father and brothers before she was overcome by the noxious fumes and woke up on her side.
The events of September 15, 2012 shocked the community.
Now, 10 years later, Emma speaks about her loss, her love, and how the tragedy’s impact has lasted a decade.
“Nobody had seen that on site before, especially nobody had witnessed something like this. We had to accept three defeats at once. To have wiped out three very healthy fit men and half your family, immediate family, it’s hard and it’s something you have to go alone, but in that loneliness I felt likely, and in that pain I tried to look on God within, I felt him closer than ever,” she said.
She described her father as follows: “Father was the one you probably saw driving the tractor halfway down Drumlough Road. He’s the one who greeted you with a slap on the arm. He’s the one who gave you a new nickname, no matter who you were. To me, he was the one sitting at the kitchen table with his coffee from Mom’s best china mug, listening to my every concern and telling me the truth, whether I wanted to hear it or not.”
Her brother Graham was “driven by the idea of improving agriculture” and “unashamedly Nevin’s biggest fan, a gentle giant in love with his two children”.
“He’s the one who came alive when he was talking about farming. To me he is the one who protected me growing up. For me, when I look at Nathan and I look at Georgia, he looks at me,” she said.
She summed up all three: “They were hard working men. They weren’t perfect, but they were real. They were best friends. They were godly men – they didn’t talk about God, they just did God. They were just ordinary – but God made them extraordinary.”
After the tragedy Emma walked her fields to remember her family.
“My dad and Graham worked on the farm and were passionate about it and although Nevin was a full-time rugby player he loved farming just as much,” she said.
“He used to milk the cows here at night and the joke was that his best training sessions would be outside in the yard. One of the things I did when they died was I walked across the fields of the farm and a lot of it was just one connection, I smelled the earth they had walked into and I smelled a little bit of their clothes and one only connection to them.”
Emma began to see the farm through a new lens, seeing it from the perspective of her father and brothers.
“Now as time goes by I think of the joy the boys got from something like this. It still hurts but I’m trying to accept that this is life. I’m not saying I’ve got it all figured out now because I think we’re all still in the grieving process given the enormity of what happened. But I think we have no choice but to try to cope with it and live with it.”
Emma, an award-winning artist, initially found that grief had taken away her urge to paint. Eventually returning to painting, she began painting the fields of the farm from the view her father and brothers would have seen.
“In the end I started painting, it gave me almost half an hour just thinking about color. It probably turned into a little escape. Slowly through time you raise your head a little more and I suppose it reflects in my image. Many people, when they hear what happened that day, think how on earth could one live where such a tragedy happened, but people don’t anticipate, see the years of happiness. Being grateful for the time I had with them has definitely made me appreciate the people they were. Those good points and the values they taught me in life.”
The absence of the three men she loved has become a presence for Emma.
“Just because they’re not with me today, working on the farm and my brother is by my side, they’re still a part of me and who I am and I hope that reflects in my character and who I am.” am. I hope they’ll be quietly proud that I’m still painting and I’m painting their fields and their hedges and they’re still very much remembered and part of my life. I think your best work is when it’s a reflection of you, good things have happened to me and bad things have happened to me and they all affect your life and the character and person you are.
She paints while standing on a small stool Graham made as part of a school project.
“It’s not something I have to do, but I do it naturally. I could lower the canvas but for some reason I always seem to be standing on it.”
In the spring of 2020, as the world shook with the horror of the emergence of a global pandemic, Emma and her husband welcomed the arrival of twin boys.
“In the same month that Nevin would have turned 30, my husband Peter and I were blessed with the birth of two boys. We called them Noel Graham Spence Rice and Nevin Jackie Abel Rice. We found out seven years ago when we were burying the Spence men that we were expecting twins. We’re going to make sure the boys grow up knowing all about the special men they are named after.”
Although she is visibly devastated by the deaths of her father and brothers, she is also grateful for the time she was able to spend with them.
“You could probably look at me and see a lot of pain but I once read that the DNA of joy is gratitude and I’m really thankful that I had dad, Graham and Nevin until I was 28. They are still a part of me and who I am and I hope that is reflected in my character and who I am, but also in my art.”
Ten years later, Emma’s sadness over what she lost is offset to some extent by her gratitude for what she had.
“Nevin’s massage therapist used a verse from the Bible to sum it up. Colossians 3:23 says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as if you were working for the Lord, not for human masters.” Nevin’s commitment to his faith was reflected in his life. That was the essence of Nevin’s life, reflecting who he was. He left a lasting impression on those who knew him. I heard that Nevin, along with his brother and father, spoke more in death than in life.”
For Emma and her sister Laura, preserving their family’s memories remains of the utmost importance, and in the face of such a tragedy, there are bright spots.
“There is no light without darkness. Where there is life there is definitely hope.” said Emma.
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/news/reflecting-on-the-horror-of-one-of-ulsters-worst-farming-accidents-41979557.html Reflecting on the horror of one of Ulster’s worst farming accidents