It was a tragedy, there is no doubt about that, but it was not a tragic accident. This was preventable. We've heard the names over and over throughout the week, as the funerals were catalogued by newspapers: Mark McLaughlin (21), PJ McLaughlin (21), Hugh Friel (66), Paul Doherty (19), Eamonn McDaid (22), Ciarán Sweeney (19), Damien McLaughlin (21), and James McEleney (23). The driver of the Volkswagen Passat in which his seven friends died, Shaun Kelly (22), remains in hospital.
The horrific crash in Donegal in which eight men lost their lives has become a topic of national conversation. Amongst that chatter are politically incorrect views about how people drive in 'that part of the country'. Driving in Donegal and its neighbouring counties has a reputation for speed, for lawlessness, for bad roads, for a lack of policing, for a nudge and wink attitude to drink driving, for a culture of boy racers that reinforces the idea of speeding as some kind of recreational activity, when it should be feared, not endorsed.
It's odd that when a car accident was responsible for these deaths, a love of motoring permeates the multiple funerals. At Mark McLaughlin's mass, a poem was recited about his love of trucks, ending in, "You'd meet him coming anywhere and even day or night / His mobile phone to his ears, he'd wave and flash the lights." One of the gifts presented during the funeral of Paul Doherty was a copy of Auto Trader magazine. The offertory gifts at PJ McLaughlin's funeral included a photograph of a souped-up BMW and a trophy naming him "Driver of the Year 2010". Live by the sword...
Psychologists often link the desire to speed as quite a male-specific craving for escape. A more sexist appraisal would be that women desire security, while men desire freedom, hence the relentless marketing of cars to men as a subconscious getaway symbol. An obsession with cars signifies an obsession with freedom. It's no wonder then that young men are more likely to be part of a social group where cars are the main pastime and profession in more rural or isolated areas, where escape, freedom and distractions are more abstract ambitions than the multiple distractions that a more manic urban life may offer.
Around the country there are lads just like those in the Inishowen peninsula who are fanatical about cars and speed. They are a sector for whom road safety campaigns are probably irrelevant. Noel Brett and the Road Safety Authority have done a phenomenal job tackling road deaths. Deaths on Irish roads are at their lowest ever. But all of the policy, policing and media campaigns will seemingly never be enough to get through to a certain demographic, generally young men, who see themselves as indestructible. The priest at one funeral spoke about the fragility of life, but it is an impossible task to convince young people of their indestructibility. That feeling of invincibility occasionally resulting in carelessness is the central essence of youth.
Here is the difficult part for families and friends to stomach: it is not as if a finger descended from the heavens and randomly stubbed out these bright young lives. We all make choices, mostly without possibly knowing what the consequences of such decisions are, but the choice to bundle eight people into a car when the man at the wheel had a conviction for dangerous driving is a choice many other people would not make.
Perhaps the men would have reached their destination safely had they left a minute earlier or later, or on another day, or with different weather, or any number of variables, and would have not given a second thought to the journey.
There has been an insistence that blame isn't relevant. Philomena McEleney, whose son James died in the crash, said, "There is no one to blame. James was in the car, I don't blame anyone for that."
At the funeral of Ciaran Sweeney, his father Eamonn said, "We do not hold or blame Shaun or anyone else in any way for the loss of our beautiful son Ciaran."
It's not fair. It's not fair that seven fine young men have been buried this week. It is not fair that their friend in hospital will have an almost unspeakable existence for the foreseeable future. It is not fair that a pensioner coming home from bingo couldn't do so without being killed. It is not fair on the police and ambulance services and priests that surveyed the wreckage, for those images will live with them forever. It is not fair on families and friends to suffer such grief. None of it is fair.
Maybe there is blame to be ascribed. Perhaps it is too raw and horrible to talk about these things right now, but maybe they need to be said. Sometimes, when we decide that there is no one to blame, it exonerates everyone from responsibility. It's very hard to learn from an event if it is seemingly pointless and random. But this was not random.
It may be an impossible task to convince young people of their destructibility. But it is not impossible to convince them to somehow change their behaviour, to make safer choices. May those eight men rest in peace, and may those that they left behind learn from their mistakes.