ONE of GAA’s leading figures, Mickey Harte, has paid tribute to the “strength of the faith of the Spence family” in the face of utter tragedy.
The manager of the Tyrone senior inter-county team – whose only daughter Michaela was murdered while on honeymoon in Mauritius in January 2011 – attended the funerals of 58-year-old Noel, 30-year-old Graham and 22-year-old Nevin Spence in Ballynahinch on Wednesday.
The three men died one week ago after they were overcome by slurry gas whilst trying to save each other.
Last night Mr Harte told the News Letter: “Anyone looking in from the outside could not be anything but impressed by the great lives the men who died had lived – and by the strength of character shown by their family since that.”
Mr Harte said he believed the tribute paid by Emma Rice to her father and brothers at the funeral service in Ballynahinch Baptist Church was “at a higher level than what is human I believe”.
During the service Mrs Rice described the men as “best friends”.
She told mourners her father and brothers were “gentlemen”.
“They were hard-working men. They were not perfect but they were genuine. They were best friends.”
She said her brother, “wee Nev”, was affectionately nicknamed “the superstar” at home.
“He’s the one who did not love the limelight, but handled it like a pro,” she said.
Emma said her older brother Graham “protected me as I grew up”.
“What Emma delivered at the funeral was at a higher level than what is human I believe,” said Mr Harte. “It was on a totally different level and with the help of God, because humans do not have that strength.”
He said he was “so impressed at the faith of the family and how easy it was for them to speak so well about the men in their midst”.
He added: “It was an uplifting service at such a tragic time.
“Their strength was unbelievable and had to be something coming from on high. There was so much validation of their faith.”
Mr Harte’s son-in-law John McAreavey contributed to a recently published DVD released by the Catholic Church on the role of lay people, in which he speaks about Michaela’s “unwavering faith”.
The 27-year-old schoolteacher was murdered in her hotel room on the island of Mauritius in January 2011.
Five hotel workers were arrested over her murder.
Floor supervisor Sandip Moneea, 43, and cleaner Avinash Treebhoowoon, 32, were later charged with her murder.
But they were found not guilty in July after a six-week trial at the Mauritian Supreme Court in the capital city of Port Louis.
Last night Mr Harte said tragedies “are a great leveller”.
“Everyone, no matter what colour or creed you come from, are coming together and praying for the Spence family because this was a tragedy of enormous proportions and there is a sense that if you put your trust in God you can deal with anything,” he said.
“It [tragedies] brings out the best in everybody and thank God for it.
“It takes us out of corners and it is the human really alive and the way God wants us to be at a social level.
“My faith got me through as well, without a doubt.
“Without it we would be on the floor. That is for sure.”
Also last night the Rev Rodney Stout – who conducted the men’s funerals – said he had spent time with the family earlier in the day.
“They are doing remarkably well,” he said. “The way I have described what happened to them is that it is an ‘unspeakable sorrow’.
“And what I said on Wednesday [at the funeral] I am going to stand by in that as unspeakable as their sorrow is, the source of their strength is the faith they have in Christ, which is also almost supernaturally unspeakable.
“We are seeing evidence of it. They are just amazing. They are getting on with the practical things they have to do. As I was reflecting with them today, had all three men been in other employment the family would have got time off from their respective employers – but this is a working farm and cows have to be milked and chores have to be done. Life has to go on and cannot go on pause.”
Mr Stout said the women “are all rallying together and just getting on with it – just incredible”.
He added: “They are a remarkable family but they wouldn’t want me even to say that because they are very humble. The three men – and it is typified in everyone in the family – would not want to be glorified in this.
“They want people to look through what they are seeing and realise there is something beyond this. They don’t want to be the focus of this – they want the focus to be on God in whom they trust and particularly in relation to the truth about Jesus.
“The family’s trust is through the person of Jesus, the Son of God. And that is where their strength is coming from.
“There is a tangible and palpable force at work,” he added. “It is all around them in their home and in the church. God’s peace is all around that family.
“They are humble and gentle, just normal people. There are no airs or graces in any form or fashion about them and it is very warm and reassuring.
“What you see is seriously what you get. There is nothing false. It is absolutely for real and is quite incredible. They are very special people.”