Fermanagh teenager Kirsty Clarke, who died earlier this year, battled serious illness and came from a family that lost four members in the Troubles. Her parents tell NIALL DEENEY of their grief, and of their pride in all she achieved in her short life
The heartbroken parents of a Fermanagh teenager known for her resilience, kindness and generosity before her untimely death, have spoken lovingly of their daughter for the first time since her passing.
In their first interview since her death, the emotional parents spoke of Kirsty Clarke’s determination to ‘give something back’ despite a decade-long struggle with a heart condition that would eventually claim her life.
A teenager whose family background was already fraught with heartache even before her tragic passing, Kirsty died just days before her 19th birthday earlier this year. She was a teenager famous in her local community for her kindness and generosity.
After becoming seriously ill as a young child, Kirsty was given a groundbreaking heart transplant in 2009. After that life-saving operation, she was recognised with a Child of Courage Award.
A few years later, in 2012, she was given the chance to greet the Queen at the official opening of the South West Acute Hospital in Enniskillen, where she presented Her Majesty with a posy of flowers.
Kirsty was well known for her charity work and the way she simply got on with her life, despite her terrifying heart condition.
Speaking to the News Letter, her parents described how Kirsty’s thoughtful outlook on life and friendly approach to others was not coloured by the heartache her family was forced to endure during the Troubles.
Kirsty’s grandfather, Jimmy Graham, who served in the Ulster Defence Regiment, was killed by the IRA in 1985 while driving a school bus. He was one of three brothers killed by the IRA in the 1980s. Jimmy Graham’s sister, a Greenfinch soldier, also lost her life when she was struck by a car at a checkpoint in 1979.
In total, the maternal side of her family lost four siblings to republican violence over the course of just a few short years during the Troubles.
While Kirsty was well informed about her family’s tragic past and fully understood her background, her parents spoke fondly of her openness and generosity towards all.
Speaking to the News Letter at a community gathering, held in the former Lisnaskea High School in celebration of Kirsty’s life, Sharon and Alan Clarke preferred to reflect on Kirsty’s charity work rather than the family’s tragic past.
The event, a fundraiser that raised money for several charities close to Kirsty’s heart, was organised by the South East Fermanagh Foundation (SEFF), a victims’ organisation which Alan Clarke said has been like “a second family” during their time of grief.
SEFF director Kenny Donaldson used the word “resilient” to describe the way the family has endured the multitude of tragedies foisted upon them.
Sharon Clarke reflected on her daughter’s long struggle with illness.
“She took diabetes, type 1 diabetes, when she was six,” Sharon said. “She took really sick then with her heart in 2009. She was nine at that time. Her heart was racing so much you could actually see her T-shirt jumping so we brought her to see our own doctor, who then brought us down to see the diabetic doctor.
“We brought her to the hospital in Belfast and they told us that she would have to stay in. She had a pacemaker and a defibrillator fitted in around August. After all the steroids and everything finished, by around October-November time we could really see her going downhill again.
“She was admitted into the children’s ward in Enniskillen and then sent back up to Belfast again to see a Dr Casey. Dr Casey told us she was going to need a whole new heart. We were sent over to the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It was considered quite a ground-breaking operation at that time and she had to have it as soon as possible.
“She was transplanted on Friday the 13th.
“We left her at a quarter-to-eight in the morning and we never saw her again until maybe half-seven that night. It was awful. We just couldn’t ... We just turned the phones off, after telling one or two people at home to pass the word on to everyone. We only saw her for about 10 minutes in intensive care.
“Then, the next morning, you could actually see the colour coming back into her cheeks. She was just grey but it was amazing to see that colour coming back to her face. It was fantastic. She was 10-years-old at that time.
“She was out of intensive care after three days and we were sent back home, along with a lot of drugs and things she had to take, immune suppressants and things like that.
“She never looked back. She was fantastic. We were very thankful for the donor and Kirsty wrote a wee letter to the family. We are so grateful we got those eight extra years.
“She went on to school and she just got on fantastic. She did a lot of work for charity. She was at the tech, she wanted to go on to do cardiac nursing – she wanted to give something back, that’s what she was like. She was definitely going to go on to Queen’s to do her nursing.
“She took a heart attack around Halloween last year. Newcastle, Altnagelvin and Enniskillen couldn’t do anything except give her more drugs. It all happened so quick.
“We are still absolutely devastated by Kirsty’s death but we are glad for the extra eight years we got with her.”
Asked how much of her grandfather’s death Kirsty would have been aware of, Sharon said: “I was 15 when my father died. Kirsty’s life wouldn’t have been affected by all of that in the same way. I kept a scrap-book about my father and everything else and I would have let her read that. It didn’t affect her. She just treated everyone as normal.
“She understood her own background and she knew how her grandfather died, but she mixed in with everybody.”