Field of hope: ‘The accident that took my family broke me. Seeing those tiny seeds grow taught me how to keep going’
Geraldine Mullan lost her husband John and two children, Tomás and Amelia, in a horrific car crash in Co Donegal two years ago. Now as the second anniversary of the tragedy approaches, a special project is coming to fruition on the rugged Inishowen coastline.
Everything starts with an idea. As my John used to say, “Plant a seed and see what grows.” Our Field of Hope project started off as a conversation in my kitchen in October of last year when a friend, Catherine Carlin, called in to see me for a cuppa and a chat. I had said after the success of the Mullan Hope Sunflower Festival last year that it would be great if we could expand again, joking that it would be nice to plant an entire field… little did I know that Catherine had set the wheels in motion on that vision.
Catherine and I did not know each other until two years ago, but on the night of our fateful accident, it was Catherine’s brother-in-law, Kevin Barr, who was the coast guard who got into the water and saved me. Since then I have gotten to know Kevin, Grace (Catherine’s sister) and their two adorable girls, Tess and Kate, along with the extended Barr and McCarron families. Catherine and I had an instant connection. Her empathy, support and friendship to me was genuine and our friendship grew from the very first time we met. It was Catherine, her husband Stephen, and Kevin who helped me create the memorial that stands along the Foyle in memory of John, Tomás and Amelia, so, it was the natural progression of our bond that led to The Field of Hope becoming a reality. Our conversation that night – one that included both tears and also smiles – was the “seed” that grew into what will be unveiled on Friday 19th August.
The friendliest flower
Sunflowers are significant to me. My little girl Amelia loved sunflowers. Just a few days prior to the accident, she had made me send in photos of her and her big brother Tomás as part of their entry for the Redcastle Village Association Sunflower Festival.
Travel restrictions and closures meant that we spent much more time together as a family during the first lockdown back in March 2020. When I look back on it now, it’s precious time I got to spend with my beloved family. One of the projects we took on was the sunflower project. Redcastle, the next village to Moville, was running a sunflower festival. Organisers were asking everyone to plant sunflowers and submit photos of their progress as there was a prize for different categories. My husband John ran a local business, Moville Garden Centre, so we were at an advantage in that we had everything on site – seeds, pots, compost, and most of all, an excellent teacher in John. My gardening skills were not exemplary, but John was very patient with me. One Sunday morning when John had finished his other jobs, he called the kids and said we would have some family time. It was Amelia who piped up and asked, “Can we plant sunflowers please, daddy?” She then proceeded to tell him how the festival was going on and how most importantly, there was going to be a prize!
When you’re six, the novelty of winning a prize is immense, and with her being the apple of her daddy’s eye, he duly agreed, and we set about getting our sunflower seeds in. John explained all about the sunflower to Amelia and Tomás; how majestic a flower it was, how it followed the direction of the sun as it moved in the sky throughout the day, and how it drew strength from other sunflowers when there was no sun. He was so knowledgeable, but he made it so child-friendly that all three of us listened on and learned from his wise words.
However, Amelia had other plans too, and it was only some weeks later when it came to transplanting them from the trays into bigger pots that it transpired that she had convinced Tomás to add in a “few” extra seeds… so much so that we had 31 pots from transplantation!
John tried to hide his shock, and instead praised her and her big brother for nurturing them and ensuring they got the best start needed. I remember those summer months as if they were yesterday. Amelia and her big brother watering the sunflowers as they lined the entire side of our house, how she checked every morning and evening for slugs and snails as daddy had told her how much they loved to eat the sunflowers. When they did get to a few, John again reassured her that sometimes nature has its own way and that it was ok. The friendly slugs and snails were so lucky to have gotten such rich sunflower leaves from her.
It was good training for the kids as a request of theirs during lockdown was to get a puppy. John told them that if they could look after the sunflowers, then they could look after a puppy… so those sunflowers go a lot of attention that summer. Little did I know that those very same sunflowers would adorn the path of their funeral cortege a few short months later, and would be a beacon of light for me when I’d look out the window with my broken heart and tearful eyes and remember with fondness the laughs and smiles of my two children and husband as they tended to them. It’s poignant how a memory can instil so much emotion. Even as I write this, tears are falling down my cheeks again as I recall Amelia’s laugh, Tomás’ handsome smile and my darling John’s embrace – now precious memories to me. Like the sunflower, I look for strength and courage each and everyday to keep going. I look for hope to get through the difficult times and I lean on others to get strength and comfort again like sunflowers. It was inevitable that sunflowers would be the flower of choice for this project.
Catherine’s dad John, a humble, shy and formidable man, had tended the land where our sunflowers now bloom all his life. Being a farmer’s daughter myself, I know the love my dad has for the land and John was the same. Trying to convince him to loan us the field for the project was not an easy task, but Catherine was patient and perhaps persistent, and there were a few father daughter conversations about the possibility. I would consider him a brave man to allow two women to take over his two and a half acre plot on the edge of the shore, though many other words also spring to mind. From what I’ve learned about John McCarron these past two years, he’s a kind, patient, diligent gentleman who listened to the proposal, gave it some thought and agreed to give it a go.
What usually was a field of barley or potatoes has now been given to a crop of sunflowers and wildflowers seeds, a venture into the unknown, and for that, John is to be commended. He may be a man of few words, but his words are wise and true, and I will be forever grateful to him for allowing us to delve into the unknown and start our hope journey this year. He has kept a dutiful eye on the project from a distance, but his nod of approval is very important to me and one that I’m extremely proud of. I close my eyes and I can see my John, Tomás and Amelia all agreeing with me and them smiling as if to say, “Thanks John from above”, for giving me hope to carry on.
When we started out, we were so unsure, so afraid, so nervous.. We didn’t know what to expect. Would the sunflowers even grow? What about the Donegal weather? It’s like its own microclimate up here so it’s not unusual to have four seasons in one day. We tracked the flowers’ progress very closely, but we kept the project very much under wraps from anyone else – partly to protect John, partly to protect ourselves.
Watching the flowers bloom was like watching a newborn grow; gradually getting bigger week on week, getting more independent. That transformation helped us to realise that our initial conversation, our idea, our vision was slowly but surely becoming a reality. Many mornings on my commute to work, I would pull in, take a deep breath and look across the field and look for wee shoots, any sign of growth, any sign of new life… perhaps, in part, I was looking to the sunflower as an internal reflection on myself.
The accident that took my family broke me in every possible way. My heart shattered to pieces, my aching body was battered and bruised, my whole world was taken from me in an instant… yet I was still here. Seeing those tiny seeds planted in the freshly dug earth, watching them spread their roots, push up through the soil, battle the harsh winds and rain, the frosty May mornings and bitter cold and defy all odds to keep going – they taught me how to keep going, even though I was, and still am, struggling every day to persevere and to hold firm with my roots and not to give up.
Now a few days shy of our grand opening (August 19 – 21), those sunflowers have become tall majestic flowers – all different sizes and each with their own personality; some shy and timid, others robust and firm.
My personal hope is that families can create new memories together when they visit the maze, taking enjoyment from the beauty of the sunflower as they remember three very special people whose second anniversary falls on the 20th. I would love people to enjoy themselves and I think anyone who does come, will leave enriched from their experience.
The journey I’ve been on these past six months in tending to the field, in watching the sunflowers and wildflowers take root and flourish, in designing and then creating the maze and then bringing it all to fruition, has been therapeutic for me. I have shed tears in that field on many occasions as I mourn my beloved family, but I have also gotten strength from the love and support of others as they have all stepped in and more importantly stepped up to help me achieve my goal. The heartache does not go away – I don’t think it ever will – but I have made new friendships, I have developed and honed new skills. Even now, I can hear my darling John say, “My Galway girl, you actually kept those plants alive, I did teach you some gardening skills after all!” I can see Tomás and Amelia smiling and giving their thumbs up as if to say, “Well done mummy, we’re so proud of you”.
All that hard physical labour, the weeding, pulling the plants out to create the path, has left me aching and sore to the point of exhausting… but always with a sense of pride and joy in my heart. I wish that my John, Tomás and Amelia were here to see it, but I know they are with me in spirit and it is because of them that all of this is happening – the love, the hope, the fulfilment is growing and expanding outwards like the petals of the sunflower stretching outwards towards the sun.
The response so far has been humbling, outstanding to the point I’m lost for words… and it’s not often I’m lost for words. I can’t begin to express my gratitude, appreciation and thanks to everyone who has made this possible. There are not enough words to adequately convey my thanks and I am afraid to forget anyone so a huge THANK YOU to every single person who has helped make this possible. The community spirit has been palpable. Anyone who has helped out in the field has commented on it, the comradery, the teamwork, the laughs, the tears, have all made us stronger together!
John McCarron, thank you sincerely for allowing this Galway woman to take over your field, for entrusting me with your land and for letting me embark on what has been an amazing journey! Catherine Carlin, I do not have all the words I want to say to you but thank you from the bottom of my heart. First and foremost for being a wonderful friend, for having that vision and believing it was possible, for being patient and understanding in explaining your idea to your dad, and then for working with your dad to get the project off the ground. For our weekly, bi-weekly, daily and in the past few weeks, hourly texts/chats – apologies Stephen, you’ll get your wife back soon… likewise kids, mum will soon be back home! Our friendship will flourish like the sunflowers and we will stand tall together.
Lastly, my final word of thanks is to my beloved John, Tomás and Amelia; thank you for loving me the way that you did. I was blessed to have been your wife/mother and you all made me the person I am today because of your love. That love will keep me going in the days, weeks and months ahead. As the last line on the path at their final resting place reads, “The link remains unbroken, life ends but love does not.” So, when I look out and see the beautiful sea of yellow sunflowers cascade in the August sunshine, I will take strength from that.
“We planted with purpose, and we called on nature’s powers, what came forth was a sea of yellow, a rich bounty of sunflowers. Hey there little sunflowers climbing towards the sky, stay true to your bright self, in smiles our tears may dry.”
The Field of Hope was created in the memory of John, Tomás and Amelia Mullan and in conjunction with the Redcastle Village Association and the Mullan Hope Sunflower Festival. It will be open to the public at Quigley’s point, Co Donegal 12pm-5pm August 19-21.