Reflecting on the horror of one of Ulster’s worst farming accidents

In the worst farming accident in over 20 years in Ulster the family Emma Spence adored were devastated by tragedy.

t began with an attempt to rescue a beloved dog after it had fallen into a slurry tank on the family farm in Hillsborough, Co Down. Her father Noel (58), her brother Graham (30) and rising Ulster rugby star Nevin (22) died while trying to rescue each other from a slurry tank.

Such were the bonds of family love that Emma also courageously put her life on the line in an effort to rescue her father and brothers before being overcome by the poisonous fumes and waking up in the recovery position.

The events of September 15, 2012 sent the community into shock.

Now, 10 years later Emma speaks about her loss, her love and how the impact of the tragedy has lasted a decade on.

“Nobody had seen this before locally, especially, nobody had witnessed anything like this. We had to face losing three in one go. Three very healthy, fit men and to have half of your family wiped out, immediate family, it’s hard and it’s something that you have to walk alone but in that loneliness is probably where I felt, and in that pain, is where I tried to look to God in it, I felt him closer than ever,” she said.

Describing her father, she said: “Dad was the one you probably saw taking up half the Drumlough Road with the tractor. He is the one that greeted you with a thump on the arm. He is the one who christened you with a new nickname no matter who you were. To me he was the one sitting at the kitchen table with his coffee made in mum’s best china cup listening to my every worry and telling me the truth whether I wanted to hear it or not.”

Her brother Graham was “driven by the thought of improving farming” and was “unashamedly Nevin’s biggest fan, a gentle giant who doted on his two children.”

“He is the one who came alive when he talked about farming. To me he is the one who protected me as I grew up. To me he is looking at me when I look at Nathan and I look at Georgia,” she said.

She summed all three up, “They were hard-working men. They were not perfect but they were genuine. 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.’

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Emma took to walking their fields to remember her family.

“My dad and Graham worked the farm and were passionate about it, and while Nevin may have been a full-time rugby player, he loved the farming just as much,” she said.

“At night-time here he milked the cows and the joke was that his best workouts would be standing out in the yard. One of the things I did when they died was, I walked the fields on the farm and a lot of it was just a connection, smelling the earth that they had walked in and smelling a wee bit of their clothes and just a connection to them.”

Emma started to see the farm through a new lens, looking at it from the point of view of her dad and brothers.

“Now, with the passage of time, I think of the joy that the boys got from something like that. It still hurts, but I am trying to accept that this is life. I’m not saying I have it all sorted out now, because I think we are all still in the grieving process with the enormity of all that has happened. But I suppose we have no other choice but to try and cope with it and live with it.”

An award-winning artist, Emma initially found that grief had robbed her of the urge to paint. When she finally returned to painting, she began to paint the fields of the farm, from the view of what her father and brothers would have seen.

“In the end, I started to paint, it was nearly giving me half an hour only thinking about paint. It probably turned into a wee bit of an escape. Slowly through time, you lift your head a wee bit further and I suppose it’s reflected in my painting. A lot of people, when they hear what happened on that day, think how on earth could you live where such tragedy has happened but people don’t see before that, see the years of happiness. When I’m thankful for the time I had with them, it definitely has made me appreciate the people that they were. Those good points and the values that 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 here today, working on the farm and my brother by my side, they are still very much part of me and who I am and I hope that is reflected in the character that I am and the person I am. I hope they will be quietly proud that I am still painting and I am painting their fields and their hedges and they are 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 have an impact on your life and the character and person that you are.”

She paints while standing on a small stool that Graham made as part of a school project.

“It’s not something that I have to do but I just naturally do it. I could lower the canvas but for some reason I always seem to stand on it.”

In spring 2020 as the world reeled from the horror of the emergence of a global pandemic, Emma and her husband welcomed the arrival of twin boys.

“In the same month Nevin would have turned 30, my husband Peter and I were blessed with the birth of two baby boys. We called them Noel Graham Spence Rice and Nevin Jackie Abel Rice. We found out seven years to the day we buried the Spence men that we were expecting twins. We will make sure the boys grow up to know all about the special men they are named after.”

While clearly still devastated at the death of her father and brothers, she is also thankful for the time she got to spend with them.

“Probably you could look at me and see a lot of pain but I read once that the DNA of joy is thankfulness and I am really thankful I had dad, Graham and Nevin until I was 28. They are still very much part of me and who I am and I hope that is reflected in the character that I am and the person that I am but as well even in my art.”

Ten years on Emma’s sadness at what she has lost is balanced to some extent by her gratitude for what she had.

“Nevin’s masseur used a verse from the bible to sum him up. Colossians 3:23 says, ‘Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord not for human masters.’ Nevin’s commitment to his faith reflected in his life. This was the core of Nevin’s life, which mirrored the person he was. He has left a lasting impression on those who knew him. I have heard it said Nevin, along with his brother and father, have spoken more in death than in life.”

For Emma and her sister Laura preserving their family’s memories remains paramount, and in the face of such tragedy, there are chinks of light.

“You can’t have light without the dark. Definitely where there is life there’s hope.” Emma said.

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