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The A5 Toll: When Mothers Lose Their Sons

Colm and Darragh lived and were killed along the same three-mile stretch of the A5 road in County Tyrone. Their mothers spoke to She Matters about the impact of their deaths and what it’s like living beside one of the North’s most notorious roads.
Colm Hackett (left) and Darragh Horisk (right)

Colm Hackett was four years old when he was knocked down and killed on the A5 road in County Tyrone.

 

He had just eaten lunch at home and was returning the short distance to St Malachy’s Primary School, Glencull, where he was a P1 pupil.

 

When it started to drizzle, he let go of his sister’s hand to pull up his hood and made a quick dash to cross the road before he could be stopped.

 

That was March 9th 1992 and it may as well have been yesterday for how raw the grief remains with his mother, Philomena.

 

She recalls her late husband John being asked years later, in the dark hours following a young neighbour’s tragic death, how you ever get over the loss.

 

After a few moments silence, he responded: “There’s a ladder, a very long ladder, and you take a step up every day and sometimes the steps slip and you go back down to the bottom”.

 

“And I thought, what a way to explain it,” Philomena says now through tears. “You’re up one day, you’re getting over it and the next day you’re back down to square one again.”

 

She says as the years passed and Colm’s ten siblings moved on, she and John had more time to think about their loss.

 

“It’s hard. The older you get the more you realise, he should have been this age and he should have been doing this, that and the other.”

 

“Colm was a special wee boy,” she said.

Colm Hackett
White feathers and photos: Colm Hackett's family have found solace in the belief that he is always with them

“He’d always tell you ‘I love you’ when he’d come up and sit on your knee and hug you.

 

“Then away he’d go again – but he’d come back and always say ‘I love you’.”

 

She recalls how he was so much fun, how he loved football and being outside.

 

“He loved digging up. He’d come back saying, ‘look at this mummy’ and he’d be coming with the biggest, longest worm.

 

“His fingers were always black and he was just gun mad.

 

“He’d go and get sticks and had them stuck in round the waist and then he’d come running in to go to the toilet and he’d have to pull sticks out from everywhere,” she said, laughing at the memory.

 

Recalling those times with him, “all good memories” Philomena says, softens for a few moments the really palpable sense of hurt in the room.

 

“You learn to live with it,” she said.

 

“It paralyses you and you never get over it, but that’s what your heart is for: you have other ones to live for so you have to get on with it.”

Another Mother’s Heart Breaks

 

In the same school year as Colm Hackett, Darragh Horisk lived less than three miles up the A5.

 

He was 12 years old, a first year at St Ciaran’s College in Ballygawley, when he was knocked down and killed on the road.

 

It was Thursday 3rd June 1999 and he was playing kickabout with friends as they waited to be collected for U14 Gaelic football training.

 

The ball went onto the road and Darragh crossed over to get it.

 

As he waited to cross back, he was hit by a car.

 

Like Philomena Hackett, Darragh’s mum Mary Horisk finds the passing years have done little to ease the pain of losing him.

 

“It’s like a hole being cut out of your tummy,” she says, using her finger to draw a large circle around her mid-section, “and it never knits. It will never heal.”

 

“You have to be very careful when people are going through these things. They say, ‘oh but it’s the first of everything’.

 

“It’s not the first of everything. It could be the 31st of everything and it doesn’t make it any easier”.

 

Speaking from her kitchen, where photographs of Darragh smile down from the walls, Mary remembers her son as “a very, very loving child”.

Darragh Horisk
Darragh Horisk loved music and drama, and had competed in UTV's School Choir Of The Year with St Ciaran's College shortly before he died.

“Just a cuddler. He’d sit in underneath there,” she says, pointing under her arm.

 

“He was into drama, he was into music, he loved all that kind of thing – and he would have talked to the bishop.

 

“It wouldn’t have mattered who came in that door he would have interviewed them. Not in a cheeky way, he was just very outgoing.”

 

Wondering what he would have become continues to break her heart: When one of his peers gets married or has children or, like recently, when a local club puts on a musical show.

 

Tears came to her eyes as she watched a young boy, the son of family friends, singing on his own.

 

“Things like that bring it all back…the ifs, whys, buts, what would he have been at now. Those never go away.”

 

She says only for their daughter Gemma, who was 16 at the time Darragh died, “I don’t think we could have got through at times”.

 

‘He Never Got Over It’

 

Drama and music were Mary’s special time with Darragh. Gaelic football was his father’s.

 

Seamus Horisk was chairman of local club Errigal Ciaran at a time when the club saw unprecedented success and Darragh was by his side throughout it. From training sessions to celebrations, rarely was one of them seen without the other.

 

“That’s what really hurt Seamus in the years after Darragh died,” Mary said, “not having him here to go to the football with.

 

Seamus died on 21st July 2017, on what would have been Darragh’s 31st birthday.

 

“To me, he died of a broken heart,” Mary said.

‘The Traffic Never Stops’

 

Alongside their grief, both Philomena and Mary live with a sense of fear and anxiety about the A5.

 

The road runs from the border at Aughnacloy to the city of Derry and is the main thoroughfare from Dublin to Donegal.

 

Since their sons were killed on the it, the two women have watched the volume of traffic grow substantially and that impacts their daily lives.

 

It impacts when and if they leave the house, sometimes deciding against a trip to the shop that’s not wholly necessary, sometimes taking longer routes to avoid particularly dangerous turn-offs.

 

Mary says the traffic never stops.

“It used to be, from about 2am to 5am, the road would be quiet but now it doesn’t stop. You would be lucky to get an hour.

 

“A big part of it all is haulage, on top of local traffic. Then you have the tourist traffic going to Donegal or Fermanagh and the growing population of towns like Ballygawley”.

 

The scheme planned to upgrade the road, the A5 Western Transport Corridor (A5WTC), proposes an 85km dual carriageway from Aughnacloy to the outskirts of Derry.

 

The Northern Ireland Executive agreed to the plan in 2007 but it has yet to start, with several challenges impacting progress.

 

Support From Across Political Divide

 

In 2011, the Irish government withdrew its offer to contribute £400m to the scheme – almost half what the upgrade was predicted to cost at that time.

 

Costs have since soared and the scheme is now expected to cost over £1.6bn.

 

While the Irish government has continued to express its support for the scheme, its financial contribution sits at £75m.

 

And despite funding concerns, Northern Ireland’s Department of Infrastructure has reiterated its commitment.

 

In a statement to She Matters, a spokesperson for the department said “the upgrade of the A5 dual carriageway is essential”.

The A5 road runs from Aughnacloy to Derry and is the main route between Dublin and Donegal.
The A5 road runs from Aughnacloy to Derry and forms part of the primary route between Dublin and Donegal.

“The Department is doing all that we can within our powers to progress the A5 Western Transport Corridor project in line with statutory procedures.”

 

It is currently awaiting the outcome of a consultation, which closes in March, before a public inquiry into the scheme can reconvene.

 

In addition, the scheme has historically been supported by Stormont’s main political parties.

 

‘Land And Habitats’

 

But successful legal challenges brought by the Alternative A5 Alliance (AA5A) have considerably delayed any progress with the A5 Western Transport Corridor.

 

The group has opposed the compulsory buying of land and raised environmental issues.

 

Speaking to She Matters, a spokesperson for the AA5A said it has advocated for improvements to the existing A5 road but believes a dual carriageway is unnecessary.

 

“There’s no need for it. The fundamental problem with the existing road is you get tailbacks and people get frustrated.

 

“But to solve that problem you don’t have to eat up 3,000 acres of good quality land, wreck the environment and cost millions.”

 

The spokesperson said the group represents the interests of ‘ordinary people’, including former teachers and civil servants, landowners and farmers.

‘Don’t Add Up’

 

Its objections have frustrated other locals who believe a dual carriageway is necessary to alleviate the high volume of traffic and reduce fatalities on the road.

 

A new pressure group, A5 ‘Enough is Enough’, started a petition in January calling for work to begin on the dual carriageway and other road improvements.

 

It has received almost 8,000 signatures at the time of writing.

 

The group produced figures showing 44 people have died on the A5 since the government approved the dual carriageway in 2007.

 

It also pointed to a 97% reduction in fatalities on the nearby A4 after a dual carriageway was built to carry the majority of traffic past it.

 

Philomena Hackett says “it’s a disgrace” that the same hasn’t yet happened with the A5, and Mary Horisk said the objections “don’t add up”.

 

“It doesn’t make it easier for people who have lost someone,” Mary said.

 

“Every time you hear the ambulance going past here you think, ‘Oh God, who else is going to be impacted, who is it? What mother or father is going to be left the way I am?”

 

Sometimes the answer to that question has been too close to home.

 

Heartbreak Passes On

 

Family friend and neighbour Darren McAnenly, who was playing with Darragh Horisk on the day he died, was killed in 2008.

 

Darren was 19 when his car was in collision with another vehicle just half a mile the other side of Glencull Primary School.

 

In December 2021, the community was hit again with the loss of another neighbour, Nathan Corrigan, and his two friends.

 

The men, all in their 20s, were killed in a collision at a junction beside Kelly’s Inn, just 100 yards from Nathan’s home.

 

In the years before he died, Seamus Horisk regularly wrote letters to the local Ulster Herald newspaper calling for the A5 upgrade to go ahead.

 

“He couldn’t understand the arguments against it – land going and habitats. Is that more important than losing lives?” Mary asks.

 

“Seamus just felt that there was no argument.”

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