Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Ann and Rachel: A tale of two sisters

Sometimes you meet a character so outstanding, courageous and powerful that they make you breathless with humility.

One such person is Rose Callaly, the mother of murdered Rachel O'Reilly. Her other daughter Ann - so often seen propping her family up during the subsequent murder trial of Rachel's husband Joe in 2007 - died of cancer in late September this year. Two days after she buried her lovely Ann, Rose gave me this interview. No-one was more qualified to make the tribute to Rachel and Ann than their wonderful, inspiring mum.

(From the Irish Independent on September 25 last)

JUST before murder victim Rachel O’Reilly was laid to rest in October 2004, Ann Callaly carried out the ultimate sisterly act. She went into Dublin city centre and shopped for clothes in which to bury her darling sister.

Rachel’s own clothes were trapped in the crime scene of her bedroom in The Naul, Co Dublin where she had been brutally murdered by her husband Joe on October 4. She would be laid out in the clothes Ann painstakingly chose for her and was buried on October 11, a day after she should have celebrated her 31st birthday.

It was a horrible reversal of twelve months earlier, when the sisters had celebrated Rachel’s milestone 30th birthday with a girls’ day out. They trawled the shops on Grafton Street with their mother Rose, went for lunch, had fun. They popped into Brown Thomas and Marks and Spencers. Rachel treated herself to some items in Wallis and A-Wear.

They couldn’t have known then that Ann, born four years after Rachel, was destined to pass the age at which her sister is forever frozen in her family’s memory, but only for a tragically short time. Last Monday, 32-year-old Ann Callaly was laid to rest beside her sister in Balgriffin cemetery. She had fought a cancerous tumour behind the eye for over two and a half years.

“It is a comfort that they are together,” says mum Rose Callaly in the family home in Collins Avenue. In a way, Rose feels that Ann never felt far from her late sister.

“I remember that for well over a year before she died, these little hearts used to follow Ann around,” she says. “It started off when I remember she had a cup of coffee and there was a perfect little heart in the froth. That started happening on a regular basis. She would see little hearts on the ground, maybe a piece of paper shaped like one. Another time there was a deformed leaf on the ground in front of us as we were walking and she picked it up; it was a perfect heart shape.

“It was continuous and she said: ‘That’s Rachel’. I have no doubt that they are together.”

All the Callaly siblings are close. Rose and Jim’s youngest son Tony still lives at home; Declan and Paul, the eldest two boys, live nearby with their wives and children, Rose’s “little rays of sunshine”. She says: “The boys never left Ann’s side. Her brothers, God love them, absolutely loved her.”

The five children were all adopted by Rose and Jim as babies but their different biological roots did not separate them. They were bound instead by the upbringing they were given, the adventures they had along the way. When Rachel was 13 and Ann 9, the whole family decamped to Australia for a year. They took the scenic route home to Ireland, swimming at the Great Barrier Reef, spending a week in Hawaii, visiting LA and Disneyland, hiking in Yosemite National Park, taking in the bright lights of Las Vegas.

“We all have amazing memories of that once-in-a-lifetime holiday when we were all together,” Rose noted in the memoir she published last year, Remembering Rachel.
That trip sowed the seed in the sisters of their love of travel. Rachel returned to Australia to visit old friends and her aunt Lucy before her marriage to Joe O’Reilly at the age of 23. When the newlyweds went to Kenya for their honeymoon, an excited Ann met them at the airport on their return, eager to hear their tales.

“Ann was absolutely mad about travel,” says Rose. “We had this long trip planned and up to the very end, she talked about going. She’ll be able to go on all her trips now, but I couldn’t imagine going on this one without her.”

At a vigil for Rachel outside the house in The Naul two years after she was killed, Ann spoke warmly of the childhood they had shared, playing together in Glasnevin Park.

“She was not just a name in the newspaper,” she said in her tribute to her slain sister. “She was vivacious, and larger than life. She was like a gust of wind, her presence filled everywhere she went… She was never shy, and was the life and soul of the party. She had a charisma that grew with her into adulthood.”

By contrast, Ann was a “private person” says Rose, although she was also someone who left an impression on all those who met her. Old colleagues from DCU, where she had worked in her early twenties, kept in contact. In the weeks before Ann died at home on Friday, September 17, her girlfriends had brought her an album of photographs of their nights out, with captions written beneath each one.

“It’s absolutely beautiful to look back and see all the happy times,” says a grateful Rose. “Every photograph she’s in, and every one we have of her, that big smile is there and the eyes lighting.” That too was true of Rachel although her bright smile and open, wide blue eyes were to become tragically iconic to everyone who saw them after her death, in a newspaper or blown up on the TV screen.

Both were outdoorsy girls, athletic and full of energy. Rachel played softball and hockey, Ann was a member of the Aer Lingus badminton club. This year, Ann had started to learn to play golf at Carton House.

“I’ve no doubt that she would have picked it up had she lived to carry on with it,” says Rose. “She didn’t want to leave life, she really didn’t. Until the very last breath that she took, she really thought there would be a miracle. She didn’t even look on it as a miracle, she just thought, ‘This is going to be cured’. I just find it so sad.

“She was just so driven. It’s extraordinary when I look back; Rachel would have been always on the go. I often think is there something in their psyche that lets them know they won’t be here to do it all.”

The cruel full stop to Rachel’s life came first, in the most brutal fashion possible. Her husband Joe, who was having an affair at the time, bludgeoned her to death in their bedroom while their two children were at crèche and school. He engineered the situation so that Rose would be the first to find her daughter’s battered body.

When his murder trial finally began in 2007, Ann was a constant by her mother’s side. Her quiet, stoic presence, her graceful poise and beautiful, sombre face drew the eye in photographs of the family emerging from court, their arms linked.

But hearing the hurts visited on Rachel by her husband, both physical and emotional, drained Ann. In contrast to Joe O’Reilly’s robotic performance in the courtroom, Ann understandably struggled for composure. When Professor Marie Cassidy spent 15 minutes enumerating the injuries to Rachel, Ann sobbed and doubled over, feeling viscerally the final terrible moments of her sister’s life.

When O’Reilly tried to tear Rachel’s reputation as a loving mother and wife apart in a series of hateful emails to his own sister Ann O’Reilly, Ann and Rose clung to each other in tears.

“Life can hurt you along the way and Ann did have her hurts,” adds Rose. “I suppose when her sister died, the stress of that and then all the things around that for a couple of years after, when we went through tremendous stress, I’m sure that contributed to it.”

Ann had looked up to Rachel as her older sister. When she married Joe O’Reilly, Ann had remarked to her mother that she only hoped she would look half as beautiful a bride when it came to be her turn to marry. “She would have loved to have married and had children,” says Rose. “She never really aspired to anything out of the ordinary: she would have just loved to meet someone.”

Poignantly, both Rachel and Ann had ambitions for a future which involved making children happy. Rachel was devoted to her two young sons, just 6 and 4, when she died. After years working in computers with the National Council for the Blind, Ann had secured a place to train as a primary teacher in St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra but had to defer when her cancer returned early this year.

“She was always studying something or other,” says Rose. “She would have loved to do teaching and she didn’t have an honour in Irish so she went back to college and got it. Until the very last, she intended to live and planned and was out and about.

“I think anybody normal would have been in bed three months before with the illness but I think the sheer willpower kept her going. She was always like that but I suppose she threw herself into keeping busy after Rachel died.”

It was a remarkable attitude, considering the despair that Ann herself voiced to Pat Kenny on the Late Late Show in 2006, two years after a brazen-faced Joe O’Reilly had appeared on the show alongside Rose to appeal for Rachel’s killer to come forward.

“Sometime I just don’t enjoy anything anymore,” she had said. “You wake up and think: Is it ever going to get any better? Other times you forget that your family has been torn apart and wake up thinking she’s alive.”

Now it is for Rose, Jim and their sons to face life without either of their girls. “They were our life,” says Rose simply. “Six years might sound a lot to people but it’s not. It’s still very raw. And now with Ann, it’s like a candle that can never be lit again.”

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