Seven months on from the tragic death of Danielle Mc Laughlin in India, her mum Andrea and sister Joleen speak of their enduring loss and all that they loved about her beautiful spirit.
Words by Caoimhinn Barr, Inishowen Independent
The devastated mother of Danielle McLaughlin says she doesn’t want her daughter to be remembered as a victim, but as the “kind, beautiful and warm-hearted person that she was”.
Andrea Brannigan has had “good days and bad days” since her daughter was murdered in Goa almost seven months ago.
“I think about her every day and every night. She is the first thing I think about every morning I wake up, and there isn’t a night that goes by that I don’t cry about her. I just keep thinking about what she must have gone through.”
She says Danielle’s death still “hasn’t fully sunk in yet”.
“I miss chatting to her. I miss her telling me what to do. She was like a second mammy to the girls. She was such a good person. If you met her once, you never forgot her.”
“It’s still very surreal. It’s very hard for us to comprehend that we will never see her again, ” says Danielle’s 19-year-old sister Joleen.
“I had my Leaving Cert results in August and I felt like I couldn’t wait to tell Danielle how I had done. There are so many things that I want to tell her all the time but I can’t.”
Andrea says she is “dreading” Christmas without her oldest daughter.
“Danielle adored Christmas. She always tried to get home for it. She was only ever away for one Christmas and she hated that.”
Joleen adds: “There was one year when she was in Australia and she couldn’t get home for Christmas; she was so upset. It was her first year not having Santa, helping to build bikes and open toys and stuff.”
Poignantly, youngest sister, Sky (age 4), thinks Danielle is “away looking for my bunny” – too young to comprehend that she will never see her again.
Almost seven months since the worst possible news was confirmed, Andrea has gone over all the what-ifs in her head, time and again.
“Why her? There are millions and millions of people who travel all over the world so why did it have to happen to her?”
The day Danielle left is now indelibly marked in Andrea’s memory.
“I gave her a hug at the door and told her to watch herself over there. Her friend was with her and he carried her rucksack out to his car and drove her away.”
“She ran upstairs to make sure to give all of us a hug before she left,” recalls Joleen.
Danielle was much older than her sisters but had a special bond with them and called them “my girls”.
“Even on the day she died, Danielle had spoken to an English couple in Goa and told them all about ‘her girls’ back at home,” reveals Andrea.
A sudden loss
She had left Buncrana in high spirits on February 22 – posting a message on social media about how lucky she was – but by March 13 Danielle was dead.
Andrea will never forget the moment she found out what had happened.
“I was in the house. Louise and Maria McMenamin came to the door. Louise knocked on the door and as soon as I saw Maria beside her I knew that something was badly wrong. I knew.”
“I just went mental then. I couldn’t control myself. Louise didn’t have time to say it. I hadn’t heard from Danielle that day and this was half eight in the evening. I knew something was wrong.”
Joleen knew something was horribly awry when she heard her mother crying.
“We were told to come into the kitchen to sit down. And then my mother got upset and told us. The girls were upstairs and they were upset because they could hear crying.”
“Then we called the guards to see if it was her for definite. Her picture was up on Facebook but we hadn’t had any official confirmation that it was her. No one came to our door to say it was Danielle. The person who identified her had only known her for a day.”
A stolen life
The circumstances of Danielle’s sudden death make her loss all the more difficult to deal with.
“What gave somebody the right to take away her life? To take away the life of someone who had done so much good in life, like Danielle. We had no chance to say goodbye to her,” says Andrea.
Danielle’s wicker coffin was closed when she eventually returned to her Marian Park home two weeks after her death.
Her family briefly glimpsed her remains but Danielle had undergone facial reconstruction and was not recognisable from the beautiful girl who had left Buncrana.
“I didn’t recognise the person I saw. We weren’t even allowed to touch her,” says Andrea.
“We never got that closure of actually seeing her. We didn’t see the Danielle we knew. Even her hair wasn’t right. It was done in ringlet curls but she would have had messy curls,” says Joleen.
Andrea says the two-week period between the death and the return of Danielle’s body remains a “total blank”, while Joleen says the house was an “endless wake.
Hope for justice
They have since poured their energy into the fight for justice.
“Danielle doesn’t have a voice anymore – because it was taken away from her – so we have to be her voice. We have to make sure that her voice is still heard,” says Joleen.
“Danielle was a person who stood up for people and fought for what she believed in. She would have believed in this. If one of us had died she would have been doing everything in her power for us.”
Andrea, Joleen and a few of Danielle’s friends are planning to travel to India for the verdict, which, given the case’s now ‘fast-tracked’ status, could be delivered next year.
“I just hope we can get justice for her,” says Andrea.
The family try to keep Danielle’s memory alive by talking about her as much as possible.
“I don’t want her to be forgotten about,” says Andrea.
A special personality
A global traveller, Danielle helped build schools in Nepal following the 2015 earthquake and taught some of the poorest school kids in the world in Calcutta.
“She had done so much good in her life. She was always willing to help people. She was a great listener, as well as being a great talker,” says Andrea.
“Everywhere she went she would make an effort to learn the language, in order to understand people better and make friends,” adds Joleen.
Andrea says she is not someone who has travelled much but “Danielle was the complete opposite”.
She had been all around the world and had been planning a trip to Canada when her life was cruelly cut short in Goa.
“She went everywhere,” says Joleen.
Andrea says her daughter possessed a special personality.
“If you went into a room, you would have known that Danielle was there even if she hadn’t opened her mouth.
“She was kind-hearted. She was great when John, my late husband, took sick. She was in Australia at the time but she came home right away.”
“Then when my dad took sick, she came home to help look after him and help me out at home.”
Calls from across the world
Though she was regularly thousands of miles from Buncrana, Danielle kept in touch with her family every single day.
“She didn’t care what time it was. She could randomly call you from Australia at five o’clock in the morning,” laughs Joleen.
Even on the day of her death Danielle spoke with her mother on the phone from Goa.
“She would have checked in with us all the time.”
Never in her worst nightmare could Andrea have expected what would have happened, but she constantly worried about her daughter when she was far from home.
“We warned her that India could be dangerous, particularly after the Dehli bus incident [in which a woman was gang raped five years ago] – but she told us that India wasn’t like that. She loved India, it was one of her favourite places to go,” says Joleen.
Andrea praised the community effort to raise funds for the justice campaign. So far tens of thousands has been raised, most of it going towards legal costs in India to ensure that Danielle is properly represented there.
“The community has really got together. Everyone has really helped us. People have been amazing.”
Joleen is planning an upcoming musical bingo night to raise more funds. Every euro raised could be vital.
A former pupil of Scoil Iosagain and Scoil Mhuire, Danielle wad “football-mad” and followed Celtic. She also played guitar and loved listening to music, anything from Lana Del Ray to Bob Marley.
Celebrating Danielle’s life
She celebrated her 28th birthday on February 4, a little over two weeks before she left home for what would be the final time.
“She went out with her friends the night before, then we had a wee party in the house for her on the day of her birthday. I bought her a wee cake in SuperValu,” remembers mum Andrea.
The following day the family enjoyed a celebratory meal at the Inishowen Gateway Hotel, where Danielle had previously been employed.
Eight weeks later the family gathered again, this time for her funeral in Cockhill, where mourners, including many from all over the world, were encouraged to wear bright colours.
“She was such a bright person – she didn’t like black – and we thought it would be a good way to celebrate her life,” Joleen smiles.
If you would like to donate to the campaign for justice, you may do so at Ulsterbank, Buncrana or by checking out the Facebook page: ‘Truth for Danielle McLaughlin’.
This interview was first published in the Inishowen Independent.