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Blind courage; Three years ago the Omagh bombers robbed Claire of her sight. She vowed to win a place at university to prove she could live a normal life.. yesterday's A-levels made her dream come true.

Byline: JENNY JOHNSTON

CLAIRE Gallagher knows hers won't be a typical student house. She throws her head back and laughs as she wonders if her future housemates know exactly what is in store for them.

"Well, they won't be able to leave things lying at their heels, you know," she says. "It will have to be tidy all the time, otherwise I'm likely to go flying.

"Everything will have to have its own place. There'll be none of this mugs-all-over-the-floor business. Some student house we are going to be!"

Then the laughing stops and the voice falls to a whisper.

"Actually, it's a wee bit scary. It's going to be quite hard for them. Much as I'd love to be independent, I know that I just can't be. They are going to have to help me prove I can do this."

Three years ago, almost to the day, there was little talk of careers, or university, or any sort of future, in the Gallagher home. Marie and Seamus Gallagher sat by their eldest daughter's hospital bed, held her hand and wondered how they could possibly go on.

Claire was just 15 when the Omagh bombers took her sight, left her face badly disfigured and furnished her with the storylines of her nightmares for years to come.

Her struggle to come to terms with her blindness and the mental trauma has been going on ever since.

Yesterday, however, she won another battle when she passed two A-levels and won a place at university, defying all the odds. Claire can't read the slip which tells her she got a B in music and a C in religion, but she holds it tight.

"It's like a great weight had been lifted off my shoulders," she says. "I've been through enough to know that being alive is the only thing that matters. But still. I wanted to go to university. I wanted to prove that I could do it, that I could not be beaten by this.

"It makes everything worthwhile. Sometimes, on a bad day, I've just pulled the duvet over my head. But at times like this I stop feeling sorry for myself and realise just how much I have to be thankful for."

The Omagh bomb, the worst terrorist atrocity thoughout the Troubles, claimed 29 lives and those of two unborn babies.

As Claire tells her remarkable story - without tears, without bitterness and without rage - it becomes clear that she refuses to see herself as a victim.

"The consultant came in on a Saturday to tell me that I would never see again," she explains, matter-of-factly. "He said he was very, very sorry but they had done everything they could. It was so good of him to come in on his day off.

"I didn't cry. It was two months before I cried. Then Mummy said: 'Now, Claire, there are two ways we can deal with this. We can sit about feeling sorry for ourselves, or we can pick ourselves up and go on.'

I KNEW there was no choice. I hadn't lived enough to just give up. There was so much I still wanted to do."

At first, her hopes were modest. She wanted to be able to manage the toilet on her own. Then walk from the living-room to the kitchen without being seized by terror. Then go back to school. Learn braille. Cope with homework. Go to the cinema and not mind the plot being whispered in her ear.

Now, her dreams are those of any 18-year-old. She wants a degree and a home. She wants to marry and have children. She wants to be a music therapist, helping children come to terms with trauma through music.

Her future also includes Ryan, the boyfriend who helped restore her confidence and is rarely away from her side. "I can't imagine life without him," she says. "After the bomb, one of my big worries was about boyfriends. I'm not stupid. I know there aren't many young fellas who would want to get involved with a blind girl. I need help all the time. What sort of person is willing to sacrifice that much?

"When Ryan and I did start going steady, I worried how he would cope. But he says: 'It's no matter. What difference does it make that you can't see?' That's nice. I wouldn't want him to be going on about it all the time."

It helps, she reckons, that they knew each other before the bomb. "It means I know what he looks like," she confides.

And she describes him with a tenderness that breaks your heart: "He is tall and thinnish, and he has these piercing blue eyes and a wee dimple on his chin. I think he's good-looking, but then I am biased."

Claire insists: "I'm so lucky that I did once see. When Mum tells me the skirt in Top Shop is a lovely purply blue, I know what she means. I know what all the members of my family look like. Of course, when my sister Karen gets to 20, I'll still remember her as a wee girl.

"My aunt had a little baby recently, and I was holding him in my arms and I felt sad. I suddenly realised I would never see him."

Adapting to blindness has not been easy. Marie tells you Claire can be "a headstrong young lady". And Claire admits she has struggled to cope. Life has revolved around operations and hospital visits. She wears plastic lenses where bright eyes should be.

"The left eye is still there, but it is all shrunken and withered and doesn't look very nice," she says. "I don't want to scare people."

Benny the guide dog is at her feet today. Claire is just completing her six-week training with him, and hopes he will make university life so much easier.

MENTALLY, however, the strains have been almost overwhelming. To this day, Claire refuses to be in the house alone for long.

Her siblings Karen, eight, Christoper, 10, Elaine, 11, and Gemma, 17, take turns to make sure they are home with her.

"I just worry about what I would do if something happened and I had to get out," she says. "What would I do?" And her nights are frequently disturbed by horrific nightmares.

I ask how her parents have coped and the silence is deafening. "They like me to think they are coping really well, but they aren't," she says finally. "Mum tries to keep it all together for the young ones, but she finds it tough. When they told us I would have to have my right eye removed she cried and cried.

"My daddy has taken it real hard. He asked the doctor if he could give me one of his eyes. He said it would be no bother. It is hard for them - they should be watching me be independent now, going off into the world. Instead, they can't even leave me on my own in the house."

But she remains unimpressed by those who tell her that she is a lucky lucky girl to get to meet Bill Clinton, become friends with Ronan Keating and be on chatting terms with Tony Blair. The price has been too high.

"I would give it all back in the morning if I could have my eyes back," she says.

Claire can remember every little detail about the bomb. The noise. The smell. The panic. How she threw herself to the ground.

"When I got up it didn't really register that I couldn't see," she says. "I thought it was just grit and dust in my eyes. There was blood, but I thought my nose was bleeding.

"I was stumbling around. People were screaming. I was aware of someone's arm on me. It was a young man. I grabbed hold of him and asked him to stay with me."

Claire's mother, a radiographer, was already at the hospital. And she has her own demons to deal with from that day.

"I wasn't much use," she says. "It was my first major incident, and when I saw her I just broke down. She had shrapnel embedded across the front of her head. They were worrying about the main artery. Her sight was the last thing on our minds. We were just willing her to live."

It was days before Claire learnt that so many people had died. Living in Omagh, surrounded by memories, is still hard.

"Even now, I forget I am blind," she says. "I will be sitting on the sofa or lying in bed and I won't have thought about it for a while, then I will remember everything is dark. I'll say to myself: 'God, I can't see.'

"It might sound silly, but it comes as a big shock every time. I don't know if I will ever get used to it completely. But I am trying. I am getting there. I know, deep down, that I can do this."

jenny.johnston@mirror.co.uk

IN seven weeks' time, Marie Gallagher is walking the Great Wall of China to raise money for the Royal National Institute for the Blind. If you'd like to make a donation, please send a cheque payable to M Gallagher to: Mirror Features/Gallagher Appeal, The Mirror, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5AP.

CAPTION(S):

FIGHTER: But Claire is terrified of being alone in the house; PRIDE: With parents Seamus and Marie and her siblings; NIGHTMARE: The bomb devastation in Omagh
COPYRIGHT 2001 MGN LTD
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

 
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Aug 17, 2001
Words:1588
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