"Nothing is going to bring Mammy back to me but I need answers and I need closure."

Loretto Gaughran is fighting back tears as she tells me about her mother who passed away just over seven weeks ago, after contracting Covid-19.

The sun is shining and the birds are singing when we meet at her home, yet there's a darkness hanging heavy in the air. Covid-19 has visited this house and left an indelible mark.

Originally from Co Monaghan, Lily McArdle is one of the 1,518 people who have died in Ireland from this deadly virus. She would have celebrated her 90th birthday on 8 June.

She was one of the first residents of Dealgan House in Dundalk, Co Louth to die from Covid-19. She had been living there for the last 18 months.

"She loved Dealgan House. She embraced life there. She started painting and she had never painted in her life before. It gave her a new lease of life," Loretto explains.

"She loved music, she loved listening to LMFM, she loved reading the local newspapers, she loved the craic, she really did enjoy life."

On 3 April last, Lily complained of a sore throat and a cough. She was transferred to Our Lady of Lourdes hospital in Drogheda on 4 April and died there three days later after developing pneumonia.

"She was extremely poorly and we were told to expect the worst. I was the only one who was allowed in to see her and they looked after me really well. I had that time with her and it was lovely."

While in the hospital, Loretto received a phone call from a member of staff at the nursing home. It’s a call that she was surprised to get at the time.

"I was sitting in the hospital on the Sunday afternoon holding my Mam’s hand and I got a phone call from one of the staff who had been caring for her the previous day. She was very concerned and asked had my Mammy got Covid-19 because she had been in with my Mammy the day before and hadn’t a mask or any protective equipment on her."

Lily McArdle was transferred from Dealgan House to Our Lady of Lourdes hospital, Drogheda

Loretto and her family spent the next day organising a funeral that could only be attended by a small number of people, another heartbreaking element of this horrible virus. Lily’s brothers and sisters - who are all over 70 - couldn’t even attend.

In the days that followed, Loretto began to hear about more deaths at Dealgan House nursing home and became even more concerned.

"I had got to the stage where I was afraid to look at RIP.ie. I had got to know a lot of people in the home and every day it wasn’t unusual to see three or four deaths. The woman across the corridor from Mammy died. The woman next door to her died," she explains.

Dealgan House confirmed last week that 23 residents have died since 23 April. It said many of them were Covid-19 related.

Some families have now come forward, calling for answers. How did so many people die?

"There needs to be investigation. They need to talk to the families of those who are no longer with us. We’re their voice. We have an experience and story to tell about how Covid was handled," says Loretto.

"There’s more questions to be asked at a lot of levels. Was enough support given? Was enough advice given? It’s the bigger picture. To get answers is important. It won’t bring Mammy back but I need to know what happened," she says.

"There needs to be investigation. They need to talk to the families of those who are no longer with us. We're their voice. We have an experience and story to tell about how Covid was handled," says Loretto.

For Ann Cleary, it’s an achingly similar story. She lost her mother on 24 April. Florrie Cleary was 95 years old, the youngest of four children.

She grew up in Dunmore in east Galway and later moved to the UK where she spent some time training to be a nurse during World War II - but a call came from home and she returned to Ireland to look after the family.

"Most of her life was spent in east Galway. She met and married my father there, she had me. She was a farmer’s wife and a great storyteller, the keeper of stories. If people were doing local history projects they would come to her," says her daughter Ann.

"She made the decision to move to the nursing home and because I lived in this area, she wanted to move here. She was really happy in Dealgan House."

Ann Cleary visited her mother on 8 March and it was the last time she saw her alive.

"I was seeing what was happening in China and Europe and I was worried that I might inadvertently pass the virus into the home. I was getting more and more anxious so I decided to stop visiting," she explains.

Ann’s voice breaks as she recalls her last visit. "I did say goodbye to her that day, knowing something might happen and I might not see her again. But I felt that was the best thing I could do for her."

In the days before her death, Florrie Cleary tested negative for Covid-19.

"The week my mother passed, I calculated that 15 people [from Dealgan] had died by then, I don’t know whether they died from Covid-19 but I was extremely anxious. I was beginning to ask myself if I could leave my mother there."

On 24 April, Ann received the phone call she was always dreading. "One of the nurses called me to tell me my mother had passed. She was in shock. I was in shock.

"There was no warning, there was no sense of anything. My mother was 95. She was at the point in her life where she was more in love with death than she was with life but it was still a real shock."

The cause of death has yet to be established.

Like some of the other families, Ann Cleary is critical of communication from the nursing home about the outbreak.

"I’m not without guilt or concern that I didn’t phone them up myself and ask what is going on but I think I was in a state of shock," she says.

It’s only three weeks since Florrie Cleary passed away and Ann is now grappling with grief and concern. "It’s only since the death of my mother that I’ve realised the scale of all of this. I’ve become more aware of the extent of the infection in the home so I’ve been left with lots of questions.

"I’m not interested in blame. I’m just concerned. Who was being attentive?

"I can see the efforts that were being made by the home in talking to the HSE and HIQA. I can see the efforts that were being made nationally to ensure our hospitals weren’t overwhelmed but who was concerned about the people in our nursing homes?"

Ann admits that speaking out hasn’t been easy and her mother would probably be mortified but she feels she has been left with no other choice.

"There’s a feeling out there that these people were old and vulnerable and they were going to get it anyway, that’s the feeling I’m left with. But if a building collapsed in the centre of town - or if there was a fire - and five people died, then the relevant bodies and the State would be on site immediately and people would know what happened."

RTÉ has analysed RIP.ie data on deaths in nursing homes which shows that Dealgan House in Dundalk is one of at least eleven homes in the country where ten or more residents have died in March and April.

The vast majority of these homes are located in the east of the country.

The data reveals that in March and April this year, around 800 deaths were listed as having taken place in nursing homes here nationally.

It’s important to remember that this data only takes into account death notices where a nursing home was specifically named - so the figure could be even higher. The figure represents approximately 430 more deaths than for the corresponding period in 2019 - an 88% increase.

At a separate facility in the northeast of the country there were 14 deaths in April alone, all of which took place over a 22 day period. That accounts for 25% of the maximum number of people allowed to reside at the nursing home. In the previous two months, January and February, the facility was not listed on RIP.ie as having any deaths at the home.

In correspondence with RTÉ News, another nursing home with a significant death rate said it appreciated the media’s concern in highlighting "how nursing homes lacked support during the outbreak of Covid-19".

Dealgan House has said it will cooperate fully with the HIQA inspection. It said families have the right to ask questions and expect answers as to what happened, how the virus spread and whether it could have been prevented or mitigated.

Experts say Covid-19 will be around for some time to come and some of the families whose relatives died in Dealgan House believe lessons need to be learned.

Dealgan House has said it will cooperate fully with the HIQA inspection. It said families have the right to ask questions and expect answers as to what happened, how the virus spread and whether it could have been prevented or mitigated.

It has also acknowledged that, due to staffing constraints, communication was lacking and has apologised to families.

"There is a need to raise voices, there is a need for us to know what happened, the people who died deserve more," says Ann Cleary.

"I’m not interested in judging and I’m not blaming the staff in Dealgan but that doesn't mean that we shouldn’t be asking awkward questions about what happened."

The awkward questions are often not easy to answer.