By Alan Richman
Updated September 28, 1987 12:00 PM

They refer to him as “the American actor” or as just “the American.” They know very little about this famous star, this Matthew Broderick, whose films seldom appear where they live.

They are the relatives of Margaret Doherty, 63, and Anna Gallagher, 28, a mother and daughter killed last month in Northern Ireland when their brown Volvo crashed head-on into a rented red BMW driven by Broderick. They are resentful that so much attention is given to the American actor and so little to the women they loved.

Broderick suffered a broken leg. The woman with him, actress Jennifer Grey, was unhurt. Two weeks ago, just before he returned to the States after a monthlong stay in Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital, Broderick was formally charged with reckless driving. If he is found guilty he could go to prison for as long as five years. The relatives of Doherty and Gallagher have heard what a terrible thing it would be if such a fine young man were imprisoned. They have heard much less said, at least by outsiders, of what a terrible thing it is that the two women are dead.

Margaret, a widow, suffered from multiple sclerosis. She lived with her son, Martin, 24, a mechanic, in a bungalow brightened by hydrangea bushes just outside the town of Ennis-killen. For the past five years she had been confined to a wheelchair, and among her pleasures were visits from Anna, who often took her on shopping trips in Martin’s Volvo.

Anna lived with her husband, John, an engineer, in the Irish Republic town of Sligo, only 45 miles away from her mother. John had recently been transferred from Dublin by the Electricity Supply Board, and he and Anna had purchased a new home. Anna had suffered a miscarriage last year, and the couple was childless, but they hoped to start a family.

The surviving relatives now speak as one, asking outsiders who come to Enniskillen seeking information about the accident to please leave them alone with their grief. Tommy Doherty, an uncle of Anna, trembles with rage when he says, “What more do you expect us to say?…You’re only curious about the American actor.” Then he turns away, returns to his chore of mending the roof of St. Joseph’s Church, where funeral services for the two women were held on Aug. 14.

Among those who mourn the deaths of the women is Broderick himself, who was released on $4,075 bail and came home hobbling on crutches, looking pale and gaunt. He described their deaths as a “terrible, terrible thing.” Of his own physical condition he said, “I’m okay. I’ll be all right.” Asked whether he caused the accident by driving on the wrong side of the road—a common error of visitors to the British Isles, where the correct side is the left—he replied, “Nobody knows yet. I can’t talk about that too much.”

Anna’s husband, John, said of Broderick, “We have no hard feelings toward him. He has to live with this the rest of his life.” Martin added, “I hope God gives him strength. This is a big ordeal for himself as well.”

The trip should have been a happy one for Broderick, 25, and Grey, 27. They had been seeing each other since appearing together in the 1986 film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and both were anticipating the release of new movies. Grey had done Dirty Dancing, and he had just completed Biloxi Blues, repeating his acclaimed starring role in the 1985 Neil Simon play. Broderick, the son of the late actor James Broderick, had frequently summered in Ireland with his family, and he spoke fondly of those holidays.

What exactly took place on Aug. 5 might or might not be known to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The police are forbidden by law to talk about the accident. There had been some rain, but there were no skid marks. Visibility was good. A witness who had followed Broderick’s car earlier (but did not see the crash) said he was driving at a reasonable speed. A New York City official who specializes in traffic offenses says that if a confused foreigner caused a similar accident in the United States, he most likely would not be charged with a crime. He would only be brought to trial if there was some indication that he had acted recklessly.

Broderick’s trial in Enniskillen Magistrates Court is scheduled for February, the same month that Biloxi Blues opens. The advance word on the movie is excellent, and should Broderick be jailed, much will be written about the untimely hiatus in the career of a budding star. Margaret Doherty and Anna Gallagher are buried in a family plot, five miles from the site of the crash. It rains frequently in Ireland, and already most of the messages on the cards left by their graves have been washed away.