The role of three Mayo fishermen in saving eight people trapped in a sea cave was remembered on the 25th anniversary of the rescue, reports Lorna Siggins.

Mayo club diver Michael Heffernan died during the rescue attempt, as did the owner of a currach, German national Will Van Below.

Current and former Coast Guard and Garda personnel at the Belderrig cave rescue anniversary event. (Photo: Michael Loftus)

Speaking at a gathering in North Mayo on the anniversary of the Belderrig cave rescue, retired Garda chief superintendent Tony McNamara paid tribute to all those involved in one of the longest rescues in recent Irish Coast Guard history.

He made special mention
of the vital role played by the fishermen, the three O’Donnell brothers, working with the Irish Coast Guard and RNLI Ballyglass lifeboat crew.

Tony McNamara recalled how he received a phone call from the Garda station saying that four people – three members of the Murphy family and currach owner Will Von Below – had failed to return to Belderrig harbour from a boat trip.

Grainne Uaile club members Michael Heffernan and Josie Barrett attempted a dive, on a safety line, into the cave where the Murphys were trapped. The divers were separated in violent sea conditions, and Josie Barrett managed to make it back out.

Three Garda divers, Sean O’Connell, Dave Mulhall and Ciaran Doyle, attempted to enter the cave underwater, with the assistance of Sean McHale and Martin Kavanagh on the Killala Coast Guard rib, but were beaten back.

“Fortunately, all five men made it safely to the back of the cave, where they discovered that the three members of the Murphy family had somehow survived their ordeal. They also, tragically, found that Michael Heffernan and another man, Will Van Below, had not survived,” said Tony McNamara.

Garda Ciaran Doyle volunteered to swim from the back of the cave with a rope which would then tow the seven people onboard the Coast Guard rib to safety.

The O’Donnell brothers were on hand at the cave mouth with their fishing vessels, Pamela Ann, Blath Ban and Sinead.

“Exhausted, Ciaran Doyle emerged from the cave and – passing the rope – he was taken onboard by Patrick O’Donnell, manoeuvring as close to the mouth of the cave as he could safely navigate,” said Tony McNamara.

“Taking the tow rope on his bow, and to keep his propeller clear of the rocks, Patrick proceeded astern – a most difficult manoeuvre – to keep off the rocks close by.

“He was assisted in this by his brother, Martin, establishing a towline to his boat and going ahead to keep the main towline to the Coast Guard rib as straight as possible, as it was successfully pulled from the cave.”

Tony McNamara noted that the Irish state subsequently named the highest marine gallantry awards after Michael Heffernan, who was posthumously awarded the first gold medal.

Up to 100 people, including Garda commissioner Drew Harris, Michael Heffernan’s widow Ann Marie and daughter Michelle, members of the Murphy family and Irish Coast Guard director Eugene Clonan, attended the event. The O’Donnell brothers were unable to attend.

Five wreaths were laid, with one of the wreaths also remembering the Lacken drownings of 1927, in a storm which also claimed fishermen’s lives off Cleggan and the Inishkea islands.

This story was taken from the latest issue of Fishing News. For more up-to-date and in-depth reports on the UK and Irish commercial fishing sector, subscribe to Fishing News here or buy the latest single issue for just £3.30 here


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