While it may be a matter of discussion as to whether or not Ireland is truly a maritime nation, there is no doubting the fact that we are an aviational people to a remarkable degree.
We’ve inherited a deeply-felt distrust of the sea. We live on an island which is only recently inhabited in terms of the full span of human history, and none of our remote ancestors came to Ireland other than by primitive boat. For every one who made it safely across in the earliest days of human settlement, there must have been hundreds, indeed thousands, who didn’t.
Thus it is perfectly natural to feel hostile to the sea and seafaring, and it’s only with the more rational outlook of recent times that we have been able to begin the serious development of proper maritime policies and attitudes.
But in the much newer area of aviation development, we have no atavistic hang-ups. In terms of exploiting the potential of air travel, we have rapidly become world leaders. Thus it was no surprise to learn last year that the Aran Islanders, remote in their Atlantic fastness, were much more concerned with the maintenance of their air link to Ireland than they were with any improvement of the ferry service.
So when our modern Coastguard Helicopter Search & Rescue Service started to develop properly twenty and more years ago, it simply felt right. Here was a wonderfully dedicated service in which the formerly acute differences between sea and land could be overcome by skilled crews who could search and rescue as readily among our most rugged mountains as they could far out to sea or under the most challenging cliffs of the coast.
In fact, the life-saving utilisations of the service are almost infinite in their variety, and we took it for granted on Sunday evening, for instance, when a Coastguard helicopter carried out a hospital transfer of a casualty from an accident site in the hills near Carlingford, an accident made inaccessible by other means as it blocked narrow roads.
Whether in the hills or sailing along the coast, we are reassured by the occasional presence of one of the distinctive red and white choppers simply going about its business, be it on a routine patrol, an exercise, or an actual rescue. We know that the best that can be done is being done. And we are reassured by their presence which, in its own unique way, is evidence of a society with a certain level of civilisation and quiet confidence.
It was perfectly normal that very few will have been aware when, in the early hours of Tuesday morning, a Coastguard Helicopter took off from Dublin and flew west for the Atlantic. It was a routine happening. The country was asleep. Life was as it should be. Yet we awoke to the growing realisation that it was unlikely the machine and crew would be returning.
It’s when such things happen that we realise just how much the red and white choppers mean to every one of us, and not only in the maritime community. Mere words are inadequate to express how much we appreciate what these people do, and are always willingly ready to do. They are a very important part of modern Irish life. We cherish them and what they do, and the loss off the Black Rock is very deeply felt.