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Call for Two Garda Divers To Be Given Scott Medals for Belderrig Cave Rescue

1st November 2022
Former Rescue 115 helicopter pilot Dave Courtney, Sean McHale Killala Coast Guard, Retd Garda Seán O Connell, Insp Joe Finnegan, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, Stg Ciaran Doyle, Ret Garda Dave Mulhall, Stg Kieran Flynn, Ret Chief Supt Tony Mc Namara, Mayo Division
Former Rescue 115 helicopter pilot Dave Courtney, Sean McHale Killala Coast Guard, Retd Garda Seán O Connell, Insp Joe Finnegan, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, Stg Ciaran Doyle, Ret Garda Dave Mulhall, Stg Kieran Flynn, Ret Chief Supt Tony Mc Namara, Mayo Division Credit: Michael Loftus

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris has been asked to recognise the bravery of two gardai who played a key role in a harrowing cave rescue in north Mayo 25 years ago.

Retired chief superintendent Tony McNamara made the appeal at an event at Lacken pier in north Mayo at the weekend to mark the 25th anniversary of the death of diver Michael Heffernan.

Heffernan, a member of Mayo’s Grainne Uaile Sub Aqua Club, lost his life while trying to rescue three members of a family who were trapped in the back of a sea cave near Belderrig on October 25th, 1997.

German national Will Ernst von Below also died when his new currach capsized in a sea cave at Horse Island, throwing his friends, Tony and Carmel Murphy and their young daughter Eimear into the sea.

Up to 100 people, including Commissioner Harris, Heffernan’s widow Ann Marie and daughter Michelle, members of the Murphy family and Irish Coast Guard director Eugene Clonan attended the event, which was hosted by a Grainne Uaile Sub Aqua Club team, including diver and councillor Michael Loftus.

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

Three Scott medals for bravery were awarded to Garda members Ciarán Doyle, David Mulhall and Sean O’Connor for their role in the Belderrig cave rescue, which was one of the longest in recent Coast Guard history and involved about 100 people attached to 21 different services.

National marine bravery awards were also given to the gardai, and to Grainne Uaile diver Josie Barrett, Killala Coast Guard members Séan McHale and Martin Kavanagh and fishermen Martin and Patrick O’ Donnell.

Garda divers Kieran Flynn and Joseph Mulligan were commended for their role, but were passed over for Scott medals at the time.

he large gathering at Mayo’s Lacken Pier to mark the 25th anniversary of the Belderrig cave rescue which claimed the lives of diver Michael Heffernan and Will Von Below Photo: Michael Loftushe large gathering at Mayo’s Lacken Pier to mark the 25th anniversary of the Belderrig cave rescue which claimed the lives of diver Michael Heffernan and Will Von Below Photo: Michael Loftus

McNamara said he had recommended that all five Garda divers should receive Scott medals for their efforts, and it was still one of his regrets that the bravery of both men was “overlooked”.

Addressing Commissioner Harris, who travelled to the event in north Mayo at the weekend, McNamara asked him “respectfully” if he might “have someone look at it again”.

“It’s never too late to undo a wrong,” McNamara said.

McNamara recalled how he had just arrived in Achill for the weekend when he got a phone call from the Garda station that four people had failed to return to Belderrig harbour from a boat trip, and a search was underway.

He recalled how Grainne Uaile club members Michael Heffernan and Josie Barrett attempted a dive, on a safety line, into the cave where the Murphys were trapped, assisted by their club colleagues and members of the Killala Coast Guard unit. Both divers were separated in violent sea conditions, and Barrett managed to make it back out.

The Irish Coast Guard helicopter from Shannon was asked to fly to Dublin to collect the five Garda divers, and efforts were made to identify and illuminate a landing area near the pier at Belderrig.

McNamara recalled how helicopter pilot Capt Dave Courtney wrote about the incident in his book, Nine Lives, describing how the aircraft was “greeted by an amazing sight…the landing site was illuminated by huge standing floodlights positioned at each corner of a large field”.

“We could see firemen with extinguishers, ambulances, Coast Guard members and Gardai. And in the shadows beyond, we could see the others, the locals, the community, unknown people just trying to help,” Courtney wrote.

Three of the Garda team, 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 by swell and currents. The boat was swamped, and its engine was smashed on the rocks, meaning.

“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,” McNamara said.

He recalled the key role played by Garda Ciaran Doyle, who volunteered to swim from the back of the cave with a rope which would then tow seven people on board the Coast Guard rib to safety.

Mayo fishermen Pat, Martin and Tony O’Donnell and the RNLI Ballyglass lifeboat assisted with radio communications, and Pat O’Donnell took Ciaran Doyle on board when he emerged, exhausted, at the cave mouth.

“Taking the tow rope on his bow and to keep his propeller clear of the rocks, Pat O’Donnell proceeded astern, a most difficult manoeuvre, to steer a boat in a straight line going astern, to keep off the rocks close by,” McNamara said.

“He was assisted in this by his brother, Martin, establishing a tow line 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,”he said.#

Garda divers Kieran Flynn and Joe Finnegan were taken into the cave by fisheries inspector Michael Hughes to recover the bodies of Michael Heffernan and Will Von Below, McNamara said.

McNamara noted that the State subsequently named the highest marine gallantry awards after Michael Heffernan, and the diver, whose wife was expecting their second child when he died, was posthumously awarded the first gold medal.

Published in Diving, Coastguard, Rescue
Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins is a print and radio reporter, and a former Irish Times western correspondent. She is the author of Search and Rescue: True stories of Irish Air-Sea Rescues and the Loss of R116 (2022); Everest Callling (1994) on the first Irish Everest expedition; Mayday! Mayday! (2004); and Once Upon a Time in the West: the Corrib gas controversy (2010). She is also co-producer with Sarah Blake of the Doc on One "Miracle in Galway Bay" which recently won a Celtic Media Award

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