A bell tolls for three brothers
The village of Passage East in Co Waterford has never felt such pain – the lives of three brothers taken by the sea on Wednesday, June 12, 2013. Paul, Kenny and Shane Bolger went out fishing that morning. Some time later that day, their 19ft punt capsized just outside Tramore Bay. Their bodies were recovered that evening. RTE's south-east correspondent Damien Tiernan has been living in Passage since 1998 and knew two of the men well. He reported on the tragedy as it unfolded, the most difficult story he has ever covered as he found himself torn between doing his job and grieving for his friends
THE wind is rising as evening mourners form the guard of honour at St John the Baptist church in Crooke.
Those carrying the body of 37-year-old Paul Reade fight back the tears. Paul died of a suspected heart attack two days previous. Phones vibrate in the pockets of mourners as they file in. Text messages land. Down in Passage, I have my two children in the car. It's 6.18pm. Jimmy Pepper comes out from next door on our terraced street upon which Cromwell's army once marched.
"I don't think you'll be going to that funeral," he says quietly.
"There could be a boat missing – the Bolgers."
My feet stop moving. I take out my phone. A missed call from a fisherman friend.
My wife Louise closes the front door behind her and sees our faces. She had lost her father Paddy to the sea three years ago. He too had been lobster fishing.
"There could be something wrong," I whisper, "the Bolgers' boat might be gone." Her cry of pain reverberates up the valley. She knows the lads all her life.
"A valley of tears," an 80-year-old man would tell me the next day, with young and old, men and women, weeping openly.
Up at the church, more texts, more muffled gasps, deep, long and disbelieving. It can't be true. But it is.
THE UNREAL HOURS
As I stood there with Jimmy, and his uncle Michael who had been tending to his pigeons, I realised I had to find out if it was true and were they safe. I rang a crew member of the Coast Guard helicopter based at Waterford Airport. No answer. I tried another. He told me they'd recovered "three casualties" from Tramore Bay. The lifeboat had two, the helicopter one. I asked about fatalities. I was told it looked like all three were gone but it wasn't yet official.
Shock affects people in different ways. I was hardly able to tell my wife, Jimmy and Michael. I knew 'unreal' hours lay ahead. I told Louise I'd take the children to a friend's house in town, which I did; and while using the hands-free, I rang the newsdesk.
"We're going to need a satellite van," I said as calmly as I could. "I'll file official confirmation in a few minutes but you can say three fishermen have been found and recovered from Tramore Bay following a fishing accident . . . emergency services assessing condition . . ."
I asked cameraman Neilus Dennehy to meet me in Tramore, Brian Walsh was dispatched to Dunmore East where two of the bodies would be brought in.
I explained to the children what had happened and they asked was it like when grandad died. After dropping them off, I burst into tears in the car and slapped the steering wheel as I drove.
"Not again, not a-fu**ing gain," I said over and over as I caught my first sight that evening of the Metal Man overlooking Tramore Bay.
I knew I had to focus. I made phone calls. I had a lot of contacts from other tragedies, especially since the Pere Charles sank in 2007 with the loss of five men. Colm 'Seadog' Hanrahan calls me 'Tragedy Tiernan' when we are playing football for the local Park Rangers team. I rang the Drivetime studio. They put me straight on air just before the programme ended at 7pm. I then got official confirmation from the Coast Guard. All three were dead. I rang in the story; managed just one tweet; and stood there on the quay in Tramore as waves rose and fell and crashed and sprayed.
A man came up to me, a follower on Twitter, who said he saw the recovery operation. During the interview with Richie Daly, it was hard to stand straight the wind was now so strong.
Captain Peter McKenzie Browne told me on the phone he could do an interview at the helicopter base. Shortly after we arrived there, the hearse left with the body of one of the men. I really couldn't believe it. Peter told us of how the bodies were recovered; that the bow of the boat had been sticking out; how the bodies had been a few hundred metres apart; and only around 500 metres from the shore.
Thomas from Nemeton in Ring arrived and he prepared the satellite van for the live report for the 9 o'clock news. I went inside the building and started editing the package, the minutes ticked down as tears fell on my laptop.
POTS AND A PUNT
I thought of Kenny in his Man City jersey ("the only City fan in the village!") and the slagging we'd all have watching a derby match in Furlong's. He was the reason I bought a house in Passage – the first man I met when I went into The Farleigh; the warmth of his friendship convinced me the place was for me.
"Well, man, I'll tell you one thing, this is a great place to live and here's to your health," he said that day.
And then Shane, who worked on a TUS scheme when I was chair of the local Development Association. Shane, always happy, smiling. Playing a few games of pool with him. And his lovely wife Lucy. And Paul, living in Cheekpoint with the love of his life, Patricia. Paul was often on the green at the Blynd Quay in Passage, chatting with the brothers beside a punt and some pots.
I looked at the pictures from Dunmore, friends on the quay ashen-faced. I finished my package, got a lend of a jacket from a winchman and did my live into the 9 bulletin. It was the most difficult report I have ever done. I could feel myself breaking down. I had to hold it together. At the end of my longest ever two minutes, I gave the microphone to Neilus, got into the car and bawled my eyes out.
Words of comfort from editors on the phone. Director of news Kevin Bakhurst rang, we chatted, I said I wanted to do the story the following day as I knew the lads. He offered whatever support we would need.
I have never gone in for the idea of the reporter being 'involved' in tragic stories as we are just reporters doing our job. My feelings were nothing compared to the pain the families were feeling that night. Three brothers taken by the sea. Whatever anguish a reporter feels or tries to convey must be taken into context and should in no way be compared with the shock of family members. Sometimes a journalist tries to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And when a story – literally a disaster – hits you so close to home, you wonder whether you should leave it to somebody else to cover. But I felt I could do it, and I wanted to do the best possible job, for them.
After more radio reports, it was after midnight that I managed to get a drink. To see grown men cry openly in the company of others in a public bar wouldn't do you good.
The next day was hectic. Reporters and photographers descended on the historic village. It was hard to take in. I did my first, and probably my last, live into the Six One news from Passage. I thought long and hard about including the line ". . . and I knew the men" in my piece-to-camera but felt it would strengthen the viewer's understanding that I knew what I was talking about when I described Kenny ("a character"), Shane ("a gentleman") and Paul ("a lovely man"). I have never done it before and hopefully will never have to do it again. Experienced fishermen gone. My bottom lip quivered and I nearly lost it as I finished my report.
I called to the house and paid my respects as a member of the community. I didn't know what to say to the men's mother Margaret.
The visit on the Friday to the funeral home and see the three brothers laid out was something nobody ever wants to see again. Afterwards, a few dozen of us were involved in a meeting with Sergeant Fitzgerald to arrange traffic plans for the funeral, with a space allocated in the priest's garden for photographers and cameramen. There were discussions on alternative arrangements but on the day of the funerals everything went according to plan.
The 100-year-old bell tolled as the three hearses were brought slowly through the village, past the family home, and up to the church. The graveside music brought more tears. Feelings ran high. But the community rallied and 1,200 mourners were fed in the community centre by local people with amazing donations and support from businesses and groups.
Since then, it's been all go as many of us are involved in fundraising for the Bolger Brothers' Tragedy Fund; music events, dog nights, auctions – dozens of events organised to help the families. They are very modest, private, quiet people; good people. Three children (Calum, Martha Kay, Rachel) left without their fathers. This shouldn't have happened to anyone . . . it most definitely shouldn't have happened to them.
Damien Tiernan is donating his fee for this article to the Bolger Brothers' Tragedy Fund, the account is in AIB, Ardkeen, Waterford; account number 20146027 and Sort Code 93-44-02.