Sunday 18 March 2018

After 36 years, Helena is still searching for answers

Paddy Clancy

Helena Gallagher doesn't have a grave to visit after her father died in a sea tragedy when she was four years old.

It was 36 years before she faced the place of her father Hughie's death last week when she took a boat for her first visit to Rathlin O'Beirne Island off Donegal.

Her party of family and friends carried a wreath of 11 red roses in memory of Hughie and 10 other trawlermen who died in two separate tragedies on the Evelyn Marie and the Carrig Una on the same rocks 23 months apart. The little party prayed as they recited each name -- Paddy Bonner; Hughie Gallagher; Johnny O'Donnell; Rolo Faughnan; Tom Ham and Joe O'Donnell of the Evelyn Marie and Ted Carbery; John Boyle; Michael Coyle; Doalty O'Donnell and Anthony McLaughlin of the Carrig Una.

"This was the hardest journey I have taken in my life," Helena said.

She still doesn't know how a crew of six lost their lives in the Evelyn Marie disaster 36 years ago, on January 7, 1975. It was also Helena's first day at school. She never saw her father again. His body wasn't recovered.

The trawler was only one year old and the crew was one of the most experienced in Donegal.

There was a government inquiry at the time but it remains secret. Almost two years later, on November 26, 1976, tragedy struck a second trawler, the Carrig Una, at the same spot and five lives were lost. Another inquiry remains secret.

Helena, born on Arranmore Island off Donegal, and her family want to know what happened, and why rescuers could not be contacted in time to save lives or even recover four of the six bodies lost on the Evelyn Marie.

In the search for answers Helena, a former BBC radio producer who now runs her own independent radio and television production company in Glasgow and Donegal, asked Taoiseach Brian Cowen to release secret government files but so far there has been no response.

A documentary made by Helena to be broadcast on RTE this week recalls that her grief-stricken mother, Mary, heavily pregnant, told her five children of their father's death.

Mary recalls: "It was the hardest thing I ever did to tell my children their father was never coming home."

There were rosaries every night for three months at their Arranmore Island home as the family desperately sought understanding of what happened. Then Mary had twin boys and she vowed she had to get on with rearing her family that now numbered seven, the eldest aged seven.

The night that changed the Gallagher family's lives started when islanders picked up news of a trawler disaster on their CB radios. The Evelyn Marie, on its way into Killybegs with a good catch, is believed to have struck rocks off Rathlin O'Beirne Island and vanished without trace.

Helena's grandfather Eddie Gallagher told her mother, who at first wouldn't believe Hughie was lost as he was a strong swimmer. Mary only accepted the loss next evening when two bodies were recovered.

Paddy Bonner was the Evelyn Marie skipper. His daughter Michelle is also still searching for a grave to visit. She says: "I remember two bodies were found. They had life jackets on. I remember thinking why did my daddy not have his lifejacket?

"Normally there is a wake and funeral and closure. That didn't happen. I remember at times just wanting to scream and wanting people to get out of the house and maybe if they did get out my daddy would come home.

"I remember as well thinking how could they not just jump in off where the disaster happened and jump on to that island and maybe they were hiding there and maybe they swam somewhere else and nobody could find them and I remember thinking that maybe he swam to America."

During her research Helena found some 1978 television footage. She reckons it raised more questions than it answered, particularly about coastal services at the time in the west.

In the footage, another trawler skipper, James Gallagher, who was fishing 12 miles away, recalls that he picked up the Evelyn Marie's last mayday at 6.42pm.

Having contacted another trawler near Killybegs he asked it to fetch a helicopter. Mr Gallagher remembers that three-quarters of an hour later Malin Head contacted him at 7.20pm to say it was not possible to send a helicopter as it couldn't work in the dark.

Helena asks: "Why were my father and five other men left in the water that night? Surely if a helicopter had been sent out there might have been a chance of saving them?"

She tried to seek answers and in 2006 put a formal request to the government for information about the Evelyn Marie and the Carrig Una tragedies at the same spot. She was told the reports were confidential and not for release to the public.

In November, when Taoiseach Brian Cowen was on Arranmore during the Donegal South West by-election, Helena was granted a few minutes of his private time.

Mr Cowen, who listened sympathetically and explained that he was only 15 at the time, admitted he wasn't in a position to give a comprehensive reply but he pledged to make enquiries.

He hasn't been in touch since.

Helena said: "I believe I have a right as does every family member to find out what happened. Every fisherman who still fishes those waters today also has that right.

"How long does it take to walk into a file office and pull out a couple of files? I will only have full closure when I have all that."

Searching for Answers will be broadcast on Saturday, January 8, at 6pm on RTE Radio 1. It will be repeated on Sunday January 9 at 7pm.

Sunday Independent

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