Sunday 18 February 2018

50 lives saved over half century patrolling wild Atlantic waters

Hero: Irish Coast Guard legend Michael O’Regan, who is is retiring after a distinguished 50-year service during which he participated in more than 1,000 call-outs, at the Old Head of Kinsale Lighthouse in west Cork. Photo: Michael MacSweeney
Hero: Irish Coast Guard legend Michael O’Regan, who is is retiring after a distinguished 50-year service during which he participated in more than 1,000 call-outs, at the Old Head of Kinsale Lighthouse in west Cork. Photo: Michael MacSweeney
Ralph Riegel

Ralph Riegel

The beautiful Mizen Peninsula can be a treacherous place.

Dangerous cliffs are lashed by the full force of the North Atlantic and stormy winds can catch the unwary.

And in a 50-year career spent patrolling those cliffs, veteran Irish Coast Guard official Michael O'Regan has seen his fair share of tragedy.

But like his father before him, he has also seen the triumph of the human spirit in times of the most bleak adversity.

Michael is bringing the curtain down on one of the most remarkable careers in any of Ireland's emergency services and more than 50 people are alive today thanks to his efforts.

Incredibly, Michael has participated in more than 1,000 call-outs over his career. He joined the Goleen Cliff and Coast Guard when he was just 15 in 1965. "I may not have exactly told them I was that young at the time," Michael admits with a smile.

His father served with Goleen rescue services and it was natural for Michael to follow in his footsteps. Over the next half a century, Michael saved at least 50 people from coastal falls, boat accidents, swimming near-tragedies and climbing mishaps. He has also helped to recover many times that number of bodies.

"There is a special feeling about helping to get someone ashore and to hospital safe. That's what you do the job for," Michael told the Sunday Independent.

"Years later, you could meet someone on the street of a local village or town and you get great satisfaction from knowing that they are alive today because of your efforts and the efforts of other volunteers," he said. "That is what it is all about."

But he also said that it is hugely important, after a tragedy, to do everything possible to help recover a victim's body so that their loved ones can offer them a proper burial and begin the painful process of closure.

"It has been tough and it has been traumatic at times. I suppose I have seen more than my share of sadness over the years. But the joy on the face of just one family after safely rescuing their loved one makes it all worthwhile."

Rescues often proved both demanding and exhausting.

"There were times when we were called out and we were out for days on end. But you always hope that you can help bring someone home safe," he said.

Michael is now a legendary figure within not just the Irish Coast Guard, but the entire Irish emergency services. Every accident or major alert in west Cork has been marked by Michael's calm and assured presence.

The father-of-seven is now looking forward to spending more time with his 12 grandchildren.

A series of special tributes are planned for him after he dons his uniform for the final time on February 27.

But Michael admits when the first call-out after his retirement is signalled, he will find it hard not to don his emergency gear and head out with his Goleen rescue colleagues again.

"It will be a strange feeling to have the pager turned off. But my heart will always be with the lads when they go out on a rescue."

His long-time rescue colleague, Councillor Dermot Sheehan, hailed Michael as one of a kind.

"For years, we were known as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid because there were always the two of us together on call-outs around west Cork. But I guess from now on I will be the Lone Ranger," Mr Sheehan said.

Sunday Independent

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