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Thursday 23 November 2017

'Tragedy upon tragedy' unites all who know the power of the sea

The loss of Caitríona Lucas was a harsh blow to a close-knit coastal community, writes Laura Larkin

Julia O’Leary (4) lays flowers outside Doolin Coast Guard Photo: Mark Condren
Julia O’Leary (4) lays flowers outside Doolin Coast Guard Photo: Mark Condren
Laura Larkin

Laura Larkin

Coastal communities in Clare this week showed a touching unity as they struggled to comprehend the loss of Caitríona Lucas, who died as she searched for missing schoolteacher David McMahon. The double tragedy was unlike anything to hit the area previously, but ultimately it showed the communities at their best.

In Kilkee, where tourists ramble the cliff walks, even in mid-September, residents have become sadly accustomed to searches in the Atlantic for missing people; with the beauty of the coastline comes inevitable danger.

Time and again this week, locals observed the power of the sea.

Even before Coast Guard volunteer Caitríona died on Monday, the town had already been united in its search for missing David and to support his devastated family.

Hundreds of people turned out to help with the search on Saturday, the day after he was last seen.

They came from his hometown in Lisseycasey and further afield, mixing with locals who had helped in similar heartwrenching searches down through the years. Then on Tuesday, despite Caitríona's death, they found it in themselves to turn up again.

Caitríona’s husband Bernard carries her coffin Photo: Mark Condren
Caitríona’s husband Bernard carries her coffin Photo: Mark Condren

As one man said, it was "tragedy heaped on top of tragedy".

Men and women who knew the dangers of the mighty Atlantic still seemed unprepared for how cruel it could be, as they stood on the famous cliffs in the days after.

One seasoned volunteer, who has worked on countless efforts, described the helpless feeling dozens of people felt as they looked down at the devastating scenes unfolding at the base of the cliff.

Equipped by all accounts to help but unable to intervene.

Not far from Kilkee in the Doolin Coast Guard station, where Caitríona's artistic stamp can be seen all over, a steady stream of well-wishers stopped by with cards and flowers for her colleagues.

It was a sombre scene as a handful of her friends sat in silence along a wall outside.

Some of them had been on the scene when rescue efforts to save the mum-of-two and the two coast guard members from Kilkee were mounted.

The station is state-of-the-art and overlooks a ramshackle stone shed where the old station was based. The new building now stands as a testament to just how busy Doolin's search and rescue team is. The 26 volunteers who man the station have attended to more than 55 calls this year so far.

Mattie Shannon of Doolin Coast Guard, with a model coast guard boat that Caitríona Lucas made Photo: Mark Condren
Mattie Shannon of Doolin Coast Guard, with a model coast guard boat that Caitríona Lucas made Photo: Mark Condren

The unit, which began as a climbing team, was the first to be given a boat in the coast guard; the first to get a vehicle and to get a Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB).

And last week, the pioneering unit became the first to lose a coast guard volunteer while on duty and the repercussions of that loss were felt in stations dotted around the coast of Ireland.

Coast guard volunteers from as far away as Cork remained poised on Monday to rush to the aid of their colleagues in Clare as the rescue operation stretched into the early evening.

Caitríona's enthusiasm for the job was paramount in everyone's mind. Her Officer In Charge (OIC), Mattie Shannon, scrolled through the hours she had logged in recent years on the internal system, pointing out the years where she clocked in more than 700 hours.

"That was only the hours that were logged," Mattie pointed out. Inside, surrounded by artwork Caitríona had commissioned from local school children, they met with surviving volunteer Jenny Carway, who was visibly shaken after her ordeal the previous day.

It was fitting that her friends and colleagues in the station were on hand to comfort her.

They too have undertaken dangerous rescue missions time and again, never believing that it would end in tragedy.

A picture of Caitríona quickly emerged as not only a brave volunteer who gave up endless hours of her time with Doolin Coast Guard but also as a hard worker, who always went the extra mile for people in her community.

In Liscannor, where she lived with her husband and children, one woman described how Caitríona would always order in library books for her daughter and was always very helpful with other readers.

Caitríona's colleagues in the library service have remembered her as someone who was always on hand with ideas and showed a keen interest in progressing professionally.

"She was dynamic and highly motivated. One imagines Caitríona coming to work in the library after possibly dangling off a cliff edge an hour earlier to sit down with a group of children to do story hour or an art and craft session.

"She would rarely if ever have mentioned the previous episode and had a modesty and humility that was remarkable," Helen Flynn, from the library service, said last night in a fitting tribute to the late volunteer, whose loss has been felt not only in Clare but all around the country.

Irish Independent

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