BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE Climbing a Via Feratta on a recent hiking trip to Slovenia with some ‘wonderful friends’ she has made through Mayo Mountain Rescue.
“I like to have my bowl of porridge on my own, it’s a chance to clear the head for the day, so I am always up first, at 7.30am. Then I get the kids out of bed – we have two, Robin is 10 and Keela is 5 – and, if it is a school day we have a wee chat about what we will do afterwards while they are eating their breakfast. It is all very easy-going. Ciarán, my husband, is probably pottering around somewhere in the background.
After I drive the kids to school, I pick up some shopping and head back to our home office where we run our photography business, Abaca Photography. I do all the administration, so check everything is in order for a wedding at the weekend or reply to email inquiries.
While being a part of the Mayo Mountain Rescue team means call-outs can come at any time, they do tend to happen more often in mid-afternoon when people are making the descent of the mountain. So that means I get a chance to bring our doggy, Milly, out for a walk before picking up the kids from school. And if it is a Thursday, Ciarán and I have a coffee or lunch date in town, more often than not in Christy’s Harvest. We lead such busy lives it’s a chance to catch-up.
I’m from Castleblaney in Co Monaghan and Ciarán is from Clane in Co Kildare. We had absolutely no connection with Mayo but were living in Navan and commuting into Dublin and experiencing that soulless suburban living when I felt we needed a fresh start, it was after my Mam died in 2006. So we sold the house, looked up Daft.ie – it could have been anywhere, Cork or Donegal – and we happened to find a place to rent in Lahardane.
So we drove over and there was Nephin right behind the house – we were smitten, it was so beautiful and captivating. We went into Leonard’s pub then and they made us sandwiches and that was it. We were moving lock, stock and barrel and as it happened it was another new beginning: I was pregnant with Robin.
We opened a studio in Crossmolina but it turned out that Ciarán was driving to Westport, or Mulranny, for weddings all the time, so we decided to move here seven years ago.
I joined the army when I left school in 1994. It used to be that women were in a special platoon and trained together as medics, drivers or in administration but the year I joined was the first time that women trained alongside men in the infantry. My first posting was to the border area doing patrols, checkpoints and providing ‘aid to the civil power’. I did a tour of duty in Lebanon – we were providing humanitarian aid to villages often surrounded by landmines – it was amazing. We could be bringing in water, general and medical supplies, diesel and it was to mainly older people as the majority of younger people had moved to Beirut for work. Decisions about what was allocated to each household were made by the Mukhtar (the chosen one): the village elder.
A couple of years after I left the army, I met Ciarán at a Relish gig in Whelans (Dublin). We’re both mad into music.
Being an outdoors enthusiast, I had seen the Mayo Mountain Rescue team in action a couple of times on Croagh Patrick. But it wasn’t until I was on a hiking holiday in Scotland in 2015 and saw a helicopter rescue and I thought: “I could do this.” I sat on the idea for few weeks though and next thing I saw an ad in The Mayo News for volunteers.
Being a mountain rescue volunteer involves a big commitment and really is a family decision. The call might come just after we decided to go to the cinema or on our way to the skatepark, and have to throw on the jacket and be gone for three to four hours. I am very lucky that Ciarán works from home a lot and that I have very reliable babysitters when he is not around. And, he is a great chef, so I always come home to lovely meals. I had the opportunity to go into Robin’s school last year with a colleague and we told then all about mountain rescue.
So now when he boasts that his mammy was ‘swinging out of a helicopter at the weekend’, the other kids know what he is talking about!
Sometimes the team can be just back down at Taobh na Cruaiche, where our base is situated at the back of the mountain, and we get a call to go back up. That is fine if it is a sunny day but when it is wet and misty, we can be going back up in wet gear. While commitment is essential, you need to have a certain level of fitness, both mental and physical obviously but also be flexible about your availability. It is weird, but generally call-outs happen around the same time – usually when climbers are making the descent on the cone. There is a definite procedure we follow. I’m one of the four call-out officers and so the whole group – there are 32 of us – will get a Whatsapp and a text message and, if necessary, a follow-up call. We are on call 24-seven.
The message would say: “Call-out to the back of the Reek, anybody available as first-responders contact the IC (In Command)” .
The next step is for three first responders to go up to the casualty and assess the situation. They stay with the casualty while the rest of the team gathers at the base and gets the rescue equipment ready. Obviously, if it is a very serious injury, like a heart attack or a head injury, we call the Air Corps for a helicopter evacuation, if conditions are suitable. Otherwise the first responders will update us if extra equipment is needed such as oxygen or entonox (painkillers). You really need a minimum of ten people for a stretcher party: six to carry it and the four people to anchor it with ropes as you make the steep ascent. The sense of camaraderie is just unbelievable. But you know after every rescue, you need a quiet time – just to get the adrenaline back down – before heading home and the barrage of questions from the kids who are often waiting in their pyjamas.
In conversation with Áine Ryan
If money was no object what would you do?
I’m happy out. I’d buy a camper van and travel more.
Tell us something about yourself we don’t know?
I sang solo for former President Mary McAleese when I was in the army and she visited peace-keeping troops in the Lebanon. I sang a Sinéad O’Connor song, ‘Black Boys on Mopeds’.
Favourite place in the world?
Hanging out in our caravan with Ciarán and the kids at our favourite beach in Connemara.
What makes you angry?
I can’t bear anybody being mistreated, no matter what the situation.
What food is always in your fridge?
Milk, yogurt and cheese.
What really scares you?
Fairground rides, ticks and high-heels.
Favourite TV programme?
Black Mirror, it’s a series of short movies on Netflix.
Most famous person you met?
Most prized possession?
My blue beret and peace-keeping medals from Lebanon.
Best advice you ever got?
“Plant your own garden, decorate your own soul, instead of waiting on someone to bring you flowers.”
Three words that describe you?
Honest, reliable, a thinker.