Fr Kevin Hegarty
Here in the parish of Kilmore on the Erris Peninsula we are surrounded by water. The sea is a source of sustenance for mind and body. It has also been the scene of sorrow. We know its majesty and its terror. Our four lighthouses testify to the treachery that lies under water.
The sea has brought us desolation and death. The year of 2017 was a year of significant anniversaries of heartbreaking events. In September, we remembered the centenary of the SS Tuskar, a British merchant ship traveling from Glasgow to Limerick, which was struck by a German submarine off Eagle Island, with a loss of ten men. Among them was a 15-year-old cabin boy.
Just over 90 years ago, the calm of an October evening turned suddenly into starry turbulence. When the wind subsided, ten young fishermen from the Inishkea islands had drowned. It broke the spirit of the island community.
The despairing words of Maurya in John Millington Synge’s play ‘Riders to the Sea’, after all her sons have been drowned, have echoed in Kilmore-Erris down through the years:
“They’re all gone now and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me.”
So the archive of the Erris Peninsula has sometimes been drenched in tears. Last March 14 another tragic chapter was added to the narrative. We woke to the news that Rescue Helicopter 116, on a mission of mercy, had crashed into Blackrock Island and that its occupants had perished.
The deaths of Captain Dara Fitzpatrick, Captain Mark Duffy and winchmen Paul Ormsby and Ciarán Smith sent an icy tremour of fear through our community. Accustomed to the bravery and skills of the emergency services in the most trying of circumstances, we had assumed they were immune to tragedy. At this memorial service to mark the first anniversary of their deaths, let us remember that their vocation was to service and to save. They died in the course of their duty.
We also gather to be in solidarity with the broken-hearted families of Dara, Mark, Paul and Ciarán. For all of you the pain has been immense. For the families of Paul and Ciarán there has been the added burden that their bodies have not been recovered. On the torturous journey of bereavement, it is healing to have a grave to remember, reflect and pray.
During the past year I have often thought about you. I know I am not alone in this. I have often wondered how it was for you when the major official search was over and media interest had dwindled and you had to confront your desolation in the privacy of your own homes. In the last year you have had the metaphorical empty chair at Christmas and other family gatherings.
I know that even if I ransacked the dictionaries of the world I would not find words to meet the depth of your loss. Grief is the price we pay for love and it is a dear price. The process of grief, unlike food, cannot be microwaved. May I gently suggest to you that in your memories of your loved ones, in recalling the intimacies you shared, you may begin to find consolation. The poet Billy Collins, in “The Dead” has written wonderfully of how close they remain to us:
“The dead are always looking down on us, they say,
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.”
In adversity we discover the our strengths. Fears have been expressed that the rise of individualism in Ireland has undermined our sense of community. The Rescue 116 tragedy revealed that the heart of community still beats strong. The tragedy struck chords of compassion throughout the country. The emergency services distinguished themselves. Fishermen from all over Ireland combed the seas. Countless people walked the shores. Children sent cards and cup cakes. At St Brendan’s Hall a rota of community volunteers provided hot food around the clock. Food appeared in the hall with the profusion of a modern miracle of loaves and fishes.
In conclusion may I say to the families of Dara, Mark, Paul and Ciarán, that we know that Blackrock and Blacksod will always be engraved on your hearts. We would like you to know that you will always be engraved on our hearts.
This is the edited text of the reflection delivered by Fr Kevin Hegarty at the Memorial Service in St Brendan’s Church, Tirrane on March 14.