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‘Truly a meitheal effort’

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SAFE AND SOUND The Irish Coast Guard helicopter takes off after the successful rescue of a man from a sea cave at Downpatrick Head. Pic: Conor McKeown

‘We’re very proud’ – Agatha Hurst, Ballyglass RNLI, after treacherous sea-cave rescue

Michael Gallagher

Mayo mettle – and meitheal – were to the fore of the weekend’s dramatic rescue of a man trapped on a ledge in a sea cave near Ballycastle for almost 22 hours.
The 40 year old had been washed into the cave on Saturday evening and trapped there by rising swells. After a massive rescue operation, the protracted episode had a happy ending on Sunday evening when he was taken safely from the cave and flown by helicopter to Sligo University Hospital.
“No one group could have done it on their own.
“This was truly a meitheal effort where everyone worked together for the one goal. It was really difficult and required great skill and co-operation and we’re very proud of all involved,” Agatha Hurst of the Ballyglass RNLI told The Mayo News.

‘Huge swell’
The major rescue operation began on Saturday evening when the man and a woman, both experienced cavers, were trekking along a ledge at the butt of the cliffs near Downpatrick Head. They were caught by a surge of water and knocked off their feet. A group of kayakers who were in the area brought the woman to safety – but the man was swept into a cave where he managed to reach a ledge above water level at the back of the opening.
At that stage the alarm had been raised and rescuers were on their way.
“We left Ballyglass at a quarter to six and were on the scene before seven,” Francie Gibbons, coxswain of the Ballyglass RNLI lifeboat and the ‘Bryan and Gordon’, told The Mayo News, before describing the scene that awaited them.
“There was a huge swell of four or five metres in height. If the trapped man hadn’t been trained in survival he might have stayed on a lower ledge and wouldn’t have survived. It’s a lethal spot. When experienced Garda divers reached the scene on Sunday, their eyes got large when they saw where he was.”
More than 80 people were involved in the rescue, which included groups from the Gardaí, the Coast Guard, Civil Defence and Irish Cave Rescue, while the local community weighed in with food, refreshments and support from their base in Ballycastle Hall.

Jagged rocks
“The sea conditions were very tricky and there wasn’t a lot of space for us to operate in. We had to keep the boat at the mouth of the cave and communicate with him every 30 minutes through the night,” Coxswain Gibbons explained.
“It wasn’t an easy task, and the six of us on the boat had to be on our toes all the time. There are jagged rocks in the area and the swell was big. We had to shine a light on him every 30 minutes, speak with him and make sure he was feeling okay. We would ask him to move his hand if he was okay and he would respond positively every time.
“We tried to keep him in good spirits, telling him that there was help on the way in the morning, but it wasn’t easy for him.”
The Cave Rescue team began work when dawn broke and, with the guidance of Gibbons and the RNLI crew, they got into position for the very awkward task.
“We guided them down towards the cave because it was hard to see the opening properly from the land at that stage. They did Trojan work. Every agency involved did brilliant work but the Cave Rescue people were something special. They were hanging off hooks for hours working their way into the cave and onto the ledge and they eventually got to him,” Gibbons explained.

Deep inside
The rescue crew were hampered by the sheer danger of the cliff face and its very loose rock. Throughout the morning, they carefully descended to the mouth of the cave and then made their way to the casualty on the ledge deep inside the cave, a full 50 metres back from the opening.
Their operation went on until 3pm when the casualty was moved out on ropes that had been drilled into the side of the cave wall by the rescue team.
Once out of the cave, the man was strong enough to walk around the cliff face to get to the helicopter, and he was then flown to hospital in Sligo.
The rescue services were then stood down and the RNLI boat headed for base at Ballyglass, where some of their colleagues awaited.
“We were just glad to have played our part,” Francie Gibbons explained. “We were always used to meitheals around here and it was like that again over the weekend.”