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'Mum had got her lifesaving badges just two months before the tragedy... it hurt her to think that she couldn't save her own dad'

The son of a Co Fermanagh woman who was among 15 people saved from a maritime disaster tells Lorna Siggins how he owes his life to his mother's rescuers and why they deserve their belated bravery award

Modest men: (from left) Michael, Jim and James Gallagher at home in Burtonport, Co Donegal, with a photo of their boat, Irine
Modest men: (from left) Michael, Jim and James Gallagher at home in Burtonport, Co Donegal, with a photo of their boat, Irine

By Lorna Siggins

Jean Mavitty remembered a boathook, but had no memory of who was holding it when she was pulled out of the water. She was beside herself - not just with the shock of being thrown into the Atlantic, but with the knowledge that her father had disappeared. She had been wearing his coat, with his spectacles in one pocket. She had to be restrained from jumping back in to try and find him.

"She was distraught, just 15 years old, and we had to work the hardest to hold her on the deck," fishermen James and Michael Gallagher remember. At that stage, they were just young men themselves and in the thick of rescuing 15 people from the sea.

"None of them were wearing life jackets, so all we could see were heads and then hands," says James, now 84 years old and living in Burtonport, Co Donegal.

Next Friday, he and his 80-year-old younger brother, Michael, are due to travel to Farmleigh House in Dublin to receive a national bravery award - the first state recognition of an almost forgotten rescue over 63 years ago.

"It's as clear in my mind as if it happened yesterday," says James, describing how he and his brother had set out in their father's half-decker, Irine, from Portnoo, that morning, August 22, 1956.

This was the year of the Suez Crisis, the first Eurovision Song Contest and the release of Elvis Presley's first hit, Heartbreak Hotel.

The young Gallaghers were checking on lobster pots and noticed a few vessels around them, including a punt which had put out from the pier and a yacht fishing for pollack nearby.

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A recent shipwreck had become a bit of a tourist attraction. A Belfast-bound coaster named Greenhaven had run on up on rocks on Roan Inish island after its engines failed in March of that same year.

The coaster's crew had survived a night with biscuits, gin and whiskey until two British naval helicopters arrived from Londonderry to winch them off in what was the first recorded air-sea helicopter rescue mission in Irish waters.

The punt was approaching the shipwreck and had children on board, one of whom threw a jellyfish at the Gallaghers' boat.

As the wind picked up, the punt took wash over the bow and its outboard engine was swamped. Within seconds, all on board were now in the water.

"Our uncle and cousins were close by, we all got on to one boat and we fired ropes and used boathooks to fish them out," James Gallagher says.

Michael remembers reaching out for the hand of a teenage girl and thinking afterwards that "this is what a death grip feels like".

There was no VHF radio on board any of the vessels, no such thing as a mobile phone. The yacht steamed over to help and two young boys swam towards its stern. The engine was still in gear and one of the boys got caught by the propeller. Now without power, the yacht was blown towards the shore. The Gallagher brothers, who had by then a dozen on deck, managed to get a line on board the yacht. "The only option was to secure the body of the wee boy," they recall.

Some 15 were rescued in all - 12 from the punt and three from the yacht which they towed ashore. Two adults and one child drowned: George Warren (55), a solicitor from Enniskillen; Desmond Mavitty (49), Jean's dad, a shoe salesman based in Dublin, and Christopher Chambers (7), from Belfast.

As the Gallaghers' vessel berthed in Portnoo, several local doctors were on the pier. By the time they got home to Rutland Island off Burtonport, where they lived, it was close to dawn and their mother was beside herself. She had heard a news report on the radio about an incident at Roan Inish.

The inquest was held the same night as the incident and neither of the two Gallaghers were present. There was one brief mention of the fishermen's role in a newspaper report.

Jean Mavitty was taken home to her aunt's house, given a nip of whiskey and a hot bath. The body of her father, George, was located by another fisherman three weeks later.

Jean Mavitty would talk a bit about the rescue over the years to her two children, Robert and Jennifer Morrell, when she was raising them in Co Fermanagh.

"She remembered being taken out with a boathook and she told us she had got her lifesaving badges just two months before in June and so it hurt her to think that she couldn't save her own dad," Robert Morrell says.

She made sure to teach her children to swim and they learned to do so off Portnoo. However, she never knew who to thank for her own rescue and died in January 2017 at the age of 75.

Last year, fisherman Jim Gallagher, son of James and nephew of Michael, contacted this writer about that rescue and about several others which the two men had been involved in off the Donegal coast over the years.

Robert Morrell and his sister Jennifer were among those who read the subsequent report. A few weeks ago, the Morrells travelled to Burtonport to meet the fishermen, now long retired.

The Gallagher brothers have also recently heard from relatives of some of the other Roan Inish survivors and they then learned they had been nominated for state bravery awards, conferred on people from all walks of life and all sections of society who have "carried out a deed of bravery with an effort to save human life involving personal risk".

"First thing we said to the Gallaghers when we met them was, 'Thanks for giving us life'," Robert says. "Without those two men, my mother would not have made it - and we would not be here."

"I guess it is a bit of recognition after all these years," James Gallagher says. "To be honest, we weren't expecting anything.

"We were at sea on many an occasion when people needed help. It was what you did."

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