92 Reasons to Smile

The gentleman on my arm nearly got whiplash as he swung around to watch the Coast Guard helicopter thunder past our heads. You can feel the heavy, powerful thud of the Sikorsky deep in your chest, understanding the power but only imagining the comfort that sound must bring to countless men and women who have called on its services down through the years.

We’re in Cootehill, County Cavan, queuing for entry to a Spiegeltent marquee for an evening’s entertainment in honour and celebration of the fallen Rescue 116 Coast Guard crew who lost their lives when their chopper flew into the night but never returned, on March 14th 2017.

This RNLI memorial underlines the close ties between our rescue services, described on the night as a marriage of heroes. We often say there are no heroes any more. We are wrong, they are here all around us. But sometimes we don’t appreciate our heroes; tonight we do.

There are all sorts of heroes. The man on my arm who narrowly avoided whiplash grinning up at the Sikorsky is a hero. To me he is one of the greatest heroes of all. My #Dad (92) files into the tent beside me in the rain at 8pm at night. In a lightweight hand-stitched Louis Copeland suit, he’s the epitome of elegance, but badly equipped for the night ahead. I’m kicking myself that I didn’t notice he’d left his overcoat behind and I’m wondering how long we should stay before I coax him away back to the warmth.

The massive 400 seat Spiegeltent is sheltered, dry, and fitted with an impressive array of speakers and lights; hints of a seriously good show ahead. But eyeing the amphitheatre of wooden benches stretching high into the big top, I suddenly wonder what the heck I’m doing bringing my 92 year old father here.

And yet he’s a Cavan man, and would have been a local here in Cootehill in the forties.  With Captain Dara’s father being a fellow Cootehill native, it seems right that dad should join in the community’s shared wish to console and honour the crew’s families.

Sitting on a red cushioned pew, we settle down and I determine to keep an eye on him and drag him out, at the first sign of cold or fatigue.

TWO HOURS LATER the band takes a break, and I finally persuade him to leave. We’ve had a loan of a bomber jacket from a very kind man behind us, and I’ve surreptitiously had my arm around his back to support him a bit, but seriously, he insists he’s fine. In spite of age and arthritis he’s adamant that he’s not stiff, not sore, and thoroughly enjoyed the night.

The sold out show was certainly inspiring.  RTE Broadcaster Ray D’Acy was funny and entertaining as MC, artfully and empathetically blending joy and hope with respect and dignity. The Clew Bay Pipe Band were stunning, as were the other acts. But the pipers really raised the roof and a live-streamed, big-screen video link-up with a lone piper playing from the Lighthouse Tower at Blacksod in Mayo where Rescue 116 went down, brought  bitter sweet joyful tears to the eye.

It was a night of memories.

Taking dad’s arm, we manoeuvre across wet, muddy grass to the car and again, I wonder if I was wrong to bring him here. It was 11pm and I whisked him into the town for last orders, thinking a shot of whiskey wouldn’t hurt.

While shouting small talk to friendly locals in the bar, with his hearing aids vibrating to the sound of a two piece rock ensemble, dad inquired where we’d get anything to eat. Sitting back in the car, with a slightly sozzled father wolfing down chicken nuggets and a massive bag of chips from the local takeaway…  I laugh out loud, realising that right or wrong, my hero and I have just enjoyed a most unlikely night out on the town, worthy of any teenager. It was a precious, precious night.

That’s what memories are made of.

The Rescue 116 Memorial Concert paid tribute to the bravery of the Irish Coast Guard crew, Capt Dara Fitzpatrick, Capt Mark Duffy and winch men Ciarán Smith and Paul Ormsby, who died when their aircraft crashed off the County Mayo coast.

Musicians Triona Marshall and Martin Tourish, Declan O’Rourke, Matt Molloy, Janice Igoe, the Roscommon Solstice Choir and the Clew Bay pipe band, were among the artists who performed for free at the sell-out concert in aid of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI).

In a letter read to the audience, Britain’s Prince William wrote “The crew of 116 lived their lives to the full, not just for themselves but for all of us. They will never be forgotten.” President Michael D Higgins wrote “citizens like Dara, Mark, Ciarán and Paul greatly enrich our world, and make a profound contribution to the creation of strong and compassionate communities”.

They will never be forgotten​.


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