Looking at the still waters of Union Hall in the sheltered corner of Glandore harbour in west Cork, it is difficult to imagine the conditions that led to the sinking of the Tit Bonhomme on 15 January 2012, with the loss of five fishermen. But with tragedy comes hope, and as different communities mourned the loss of their loved ones, Union Hall brought everyone together in their days of need and showed true community spirit, providing unstinting physical and emotional support.
At 6am on 15 January 2012, the Marine Rescue Sub Centre in Valentia received a mayday call from the Tit Bonhomme, which was being forced on to the rocks on Adam’s Island in Glandore harbour. Conditions were treacherous, with severe force 6 and 7 southeasterly winds and high waves. The Shannon and Waterford coastguard helicopters and the Baltimore and Courtmacsherry lifeboats were also alerted to the situation. At 7.15am, as the village slept while the rain and wind howled outside, native priest Fr Pierce Cormac, on his way home from hospital duty, was crossing the bridge into Union Hall when he was alerted to the tragedy that was unfolding in Glandore Bay.
Fr Pierce broke the news to those who attended 10am Mass that morning. “It wasn’t only a Church concern, it was to affect the whole community. We had a very short Mass and prayed for the fishermen. There was some hope, as I knew that there was at least one survivor, Abdelbaky Mohamed, who had been rescued by the Waterford rescue helicopter and the local coastguard at eight am and taken to Cork University Hospital. I was asked by Bill Deasy, a local fisherman, to announce to the congregation that a base was being set up on the pier. Straight after Mass we went down to the pier and that is where we stayed for the next twenty-six days, either physically or just in our thoughts. You couldn’t leave it.”
With an extensive search already under way, the families of the fishermen gathered at the pier, even
though some family members had not yet received the news. As news filtered through, local people arrived to offer their support in any way they could. As the bad weather conditions continued to play havoc with rescue attempts, hope of finding the fishermen ebbed with each passing hour. Fr Pierce remembers, “The hardest hour was at three pm on that first Sunday as we knew there were only two hours of daylight left. In fact, three pm became the hour of the day for every one of those twenty-six days because it meant that another day of searching was almost over. The evenings fell in very quickly and the main focus became bringing all the searchers home safely. There were so many people there that we couldn’t have coped with another tragedy.”
As the days moved on, the community grew closer and supported one another through what would become four weeks of hope and desperation. According to Fr Pierce and Bill Deasy, “there was such a willingness, you never had to ask someone to do something, volunteers just came forward from all over the country.”
The pier became the focal point for the search and rescue efforts. A makeshift village sprung up on the pier, consisting of Portakabins for those coordinating the search, the Garda mobile response unit, the Red Cross, the Irish Coast Guard, a space for dignified identification of any bodies that were found and for meeting and supporting families, and the kitchen, which became known as “the hub”. When people came in, tired and cold, from hours at sea or on land, it was here they were met with hot food and drinks and a comforting ear, which helped to keep spirits up. Whether offering themselves as search and rescuers or providing food, drinks, equipment, vehicles, money for fuel, or even houses for people to stay in, the community of Union Hall found some way to give a
Garda Inspector Colin Collins led the team that coordinated the search and rescue operation, ‘I was
humbled by the whole experience. The support not only of the local community, but of the whole country was amazing. As the search stretched into days and weeks, more and more people came to help; farmers, self-employed, nurses coming off night-duty and teachers. One man offered the use of his aeroplane for the search, another man came from Sligo with his wake board which had a camera on it to search the water. A couple from Bandon cooked halal food specially for the Egyptian community. A local hotel sent a twenty gallon pot of Irish Stew. When hope was fading, the show of human kindness, generosity and support from all around the country and all walks of society, kept everyone going.’
The fishermen who lost their lives were skipper Michael Hayes, 53, and his crewmen, Kevin Kershaw,
21, Wael Mohamed, 35, Attaia Shaban, 26, and Saied Ali Eldin, 22. Fr Pierce and Bill Deasy said that “It did not matter that there were no local fishermen involved; all everyone thought about was that there were husbands, partners, brothers and sons out there in the harbour and they had to be brought back and given to their families. At the end of the 21st day of searching, as happened every day, those involved gathered together to pray and support each other. People were united in prayer even though they came from different religions and faiths – the mostly Muslim Egpytian community, the Church of Ireland community, the Catholic community and those of no religion came together to send their prayers and wishes out to sea. “At the funeral Mass of skipper Michael Hayes in Rinn, Co. Waterford, the Egyptian community were in the front seat because they wanted to be there, and likewise when Saied Ali Eldin, the last crewman, was found, the Union Hall people and Kathleen Hayes and her family went to Dublin to the mosque to be part of Saied's funeral service.”
With all the bodies recovered, the search was over and Union Hall no longer dominated the news headlines. Life in the coastal village slowly returned to normal, but the local community is determined that a positive effect can emerge from the tragedy. Plans are in progress for a local emergency response unit that would provide both emotional and medical support in times of need; and it is hoped that a safety device that would help to locate those missing in the water will become a reality in the near future and so prevent more heartbreak for fishing families around our coast.
To many, Union Hall is a story of tragedy, but for those present during the search operation, Union Hall represents the power of community support to help those most in need at their darkest hour.