Sue Leonard meets Tosh Lavery, who was one of the first recruits to the Garda Sub-Aqua team and whose eventful life and times he has recorded in a new memoir.
It was January, 1979, when Ireland heard the news that the Betelgeuse had exploded off Whiddy Island, discharging 114,000 tonnes of oil into the sea off Bantry Bay. The explosion blew men standing on the jetty into the flaming sea, with the loss of 51 lives.
Whilst a Dutch salvage team worked on the vessel, the Garda Sub-Aqua unit were tasked with searching for bodies. And one of that team, (which was formed in 1974), was young Tosh Lavery.
“We walked over the mountain of Whiddy Island, and we had this small inflatable boat,” says Tosh, who has written a memoir of his time with the unit.
“We had a bit of rope; we had do-it-yourself wetsuits, and masks barely fit for the local swimming pool, and we were to dive down, through the oil. We were like something out of Father Ted. The Dutch, with all their superior equipment, thought we were either mad or stupid.”
The first day, there was a test dive, and the conditions could not have been worse. So it was with some trepidation that the men began to search in earnest. “You’re told 51 people are down there, and you’re swimming around, covered in oil.
“When you start going down it’s green, then it’s black. There was fear. You can’t see anything. I hit the bottom and felt something. I thought, ‘this isn’t a concrete block; it isn’t a life jacket. I realised it was a body, and I was so happy.
“I was elated to have found the first body, but coming up, holding him under my arm, I was looking at a skull with teeth. There was one arm but no legs. I was looking at a torso.”
Over the next few weeks, Tosh and the team continued working, still with the worst ever equipment, and they found a further three bodies. “I was involved in three of those four recoveries,” says Tosh. “That was something to be proud of.”
He smiles, then, looking at me with the brightest blue eyes, he winks. He’s retired now, but the 61 year old is sprightly, and is heavily involved in helping relatives of the missing.
He loves to talk – and, recalling his days with the force in his surprisingly deep, gravelly voice, he tends to skip from subject to subject. It’s clear at once, that Tosh is one of life’s enthusiasts.
Those bodies in Whiddy Island weren’t the first Tosh had recovered; there had been fishing disasters, and murder cases; there was a woman washed into the sea from Tory Island; and the suicide of a pregnant woman who’d thrown herself into a blowhole in County Mayo — but Whiddy Island was undoubtedly the most draining.
Tosh, though, being young and keen, threw himself into every task with little thought of the danger. He had always been brave. As a child he thought nothing of diving into the harbour, and he was delighted when he was accepted into the guards.
His timing was brilliant. In 1972, with the troubles in the North at their height, the force needed recruits to man the border area. The age profile changed, but more importantly for Tosh, the height restriction was lowered to 5ft 8 inches, (he is 5ft 81/2.)
Enjoying Templemore, where he discovered drink with the utmost enthusiasm, he was posted to Ballyconnell, County Cavan, throwing himself into life there with little heed of the danger. “Sure we didn’t even know where we were. We arrived by bus, having been on the beer the night before. We’d never been away from home and we were put out there. But sure, we didn’t know of the danger.
“I was standing on a bridge one night for half an hour, and when I walked away the bridge blew up The army had young people, the RUC had too, and I saw army guys of my age crossing the border. We were eejts. Gobshites. And the provos living there knew that.”
For Tosh, living with a landlady who treated him like a son, it was a happy time.
“I became friendly with everyone, going around the town drinking; there were 10 pubs in the town and the street was tiny.
“There was one little fellow who used to follow me up the street, hanging on to my coat. And when I was on nights, and was in bed, he fell into the river and was drowned. I had life saving done. I used to think, if I’d been there I could have saved him.” He sighs, and shakes his head. “I never forgot that lad,” he says.
Tosh has been back to Ballyconnell for eight different jobs since that time, and still holds the town in great affection.
And likewise, Donegal, home to many fishing disasters in Tosh’s time, is a place he holds in his heart.
“My first was the Evelyn Marie; then there was the Carraig Una, where five men died. That was a real tragedy. It was a little port and all the families knew each other. All those children grew up without fathers.
“I recovered the body of Ted Carberry, but we never found the other four. Three years ago, I was cycling in Ballymun for charity; there were fifty of us, and I met this garda from Killibegs. I said I was in the garda diving unit there, and he said his father had died in a trawler disaster. He said it was Ted Carberry. I said, ‘I found your father’. It was really emotional. “His mother had told him that a garda found his father, and that made him want to join the gardaí. We put our arms around each other. I heard later he was a great garda in Ballymun.”
Meanwhile Tosh’s drinking got pretty much out of control. He’d binge drink for a few days. Often diving with a horrendous hangover; he perfected the art of vomiting underwater.
He crashed the car frequently; his wife attended her own wedding with a broken collarbone and some smashed fingers. Left in charge of his first son, he abandoned him in the middle of a pub crawl. But in 1988, when he was 35, a drinking buddy died at 52.
“I went on a bender for six days, and when I went home, my wife, Susan, had packed her bags and gone. I got help; went to AA; I went through the DT’s and everything, but I’ve never had another drink from that day.”
There were tough times for the unit, and conditions were often appalling. There were Atlantic storms to contend within icy waters, dangerous currents and filthy canals, but Tosh never baulked. Others, though, weren’t as keen — and when the call came, it could be difficult rounding up a team.
“I was trying to bring on a new team or a new diver all the time, but I was forgetting about myself and my home. There was no one to guide you or to tell you to slow down.
“I’d be going to a job with three men when I needed six.” Inevitably, this impacted on his family life. “I didn’t think of them,” he says. “And suddenly my sons were twenty.”
When Lord Mountbatten was assassinated by the IRA in Mullaghmore in County Sligo, along with others, including Lady Brabourne and young Nicholas Knatchbull, Tosh dived to recover the evidence.
“We brought up every nut, bolt and screw. I found a camera. I handed it over and the prints were developed. In later years, when Nicholas’s surviving twin brother, Timothy wrote a book, I gave him a bit of the boat, and talked to the woman writing the book with him.”
Tosh now works unstintingly helping those locating missing people. He chats to the relatives of the missing, believing that they are the ones needing support.
“The person who is missing is okay. Either they’re dead or they know they’re alive. The relatives always wonder. There’s never closure. They go to bed thinking about the person; they wake thinking about them. If a body is found, they think, ‘was he tortured.”
The Garda Sub-Aqua unit has improved no end since its inception. And that’s partly due to some training, and the health and safety measures Tosh introduced. But the attributes of a good recruit remain the same. “Nothing can train you for search and recovery. You can either dive or not, but it’s your mental strength that matters. It’s how you deal with the corpses; with the elation when you bring the body in, and in giving the body back to the family. That’s the skill.”
* Tosh by Tosh Lavery is published by Hachette Ireland at €19.90 Kindle: €13.22.
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