Third Age: On the high seas of life

Life line: Lifeboat volunteer Eugene Keogh has been saving lives since 1977.

Eugene Kehoe has manned lifeboats for 36 years. It all began with tragedy, says Rachel Borrill.

EUGENE KEOGH will never forget his first shift as a lifeboat volunteer at Kilmore Quay station, Co Wexford. It was Christmas Eve, 1977, and he was only 18.

The volunteers were called following reports of red flares, off Bannon Bay, Duncormick. Crew mate, Finton Sinnott, was only 20.

“That night, the sea was bad, it was freak conditions. The boat turned over twice and we lost a man. Finton was swept overboard. We didn’t have time to be frightened, it just happened so quickly. But you do think about it later, it was scary stuff,” says Keogh.

Now aged 54, Keogh, a father of two, says despite this tragedy, he never considered giving up being a volunteer. Working for the lifeboats is in his genes.

His grandfather, father, uncles, brothers and nephews have all been volunteers.

“As soon as I was old enough to help, I was in it. It’s a family thing,” he says. “After that night, you had to simply just get straight back on the boat. But you do respect the sea, of course.”

There are 44 Royal National Lifeboat stations across Ireland, with 56 boats in service.

Kilmore Quay operates a Tamar-class lifeboat, which is only one of two in the country and is the most technologically advanced in the Irish fleet. The 28 volunteers, many of them experienced fishermen, are on-call 24/7, carrying a pager. As coxswain, Keogh, who owns a hardware shop, has to inform his crew if he is not available.

“You do try to carry out your life as normal. But when that bleeper goes off, the adrenaline starts rushing. Everyone in the family understands, as we are all involved. We did have a shout-out on Christmas Day, it wasn’t too bad. We had a good result. But we did have a shout-out two years ago on Christmas Day, and that wasn’t a good result, unfortunately,” he says.

So far this month, Keogh and his crew have been called out twice, for two large fishing boats that were in trouble.

Fortunately, no-one was hurt.

The camaraderie among the volunteers and the local people is essential, says Keogh.

Last November, a fisherman went missing, everyone was out searching, and the lifeboat station was inundated with food and hot drinks.

“When you see that happening, it makes you feel very proud of your community. I know we have been very down here in Ireland, but that tragedy bought the very best of us out,” he says.

Following any tragedy, Keogh says the camaraderie ensures that the crew cope, physically and mentally.

“If it has been a nasty one, picking bodies up, then we would have a debriefing, we would check in-with each other, too, especially the younger volunteers, just to ensure that everyone is okay,” he says.

“When you pull a young fella out of the water, that stays with you. We have lost families, too. That is the bad side of it. But when you pull out survivors, that is the best.”

The lifeboats are always looking for volunteers. The training is very thorough. First, there is a medical to test fitness, then there is a week-long sea-survival course, followed by a year’s probation of on-board training.

“You get great satisfaction from it. Even when things do go wrong, we know it is important to find them, it is such a relief to a family.

“I lost an uncle [at sea] and always remember my mother saying it was such a big relief when his body was found,” he says.

¦ www.irishlifeboats.com


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