Ballybunion tragedy 'a terrible shock to everybody'

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has spoken of his shock and sadness at the tragedy which unfolded in Ballybunion
Ballybunion tragedy 'a terrible shock to everybody'

Dessie Byrne and Muriel Eriksson, who died following a tragic accident in Ballybunion

Autopsies will take place today on a brother and sister who drowned off Ballybunion beach yesterday evening in front of the man’s teenage son.

The victims — who have been named locally as Dessie Byrne, 50s, and Muriel Eriksson, early 60s, — were holidaying in the area from Roscommon.

Mr Byrne’s sister is believed to have been home from Malmo, Sweden, where she lived and worked.

His son is understood to have been on the beach at the time of the tragedy and witnessed what happened.

Mr Byrne, who is originally from Athlone, lived in the village of Lecarrow with his wife and their other children.

His wife was brought to the scene of the tragedy by a garda last night and reunited with their young son, who is understood to be traumatised by what he witnessed.

Gardaí, who took witness statements from people in the area at the time, are treating the matter as a tragic accident and a file will be prepared for the coroner.

The Taoiseach has spoken of his shock and sadness at the tragedy which unfolded in Ballybunion, paying his deepest sympathy to the family and particularly family members who were on the beach and witnessed the incident.

Micheál Martin also paid tribute to the first responders and the emergency services who did “everything they could as quickly as they could”.

Speaking in Tarbert, Co Kerry, Mr Martin added: "It reminds us all how treacherous the seas and oceans can be."

Laurence Fallon, a local councillor from Roscommon, described Mr Byrne as “an absolute gentleman”.

He said he moved to the village from Baylough, near Athlone, about 20 years ago and had been very active in the local community.

He was also a keen cyclist, and a member of the local cycling club, Lecarrow Lasers.

RNLI crew and Rescue 115 at the scene.
RNLI crew and Rescue 115 at the scene.

Mr Fallon said: “Everyone is in shock. What has happened is a terrible shock to everybody.

“He was a great family man and the one word that everybody has been using about him is the word ‘gentleman’.

“He was an absolute gentleman. He was very involved in the local community.” 

Long-term friend Aengus O’Rourke, who is the chairman of Westmeath County Council, said: “I know it’s a cliche but we are all in shock here in Athlone about this.

“I just had to say to some people after we heard: did you hear about Dessie?

“I didn't have to say who Dessie was, everyone would go ‘No, Dessie Byrne? What’s happened to Dessie’.

Des was a great guy to have in your company. He was a real, real fun guy. To be honest, none of us who know him believe he's gone because you can't.

“I would never have considered Des to be someone who wouldn't be there.

“If it were a social occasion or an event of some type, some sporting event of some kind or another - he’d always be there.

“He was a hard worker, and a grafter.

“He was a carpenter by trade and would have been a renowned carpenter. He was a very, very clean, workman and a very sought-after carpet fitter. If you want something done to perfection, then he would be the man for the job.”

Cahal Donnelly, of St John’s Athletic FC, said: “Everybody is numb.

“Dessie was well liked and it is such a shock to hear that he has died. Our thoughts and prayers are with Dessie’s family at this time.” 

Their bodies were recovered from the water following a major air-sea rescue operation off Men’s Strand in Ballybunion as gardaí and members of the emergency services tried to comfort the grief-stricken boy and trace relatives to care for him.

Lifeguards on duty on the beach spotted a man in difficulty in the water at about 6pm.

They raised the alarm and rushed into the water to help him as officers at the Irish Coast Guard’s marine rescue coordination centre on Valentia Island  coordinated a major search and rescue operation.

They tasked several assets, including the Ballybunion unit of the Irish Coast Guard, the Ballybunion community inshore rescue boat, and the RNLI lifeboat near Kilrush, Co Clare, to the scene.

Units of the National Ambulance Service, the Coast Guard’s Shannon-based Rescue 115 helicopter and the north Cork-based air ambulance, Helimed 92, were also tasked as gardaí rushed to the scene.

Ballybunion beach:Picture: Domnick Walsh
Ballybunion beach:Picture: Domnick Walsh

It is understood that as lifeguards took the man in critical condition from the water, his son told them his aunt was also in difficulty in the water.

The lifeguards brought the man ashore where medical attention was rendered, including CPR, as the search continued for the woman.

However, the man was pronounced dead on the beach by paramedics.

The woman was recovered in critical condition from the water a short time later by the crew of the inshore rescue boat, very close to where she had last been seen, and she was also taken ashore for medical attention. However, she was also pronounced dead at the scene.

The bodies of both deceased were then removed from the scene by ambulance to the mortuary at University Hospital Kerry in Tralee, where post mortem examinations are expected to take place.

Weather conditions in the area at the time were described as safe for swimming but reasonably rough, with foamy, “choppy” waves breaking on the beach.

Incident has 'cast a gloom'

TJ McCarron, the officer in charge of Ballybunion Coast Guard Unit, said people have been left shocked and numbed by the double drowning tragedy.

“It has cast a gloom over the entire place. It was very hard on the public who saw this unfolding, on all those involved in the rescue services. It is a very hard thing to cope with. Our thoughts go out to the young boy who saw this unfold, and to the families of the victims,” he said.

Mr McCarron praised the quick response from all the rescue agencies and he paid a special tribute to the lifeguards who were on duty and who responded so bravely and so quickly to retrieve the man from the water in challenging conditions.

They were said to have been left distraught by the double drowning tragedy.

Speaking on Radio Kerry this morning, he said: “There was great inter-agency cooperation.

“They all came on to do what they could for a successful outcome but unfortunately, this is a setback.

A Garda car escorted a hearse which departed from the Coastguard station in Ballybunion.
A Garda car escorted a hearse which departed from the Coastguard station in Ballybunion.

“It’s a very safe beach but unfortunately these things happen.

“There is always an inherent risk with any water-based activities.

Local councillor Robert Beasely, who was on his walk around the cliff top overlooking the Blue Flag Ladies’ Beach at Ballybunion at the time the recovery operation was under way, said people have been shocked and numbed by the tragedy.

“Our sympathies go out to the family involved. We are so thankful to the rescue services and everyone,” he said.

Listowel gardaí’s Inspector Tim O’Keefe praised the emergency services for their rescue efforts, but told Radio Kerry “unfortunately it wasn’t enough".

“We would appeal for anybody who was on the beach to contact us,” he said. “This incident highlights the dangers from the water.

“People need to be mindful, stay as close to the shore as you can and let people know where you are going.

“You can do the best you can but unfortunately the water is a powerful thing.” 

The last drowning tragedy in Ballybunion occurred in 1992 when a father and son from Co Clare drowned.

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