By Jackie Keogh
MOST people would have to wait for their obituary before so many nice things would be said about them but, after 50 years of voluntary service to the Goleen Coast Guard, Michael O’Regan got to hear it all on the occasion of his retirement.
Hundreds of people – volunteers, like Michael, who travelled from as far away as Kinsale, Kilkee and Knightstown – turned up at the West Cork Hotel recently for a function honouring Michael’s ‘meritorious service.’
Gerard O’Flynn, the Coast Guard’s volunteer services and training operations manager, said that throughout his service, Michael had shown ‘outstanding leadership, professionalism and commitment,’ and that his desire to serve his community and those in difficulty along the coast had been ‘the hallmark of his career.’
On February 22nd, 1965, following a family tradition, Michael O’Regan signed on a volunteer in the Coast Life-Saving Service under John O’Sullivan, who was known as the ‘Number-1 Man’, a precursor to the Officer-in-Charge as it is known today.
Michael O’Regan became that Number-1 Man on July 4th, 1991 and served in that capacity until he stepped down as the Officer-in-Charge on August 11th, 2014. Michael did, however, continue to serve as a volunteer until he reached the very important 50th milestone on February 22nd last.
Michael’s achievements and participation in a wide range of incidents over the last 50 years is a source of great pride to his family, particularly his wife, Anne, who has always been a stalwart in supporting local Coast Guard activities, willingly taking calls, passing messages and co-ordinating much of the unit’s organisation and activities.
‘It would be wrong to pick out any particular incident as being more important than another because the work we do is of the same importance to the people involved,’ Michael told The Southern Star.
‘Even a situation – where we have been called to rescue a dog or a sheep from a mine shaft – is the most pressing and important thing in the world to the person involved at that time.
‘Of course, the Mizen Peninsula has had its share of tragedy. What community hasn’t? But to this day I believe all of West Cork is still feeling the after effects of the loss of little Clarissa McCarthy and her father, Michael.
‘It was a terrible tragedy but it brought out the best in everyone in the community – not just in Foilnamuck, or Ballydehob, but the entire Mizen Peninsula. And I believe the words of Fr O’Mahony at the funeral service in St Mary’s Church in Schull about doing the right thing, “God’s work”, offered healing.’
Michael said there was only one miniscule consolation in that terribly sad story and that was that the bodies were found fast and the mother did not have to face the heartache of a long search.
‘Tragedies like that never really go away,’ said Michael. ‘They stay in the collective memory, but people’s efforts to get involved, their willingness to respond, and the appreciation of the families is a kind of unifying force all of its own.’
At the age of 65, Michael is technically retired but to paraphrase what Gerard O’Flynn said: His desire to serve his community and those in difficulty along the coast is the hallmark of his life. So, the work goes on, and it is as a volunteer that Michael’s next ‘job’ will be to assist in organising the upcoming Cycle Against Suicide event in his area.
Today, the Goleen Coast Guard unit is a team of 22: 18 men and four women. ‘In the course of my career,’ Michael said: ‘I have seen the Coast Guard evolve and develop from a somewhat haphazardly equipped organisation to become a more professional one.
‘Every volunteer brings something to the organisation: people have different attributes and abilities, but above all they bring a grit born of experience, a determination to see a job through, and the compassion you need to do this job.’
In June 2012, the team in Goleen was effectively rewarded with a brand new station. Michael recalled the sense of pride everyone had on the day. On that occasion, he described the entire Goleen Coast Guard unit as being like a family.
He said: ‘It is a bond that is born of teamwork and trust because what some people don’t realise is that when the Coast Guard crews go out they are putting their lives on the line to help, or save, others.’
Gerard O’Flynn credits Michael O’Regan with being a driving force when it came to improving the local service. At his retirement function at the West Cork Hotel, he told Michael: ‘Your willingness to promote and improve the Coast Guard was not limited to just service the local community but was also evidenced through your association with Coast Guard Unit Advisory Group (CUAG) and the efforts being made to improve the service nationally.’
The Coast Guard is there as a frontline service alongside the Garda Siochana, the HSE’s National Ambulance Service, and the Fire Brigade. ‘Being a Coast Guard volunteer is not an easy role to fulfil,’ said Michael, ‘but it is a rewarding one because its primary aim is to preserve life. What could be more precious than that?’