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The coastal village that showed a huge capacity for kindness after tragedy

January 14th, 2017 11:55 AM

By Southern Star Team

Egyptian friends and relatives of fisherman Wael Mohamad pictured in prayer behind the hearse that carried his remains away from the pier in 2012. (Photo: Patrick Hogan/Provision)

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PEOPLE will always remember the day that the lives of five fishermen were lost, and that one man – Abdul Mohamad – was saved.

They will remember, too, that the people of Union Hall demonstrated an unparalleled capacity for kindness and fortitude during the 26-day search that followed the sinking of the Tit Bonhomme.

The loss of the skipper, Michael Hayes, and four of his crew, (Kevin Kershaw, Saied Aly Eldin, Wael Mohamad and Shaban Attia), when the boat sank after striking rocks around Adam Island in Glandore Harbour – shortly before 6am on Sunday, January 15th 2012 – was the greatest tragedy to hit Union Hall for more than 100 years.

The impact of such a large loss of life, so close to the shore, will never be forgotten, but on Sunday, January 15th 2017 – five years after the tragedy – people will have the opportunity to quietly gather to remember the departed; to honour the spirit that held the community as ‘one family’ during the search; and to give thanks for Union Hall’s burgeoning lifeboat service.

Michael Hayes and his crew will be remembered at 10am mass at St Bridget’s Church in Union Hall, while the local RNLI volunteers will take to the sea at noon to lay a floral tribute.

The departed continue to be remembered at the specially constructed memorial garden in Union Hall, which was opened on Sunday, July 22nd 2012. 

They were remembered, too, when the people of Union Hall were presented with a 2012 People of the Year award, in honour of the community’s openhearted and immediate response to the events that unfolded on the morning of January 15th.

Many words have been printed, and many words have been spoken about the tragedy, but it was a tribute paid by the President Michael D Higgins at a special commemoration ceremony on the pier in Union Hall on Sunday, April 22nd 2012 that went to the heart of the matter.

Firstly, he acknowledged that everyone in the community was directly involved and that they each worked to their strengths.

Then, he identified the fact that people all over the country – those who were following the daily reports about the search – were, in their own way, reaching out too.

‘What was impressive to those of us who were looking at it from a distance was what was happening at the edge of the pier,’ said the President.

‘It involved every element of the community: there were people who went out to sea, people who went out diving, there was the State services, the voluntary services, people who prepared food, people who served it, and people who had experienced a loss at sea offering comfort and support.

‘It was all very impressive and it sprung into action very quickly, which, I think, showed you that there were great roots of co-operation and community solidarity here already. But there were new elements too: there was the great sensitive way people respected the Egyptian people.

‘It was sensitive as well to keep going until the end: it was a great achievement to have brought everybody home because that enables the beginning of the process of grieving and closure.

‘We saw people giving everything they had ... they showed us something that people could do together. It showed the power of the collective.’

Taxi driver Jean Hegarty from Skibbereen, who drove the Egyptian crew to Union Hall on the Thursday before the tragedy, was so moved by the events that she
set up a bank account in AIB in Skibbereen to try and raise funds for the families of the men. 

Jean told The Southern Star this week that she has been in contact with the sole survivor, Abdul Mohamad, recently, and he confirmed that he would leave Egypt and return to West Cork for a visit in January.

At the time of the tragedy, a local priest explained that a fishing community is not something that is of ‘today.’ It is not, per se, ‘now.’ Fr Michael Curran said: ‘A fishing community is generations in the making.’ 

Coastal communities understand that the sea is a powerful friend and sometimes an enemy. 

It is an uneasy relationship that has been understood for generations.

In the sea off Union Hall, five people went missing, but five people were recovered, and that is the best kind of closure a coastal community could hope for, because no one was left standing – left waiting – on the pier.

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