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‘We must move forward, without ever weakening'

January 14th, 2019 9:24 AM

By Siobhan Cronin

Michael Kingston speaking at the Abbey Cemetery. (Photo: Tony McElhinney)

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IN a particularly poignant moment on Tuesday afternoon, a pod of dolphins swam in through Dolphin 22 – the charred remains of the Whiddy Terminal jetty, where 49 men and one woman perished on January 8th 1979 – as the families visited the scene of the disaster.

The pod of five or six dolphins swam gracefully under the eerie black remnants of the jetty for just a few seconds – as if to acknowledge the presence of the grieving families. And then they were gone.

The trip to the far side of the island, which allowed relatives of the 51 people who died there, to leave flowers on the water, was the final part of a trilogy of ceremonies to mark 40 years since the Betelgeuse exploded at 12:55am on that horrific night.

Earlier, at a service in Bantry, concelebrated by Bishop John Buckley, local children showed they were keeping the memory strong for the next generation, when pupils from the three local schools presented memorial books to the families, including one to local woman Mary Warner, (wife of Capt David Warner), on behalf of the Irish victims.

Bantry Folk Group provided beautiful accompaniment for the service, most especially when they joined the local schoolchildren and the families to give an emotional rendition of Phil Coulter’s Home from the Sea.

On Monday night, a dinner for almost 200 people was held in the Westlodge Hotel, where the French and Irish families came together and presentations were made to mark the 40th anniversary of the tragedy.

And when the families gathered at the memorial in the Abbey Cemetery the following day, as the LE James Joyce stood proudly in the bay, those bonds which had strengthened over the years across the Celtic Sea, were very evident.

County mayor Patrick Gerard Murphy welcomed them all to the memorial and pointed out that Ginette Ravaleu, whose husband Marcel had died in 1979, had broken her hip before Christmas, so she couldn’t travel, but he wished her well. 

A hard-hitting letter from Mme Ravaleu was read out at the graveyard, in which she said she gets angry every time she travels to Bantry because she believes the deaths were unnecessary. 

She said there had been 25 accidents at the terminal in nine years and wondered how the men felt that night, knowing the tanker was ‘a bomb’ beside them. Her husband, the third body to be found, had died of hypothermia.

She noted the Gulf staff, including despatcher John Connolly, had been stopped by their employers from talking to the media and claimed that some divers who could have spoken out were ‘threatened’.

She recalled Michael Kingston telling her on a visit to Bantry in 1999, that he was studying maritime law in order to have the case reopened. ‘The victims must not have died for nothing,’ she said. ‘We must move forward, without weakening at any time – they showed us the way.’

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