Mayo cave rescuers describe abseiling ‘dangerous cliff face’

Man was trapped on ledge at Downpatrick Head for 21 hours was ‘in good spirits’

A member of the team involved in the rescue of a man from a north Mayo cave has described the “dangerous cliff face” members had to abseil.

On Sunday afternoon the ordeal of the man, who had been trapped on a ledge in a cave on the north Mayo coast for 21 hours, ended as the sea surged and ebbed below him.

John Sweeney volunteer warden with the Irish Cave Rescue Organisation said at about 4am the team started the plan to descend the cliff face

“It was a very dangerous cliff face, the rock was very loose, so our teams were finding the safest route down in a zigzag fashion, so you’d put in a bolt, secure the rope, abseil another little bit, there was a bolt put in maybe every 2m, maybe over 100 bolts and 100 drill holes altogether put into the cliff face,” Mr Sweeney said.


“It took us in total from 4am to roughly 3pm when we reached the casualty inside the cave. Because once we came to the bottom of the cliff we had to traverse horizontally above the water level, maybe 5 metres above the water level to keep out of the surge, to stay dry and stay safe and to get to the casualty in a safe fashion,” he told RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland.

He said once the tide dropped enough one of the team could get to the man and harness him. The rescued man “was an experienced caver, strong and determined, in good spirits” he said.

Mr Sweeney said they had known he was conscious thanks to the work of the lifeboat.

Earlier in the radio show coxswain Francie Gibbons at helm of Ballyglass RNLI told of how they kept in touch on Saturday night.

“Around 9pm the light started to fade so during the night all we could do was every half an hour or so we managed to manoeuvre the boat into position and shine lights in to the casualty where we could get him on a loud hailer to just shout to him and get him to move his arms and legs to know he was still conscious and moving.” She said they did it every half-hour to make sure it was okay.

Mr Sweeney paid tribute to the people of Ballycastle for providing the refreshments through the night. Afterwards in the community centre there was the biggest spread of food, like a wedding, he said.

Clapping and brief whoops signalled a happy ending on Sunday afternoon after the man was rescued.

As a Coastguard helicopter lifted off from Downpatrick Head en route to hospital with the casualty — said to be reasonably well and in good spirits — a small group of his friends, some punching the air with delight, celebrated.

At low tide, the casualty was finally extracted from the cave, less than several hundred metres from the world-famous Dún Briste sea stack.

The man, who is in his 40s, was taken from the cave at about 3.40pm and was able to walk a short distance, said Agatha Hurst, press officer with Ballyglass RNLI lifeboat.

He was said to be safe and well — apart from being cold and hungry. Rescuers speculated that he might have succumbed to hypothermia were it not for the fact that he had been wearing a wet suit.

With an ambulance standing by, the casualty had his medical condition assessed before the helicopter brought him to Sligo University Hospital, where the Coast Guard said he “well and in good spirits”.

At the scene, Garda Supt Gabriel Moran outlined details of the lengthy rescue operation which involved Garda divers, members of the Irish Cave Rescue unit, Ballyglass RNLI lifeboat, members of the Irish Coastguard, gardaí as well as local civilian volunteers including fishermen.

The man had been walking the shoreline outside the cave with a woman companion at about 5.30pm on Saturday when they got into difficulties.

Following a wave surge that carried them into the cave, the man managed to get on to a ledge.

His companion was towed to safety by a number of kayakers who were boating in the area.

The cave at Downpatrick Head is well-frequented during the summer months by photographers hoping to get an unusual shot of the local sea stack Dún Briste, a famous tourist attraction as are the soaring cliffs in the vicinity.

Vivienne Clarke

Vivienne Clarke is a media monitor and reporter