An Post unveils ‘thank-you’ stamps to RNLI on 200th anniversary

Charity’s search-and-rescue crews have saved more than 8,300 people around the island of Ireland

Six decades later, Lar Sheeran still wakes up in a cold sweat thinking about the night he spent on the Irish Sea. It was one he was not supposed to survive.

In August 1961, fresh from finishing his Leaving Cert, the then 18-year-old from Drumree, Co Meath was visiting family near Clogherhead, Co Louth. Mr Sheeran and his cousins, John (23) and Vincent Collier (14), decided to head out fishing on the Irish Sea on a Sunday evening.

“It was a lovely, fine day, we were fishing, no problems,” said Mr Sheeran, now aged 81.

After a few hours aboard their small wooden vessel, the trio set their sights for home. They were 100 yards from the shore when things went awry. The wind blew up without warning and strong waves started coming from nowhere.

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Water swamped the petrol motor powering their boat and they began drifting helplessly away from the shore. The three were expected on land by 7pm but at around 9pm another cousin of Mr Sheeran’s, PJ Collier, raised the alarm with darkness setting in.

When the trio saw the RNLI lifeboat launch from Clogherhead, Mr Sheeran felt relief. “We said, ‘Oh, the lifeboat’s out, we’re okay’.”

However, the rescue crew began to move north, away from their boat. At first, Mr Sheeran assumed there might be another boat in distress. After some time, when the lights of the lifeboat turned and headed for shore, despair began to take hold.

“We realised: ‘They don’t know where we are’,” he said.

Almost 10km from safety and desperate, the boys came up with a makeshift distress signal: the sleeve of an old jacket, wrapped around the only oar they had, doused in petrol and set alight.

“How the whole [boat] didn’t blow up, we’ll never know,” Mr Sheeran said.

It worked and the RNLI crew headed south. Within an hour, the young fishermen were headed to the shore. The water was so rough that they did not reach land until 7am, seven hours later. Mr Sheeran’s father was waiting for him on the coastline, armed with a bottle of whiskey, to settle his nerves.

“We were supposed to not make it,” Mr Sheeran said, adding that things would have been very different but for the lifeboat noticing their improvised signal. “The fact is: I’ve had a very successful life. I’ve got a very successful business ... You know, that one turn made everything possible. That is life.”

Mr Sheeran was speaking about his experience on Monday as An Post unveiled two stamps marking 200 years of the RNLI.

Dublin-based artist David Rooney was commissioned to design the stamps and RNLI crews from around Ireland were present for their launch in Dublin – including a Dún Laoighre crew and their Trent-class lifeboat.

“To be recognised today is incredibly important,” said Anna Classon, RNLI head of region for Ireland. “It’s a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to people who not only do their own day job, but then do something extra for somebody else.”

Nadia Blanchfield, a volunteer with the RNLI in Fethard, Co Wexford for the last four years, said the charity’s importance is easy to sum up.

“The RNLI is the charity that saves lives,” she said, kitted out in her yellow-and-black rescue gear on Monday morning.

Laura O’Mahony, from Glandore in Co Cork, is acutely aware of the importance of the RNLI. She was rescued in March 2010 by Crosshaven RNLI when she and her red setter, Sam, got into difficulty in Lough Mahon.

As a competent swimmer, Ms O’Mahony believed she would be able to retrieve him from shallow water. “He kept going further and further out to sea,” she said.

As she moved towards Sam, she felt soft mudbanks underfoot starting to sink under her weight. Up to her waist in water, she soon realised that she also needed to be rescued. With the tide coming in, it was too dangerous to keep wading and risk sinking in the mud.

“It was very dangerous because I was sinking in the mud in some parts,” she said. “It was frightening, it was a very scary experience. It all happened so quickly.

“At one point, I was very close to Sam, but the mud was very, very wet and I was going down. And I just saw my life flash in front of me. I remember thinking, this is the day I’m going to die, no doubt about it.”

She reached for her phone and called the RNLI for help. The lifeboat crew from Crosshaven responded promptly and relief set in on seeing the crew. “I thought, ‘We’re going to be saved. The day will end differently to how it could have ended’.”

Almost 14 years on, Ms O’Mahony is still grateful to the RNLI.

“They’re a wonderful organisation, and the volunteers that day kept reassuring us that we were safe.”

There are 46 RNLI lifeboat stations on the island of Ireland. Since its foundation in 1824, the RNLI’s search-and-rescue crews have saved 8,357 in Ireland, and aided a further 35,477 people. It also operates in the UK and depends on donations to provide the service.

Fiachra Gallagher

Fiachra Gallagher

Fiachra Gallagher is an Irish Times journalist