Woman who rescued boy from River Barrow as a teenager to be honoured

Tina Kavanagh was 15 when she pulled David Browne from dark waters of Kilkenny river

More than 30 years ago Tina Kavanagh pulled a drowning boy from the River Barrow in Co Kilkenny, almost losing him in the dark waters and panic that cut through a hazy summer’s day swim.

The 15-year-old had gone down to Maher’s Hill at Graignamanagh to picnic with some friends when she heard the screams.

“It never leaves you,” she said of the 1985 rescue. “I do remember panicking because I couldn’t find him. I surfaced twice. [The boy’s friend] Patrick kept screaming: ‘he went there!, he went there!”.

Tina and her siblings had been taught how to handle the water by their father, a strong swimmer, and had completed life saving classes. Nothing prepared her for the real thing.

“The Barrow is so black and it was so deep where they were. I went underneath him and came up behind him and grabbed him by the hair.”

Tina still knows the 13-year-old boy she saved. David Browne (now 49) would bump into her children years later and tell them proudly how she had saved his life. Her son Pauríc (16) wanted something he could show his friends and this year, together with brother Eoghan (19), they nominated her for a Water Safety Ireland National Award. She is among a group being honoured on Tuesday for their roles in saving the lives of 24 people.

In a supporting email, David Browne told the organisation how he had gone into the water and received an accidental kick in the chin from his friend and began swallowing water.

“Panic set in,” he said. “I couldn’t stay up and I was going under. Maybe I had done already a few times?”

Then he remembered being rescued and pulled to the river bank by a girl who tilted his head back and reassured him the whole way.

“I sometimes meet Martina…and we smile, laugh and fondly joke about that day in the eighties,” he wrote.

“Thankfully we can. But I also realise that my family could have lost a son and a brother.”

Tina's story is typical of the 24 others whose calm reflexes turn stories of tragedy into stories of brave feat. They will all be honoured with the Seiko Just in Time award on Tuesday. Those whom they rescued avoided becoming one of more than 100 people who drown on average in Ireland every year.

Joseph McNulty (40), his son Kristin (19) and brother Sean (38) are trained lifeguards. Last September they were on Bundoran beach in Co Donegal taking photographs when they noticed three teenage girls on a notorious sand bar. The water was coming in, creating two riptides on either side.

“We ran down across the beach, got the life rings, got to the first two girls and pulled them in,” said Joseph. “The other girl was going under the water, in and out, and then other people saw what was going on and rang the lifeboat.”

Joseph and Sean jumped in and managed to pull her to safety. “It’s surprising every year how quickly tragedies happen. Every year people say how it happened in a flash.”

Tuesday’s online ceremony will also see 23 volunteers presented with long service awards, recognising a combined 500 years of teaching swimming, water rescue and survival skills in communities across the country.

Last summer, lifeguards rescued 473 people from drowning, administered first aid 6,787 times and reunited 516 children, wandering unsupervised near water, with their families.

“Tragedy can strike in seconds but with the right knowledge, skills and attitudes everyone can avoid the hazards and take responsibility for their own safety,” said Seamus O’Neill, vice chairman of Water Safety Ireland.