PRACTICAL COMPASSION AMIDST HIGH DRAMA ON IRISH COAST
17th May 2016
A traveller following the Wild Atlantic Way tourist route down the west coast of Ireland will eventually arrive at the tranquil townland of Oranmore with its beautiful views over Galway Bay. A few hundred metres from the coast, you will find the home of Seventh-day Adventist couple, Tommy and Nora Mulveen.
This is a story of how they bring a ray of light amidst tragic circumstances in the world around them and how they live out their Christianity in a practical way.
Compared to the wild tempestuous seascape to the west and north, and the awe-inspiring vistas of the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher a stone's throw away to the south, one would not expect much drama in the 'sleepy hollow' of Oranmore Bay. But such a conclusion would be wrong.
As I walk along the dark stone and seaweed strewn coastline with Tommy he points out the lines that mark the tidal range of the bay. Four times every day the tide brings a dramatic change in the landscape as water either silently retreats to expose islands and rocks, or pushes in to cover previously visible land; depositing flotsam and jetsam from distant places on the edges of adjacent fields.
This is Tommy's haunt.
He walks up to his two boats anchored and lying on dry land. They will be floating in water before the sun makes its way halfway across the sky.
"I come here almost every day", says Tommy. "Sometimes I walk out to one of the islands. That is where I prepare some of my sermons. But you have to keep your eye on the tide. It changes quickly and you can become trapped. I can also take the boat out to a more distant island."
As we walk he shares many interesting experiences and bits of information about the coastline.
Tommy's life has revolved around the sea. Back in the home, where they've lived for 27 years, Nora brings out the teapot and Tommy fetches his Irish Diver's Council booklet containing the various professional diving certificates that he acquired over the years. For years he honed his skills as a professional diver doing underwater construction, maintenance, and also rescues and recovery. He is passionate about everything nautical. "Why do you hardly ever find a rope on a boat?" he asks. I sense a trick question, and I'm right. "Whenever you take a rope onto a boat, it becomes a line. The only rope you will find on a boat is a 'bell rope', used to ring a ship's bell!" Once again I've learned something new.
I'm visiting Tommy and Nora because they have been involved in some dramatic events that have made news around Ireland over the last few months.
Within a period of four weeks in March 2016, two young men went missing in Galway City. The Galway Independent reported that army private Ben Garrett, aged 21, was seen leaving a nightclub in the early hours of a Sunday morning, but he never returned home. Anthony Henehan who was in his thirties, was seen some weeks earlier entering the water of a fast-flowing river in Galway. Ben was originally from County Mayo and Anthony was from Roscommon. Weeks went by and yet their bodies had not been found.
Tommy was involved in the searches.
The operation involved emergency services, defence forces, and more than 150 volunteers from the Oranmore community, as well as family members and friends from the missing men's home communities.
This was not the first search affecting this part of the world either. Over the Christmas 2015 period a young NUI Galway student was reported missing and the community turned out to search. This led to the establishment of a volunteer organisation, the Oranmore Maree Coastal Search Unit. Tommy and Nora and two of their sons Mark and Thomas were among the first to join and have played an active role ever since.
"Apart from a few close neighbours around us, we usually keep to ourselves", says Nora. "We get along with everybody, but our family life, church, and work keep us quite busy. These tragedies have brought the community much closer together. We have found ourselves building many new relationships."
Tommy has been involved in training exercises with the Irish Coast Guard and is the training officer for the Oranmore Maree Coastal Search Unit. During the recent search operations he acted as team leader, co-ordinating the search on a stretch of coastline close to his house. He brings out a tattered map. He knows every nook and cranny of this area, and he knows what is involved in keeping the volunteers working in unison and out of harm's way. Nora helped prepare sandwiches and serve refreshments to the volunteers.
"People know us. They know that we are Seventh-day Adventists. We don't need to discuss religious issues with them. But these events do make people think. And we are able to share comfort and support. That is what counts", explains Tommy. He also shares, "These search operations have helped us forge friendships that run far deeper than your normal day-to-day friendships. You know that you are helping families at a very important and critical time of their lives. Those friendships don't just go away." As I take photos and talk to the couple, they emphasis the sense of connection that they feel with people. "The situations that we encounter are sad. But we offer practical help. They know that we are people of hope, and that does bring real comfort", says Nora. Having experienced moments of high drama over the last few months, Tommy and Nora exudes a deep sense of satisfaction that they're involved with something significant. They do make a difference.
My visit has to come to an end. Tommy is preparing to go to a funeral in Castlebar, County Mayo. The young men's bodies were eventually found. Today is Ben Garrett's funeral and it is going to be a big one. Tommy needs to leave. It will take him two-and-a-half hours to get there.
As I depart, I sense that I've just been in a place where there is an intersection between the passionate interest of two people's lives, and a burning need within the world around them. Their spirit, their confident faith, and their willingness to be used by God is making a real difference in their part of the world.
I wonder about the burning needs in the world that I inhabit. How connected am I? Can my neighbours call on me when they need help? Do they know that they can? I feel inspired by Tommy and Nora's matter of fact service. There is nothing 'preachy' or pretentious about it. They are just reaching out in a moment of need.
I think the world needs more of this. I feel I need to become more like this.
Between 2004 and 2014 there has been an average of 10 to 13 suicides per 100 000 members of the Irish population. Statistics show that suicide affects men almost four times more regularly than women. Hopefully the testimony of Tommy and Nora could stimulate a renewed vision in the minds of Seventh-day Adventist's to share hope and care and connection with those who might be carrying heavy burdens around us.
[Weiers Coetser, Photos of rescue operations were supplied by the Oranmore Maree Coastal Seach Unit. Used with Permission.]