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'He was not just my son, he was my best friend' - Soldier who drowned in Donegal is remembered

The inquest into the death of Corporal Gavin Carey has taken place in Donegal.

View of the main street in Bundoran, Co. Donegal.
View of the main street in Bundoran, Co. Donegal.
Image: Paul Faith/PA Images

DONEGAL CORONER DR Denis McCauley recommended that clear warning signs be erected at Tullan Strand, Bundoran to prevent further tragedies.

The coroner was speaking after recording a finding of accidental death of Corporal Gavin Carey (27) of Mullingar, Co Westmeath. The soldier drowned after getting into difficulties on the beach in August last year.

“We have heard that the beach was known to locals to be dangerous,” said Dr McCauley.

“We find here two occasions where people who were not from the area – Gavin and his colleagues and the Fermanagh football team who had to be rescued last week – weren’t aware of the dangers associated with it.”

I will be contacting Donegal County Council to encourage them to review the situation, particularly in relation to signage from the road and also from the army land.

The inquest heard that Corporal Carey from Custume Barracks, Athlone was in Finner Camp near Bundoran training ahead of deployment to the Lebanon.

On 23 August after training had finished for the day, the soldier and five colleagues went by road to Tullan Strand, which borders Finner Camp.

One of the party was suffering from an ear infection and stayed on the beach. The other five entered the water up to only waist-height and splashed around for about 20 minutes.

They got into difficulties when they tried to leave the water.

Alan O’Connor who was in the water with Corporal Carey described how the terrifying situation unfolded.

He said:

We were fine up till we went to leave the water. Our feet were on the ground but we were going backwards. We weren’t going any closer to the shore. There was no grip. We tried swimming and then we had difficulty getting our feet on the ground. We were going further out.

“I was furthest out. Dean [Toan] was in the middle. Gavin was actually the closest to the shore.”

Rocks

At this point, they decided to make for the rocks.

“We shouted to each other,” he said. “The waves were pushing me that way. I struggled to get up to the rocks.”

It was then that the group realised Corporal Carey was missing.

A member of the public asked him if everyone was there.  O’Connor said his friend was missing. The man gave O’Connor his phone to call the coastguard.

Bundoran Lifeboat responded within minutes, beginning a massive search that would last almost a week.

The inquest heard from Boyne Fisherman Rescue and Recovery Service volunteer Mark O’Malley who joined the search with his crew on 28 August. He described studying the natural flow of the water and then devising a search grid for divers. This quickly led to the discovery of Corporal Carey’s remains at the cliff area known as Flat Rocks.

Mother

The late soldier’s mother Patricia Peyton told the inquest that she came to Donegal as soon as she heard her son was missing. She vowed she was not going to leave without him.

It was she who formally identified the remains. She told the inquest: “He was not just my son, he was my best friend. I lost everything when I lost him.”

McCauley asked Sergeant Damian Gaffney from Bundoran Garda Station to describe Tullan Strand.

The sergeant said:

It is a very long beach used mainly by surfers. Locals walk it. It is known that there are rip tide undercurrents.

Sergeant Gaffney explained how these deadly currents affect bathers: “You have waves coming in but you also have waves going out underneath.”

It is this hidden undercurrent that makes it impossible for people to get to shore, pushing them out to sea instead.

When asked if there was anything to warn beach users of the dangers, the sergeant said there was one sign in the car park.

“The signage is close to the entrance,” said Sergeant Gaffney. “I looked at it yesterday evening and it was quite faded. It would have to be upgraded.”

bundoran strand Tullan Strand in Bundoran. A number of surfers managed to get the footballers to safety.

Rip tide

The sergeant told the inquest that a similar incident occurred only last week when a football team visiting from Fermanagh were training on the beach.

“After their training session, the trainer allowed them to cool off in the water,” he said.

They were just up to their waists and they got caught in a rip tide. Luckily there were instructors from a local surf school there at the time to rescue them.

Dr McCauley then summed up the result of the post-mortem examination. He said pathologist Dr Paul Hartel had reported death by drowning.

The coroner said the death had been a terrible accident.

“Gavin and his colleagues went for a paddle as many of us do on a fine day in Donegal,” said Dr McCauley.

He said the men found themselves in a terribly stressful situation when they couldn’t make their way back to shore. The coroner said they had done the right thing in trying to reach the rocks.

“Gavin unfortunately couldn’t get to the rocks,” he said.

Dr McCauley said it was one of the roles of the Coroner’s Court to establish if anything could be done to prevent further tragedies.

It was on that basis that he would raise the matter of improved signage with Donegal Co Council.

The inquest was held in Kee’s Hotel, Stranorlar, Co Donegal earlier today.

Read: Lifeboats launched in Bundoran after riptide carries group of footballers into danger >

Read: ‘I thought a mark on my face was acne, but it was skin cancer’ >

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Siobhán McNamara

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