09 Aug 2022

A Special Reunion | Waterford man returns to Donegal to meet man who saved his life 65 years ago

Heroic Bundoran lifeguard and the man he saved meet again 65 years after dramatic rescue

Sea rescue

Jim O'Carroll (left) and Seamus O'Rourke meet up again at Bundoran's Great Northern Hotel

The extraordinary bravery of a young Bundoran lifeguard who, 65 years ago this month, saved the life of a Waterford man, has been re-lived when the two men, now in their 80s, met again in Bundoran for a moving and very special reunion.

The man who was saved recently made the trip accompanied by family members to see his rescuer, a man who battled for 70 minutes with no thought for his own safety in horrendously difficult sea conditions to pluck him from the waters off Bundoran beach.

For the man who was saved, now 87-year-old Seamus O’Rourke, from Waterford, and the man who saved him, 88-year-old Jim O’Carroll from Bundoran, it only seems right that the drama and heroism of that Monday afternoon in 1957 should be revisited. 

The depth of affection and respect between the two was palpable as they sat in the foyer of the Great Northern Hotel in Bundoran no more than 150 metres from where the rescue unfolded.

They sat for hours on a twin-seater couch at the hotel, sipping tea as they reminisced about that fateful day on July 1, 1957, where their lives were joined forever. Around them holiday makers came and went, unaware of the remarkable memories being shared by these two now elderly but graceful gentlemen - memories that would make the bones of a best seller.

There were long silences, thoughts flooding back, Jim had all the detail and his strong, eloquent, velvety voice relayed them with precision - reminiscent almost of the actual rescue. 

At times neither could get a word in. 

Jim O'Carroll (second from left) and Seamus O'Rourke (second from right) with Seamus' niece Martina and her husband Tom

There was more than the odd tear but lots of laughter too, and an unspoken understanding between them that their lives had been inextricably linked. They talked the events of that day through several times, but after a time they were done with those memories, looking for new ones; both wanted to know more about the other, what cards life had dealt them both in the intervening 65 years.

There was a sense too that some things shared in that 70-minute cauldron of whipping waves and powerful currents must remain between the two of them. Some things are best left unsaid - but not unrecognised. In the autumn of their lives, it was clear to this reporter that it meant so much to both.

Seamus O’Rourke, originally from Sallypark, Waterford, and now residing on Leamy Street, spent the summer of 1957 working with his cousin Peadar Dignam (still fondly remembered by so many in Bundoran) and another friend taking photographs in the seaside. They sold these photos to tourists and were enjoying a wonderful summer in the North-West. 

Jim and Seamus looking out to sea, and the spot where the rescue took place

It was a beautiful warm sunny day, July 1, 1957. Bundoran was busy. Jim, a lifeguard on duty at the beach, was 23 years old, and typically diligent about his work. No one would get in trouble on his watch. 

Looking out to his right, he spotted three men in the water on the Roguey side of the beach, he knew immediately it was a serious case of “wrong place at the wrong time” and he managed to shout loud enough to get two of them to turn back. 

The Democrat report of the time explained that currents were strong and large waves were breaking towards the shore. The three entered the water at a quiet point near the Rougey rocks but soon faced difficulties with the strength of the underlying currents.

Two of them heard Jim, regained their footing, and returned to safety. The third man (Seamus) was already in danger and was being swept out to sea. Critically, and something Jim was only to discover in the water, was that Seamus could not swim. It was an added burden to say the least, but both men, rescuer and rescued, did the most important thing you can do in such a situation - they kept reasonably calm and worked the long game. Later Jim would try to make light of what he did, but his efforts that day were a master class in sea rescue.

Jim dived into the sea from the rocks and used the current to reach Seamus, now well out of his depth, who was slipping under the water. By now Seamus was taking on water and his legs were growing numb from the cold.

The lifeguard instructed Seamus to turn on his back, to float and to keep moving his legs to maintain blood circulation. With Seamus on his back, Jim, a powerful swimmer, kept him flat and his airway clear of water. For over an hour they battled the waves and the tides. Several desperate attempts to reach the rocks were unsuccessful, on the beach many had gathered, among them Jim’s father and his brother. Without a rescue boat, it was down to Jim and Seamus.

70 minutes after he went into the water to affect the rescue, Jim managed to drag Seamus out of the sea on the far side of the beach. Estimates vary but the swim, with and against the current, was at least half a mile, if not more. Both were exhausted, there were a few bumps and bruises from aborted landing attempts as their bodies crashed into the rocks, but they were largely none the worse for their ordeal - physically whatever about mentally. 

Seamus was taken to hospital for assessment. He got the ‘all clear’ and the next day was back at the beach to thank the man who saved him.

Seamus O'Rourke pictured from his time in the Navy

Seamus returned to Waterford and shortly afterwards he contracted tuberculosis during the epidemic of the mid-1950s, spending a year in Ardkeen Hospital Sanatorium. Later that year, following his discharge from hospital, he attended his cousin Peadar Dignam’s wedding in Bundoran and met Jim to thank him.

After that their paths would never cross. Jim’s life took him to far flung places, Seamus has lived and worked in Waterford ever since. His wife of 41 years, Ann, sadly passed away in March of this year. 

“The event had a profound effect on Seamus and over the years he often spoke of his near drowning experience in Bundoran and his immense gratitude for the man who saved him,” says his niece Martina, who along with her husband Tom, planned the recent three-day trip to meet Jim. 

Jim and Seamus with Seamus' niece Martina

Time, however, plays tricks on the mind and Seamus struggled to remember the name of the man who had saved him. “His recollection of the details surrounding the incident were vague and the name of the lifeguard evaded him,” Martina recalled.

A combination of good detective work by Martina and Tom, and a little luck, brought them in contact with the affable Kevin Carmody, of Bundoran Golf Club. Instinct brought them Kevin’s way, and the fact Jim’s father, also Jim, was a former secretary of Bundoran Golf Club, left enough clues to confirm the forgotten identity of the man who had saved Seamus.

Their most recent meeting on a cold, windy day in Bundoran was memorable. A new friendship has grown from it and for Seamus almost a sense of relief that his abiding wish to meet Jim again has been realised.

Jim, at 88, is a strikingly tall and fit looking man with a clear, strong voice. Articulate, almost regal, he has a presence about him. Seamus, with more of the build of a hardy corner-back, would struggle to make it to Jim’s shoulder. He is light-hearted, a smile never far from his face. He listened intently as Jim recalled many parts of the rescue: “Seamus could float, but that was about it. I put him on his back, and I told him to kick, he kicked some of the time and he floated more of it,” Jim said as they laughed. 

It was a laugh that trailed off into silence. Neither said it out loud, but this act of heroism by Jim and Seamus’s magnificent bloody-mindedness to survive, could have ended very differently for both and there is no doubt they know that, although at the time, the Democrat reported how Jim dismissed his heroics, saying he was just doing his job, no big deal.

A young Jim O'Carroll pictured during his lifeguarding days

A superb account of what happened jumps from the front page of the July 5, 1957, edition of the Donegal Democrat. 

Many have long forgotten what happened that day but the diminutive O’Rourke, despite a slowing step, was determined to travel from his home in Waterford to meet the towering Jim O’Carroll. He never forgot the events of that day and his near-death experience. For Jim, meeting Seamus again with Martina and Tom, was very special.

Jim, recently widowed, as his wife Cleo sadly passed away two years ago, has had an interesting and varied life which took him far from Bundoran. He and Cleo married in 1961 and spent many years living abroad in Glasgow and in Canada where they ran a restaurant in Nova Scotia. After almost 40 years they returned in 2000 to live just outside Bundoran.

Some will recall the famous O’Carroll’s Ballroom and there is a connection there, those who golfed in Bundoran will be familiar with Jim’s late father, a talented golfer and secretary at the club.

Speaking to the Munster Express since they returned home from the visit, Martina recalled: “Seamus always spoke about nearly drowning and the man who saved him,” she said.

“He was overjoyed to meet Jim. The fact he got to meet him in person meant so much.” Martina says the predominant feeling on the day of the reunion was one of “immense gratitude”.

She added: “It was very emotional. It meant so much to Seamus to be able to thank the man who rescued him.

“The bravery and presence of mind of Jim on that day has led to this happy outcome. We’re so grateful for what Jim did. As a result, Seamus lived a healthy and happy life.”

The Democrat's front page from July 5, 1957

Seamus and Jim are now in regular contact since that meeting in May and new friendships with Martina and Tom have also grown from the long-quenched embers of that July day in 1957.

“We as a family are deeply indebted for Jim’s courage and bravery on that day, and can never thank him enough,” added Martina, who also expressed her thanks to the secretary of Bundoran Golf Club, Kevin Carmody, who was instrumental in connecting the two men.

She said that during the reunion, Jim told Seamus and her that the incident in 1957 had changed his life.

“He performed a number of rescues as a lifeguard, but this was the most difficult and he often thought about Seamus over the years,” she says. “He has an excellent memory and can remember with clarity the details of the rescue, including the names of all those present on the beach while the rescue was taking place. He also believed the fact that Seamus had ‘kept his head and had acted sensibly throughout doing everything he was told was the big factor in saving his life.’”

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