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The Big Swim - Chris Herlihy

Thursday, 20 May 2010

On the 3rd of September,2006, Jonathan was strolling along Owenahincha Strand in West Cork when he noticed two swimmers had gotten into difficulty. Along with another passer-by, Peter O'Keefe (he was out walking with his finance they were due to be married the following February) Jonathan grabbed a lifebuoy and ran into the water to help them.

Despite pleas from his mother and grandfather that the conditions in the water were too dangerous, (Jonathan had arrived that day as a surprise to his family to watch the All-Ireland final with them and had decided to go for a walk before hand) Jonathan and Peter reached the distraught swimmers, and managed to convey them to safety.

The two men however were swept back out to sea by a wave and drowned. Jonathan, aged only 23 was a student at U.C.C. and a keen sportsman and Peter O'Keeffe, 37, a businessman who ran Celtic Fuels.

Hundreds of volunteers from across Co Cork joined the civil defense, the Coast Guard as well as Rosscarbery, Clonakilty and Cork city gardaí in the search for Jonathan's body. His body was found after 8 days after the tragic event happened.

In 2007 Jonathan's brother Chris accepted the Seiko "Just In Time" award from Irish Water Safety (IWS) on behalf of the Herlihy family and Peter's sisters, Yvonne and Shirley accepted the award on behalf of the O'Keeffe family.

Both Peter & Jonathan received the Comairle na Mire Gaile memorial (Gold) Medal and the West Cork Garda Special Bravery Award in 2006. Jonathan also received the Glenmire Person of the Year Award 2006.

The Jonathan Herlihy fund has been set up with expressed intention of improving the search and rescue facilities for the local Owenahincha community.

A separate trust has also been set up which will award a sports scholarship to a 3rd level student every year for the duration of their degree, called the Jonathan Herlihy Scholarship.

Chris Herlihy

Can you tell us what type of person your brother was?

Jon was a very caring person. He cared about his family and friends so much. He was down to earth and had a great sense of humour. Think everyone got that vibe off him. He loved his sports; this made him extremely competitive at everything he did.

He played Hurling for Sars, Football for Glanmire and soccer for UCC. He loved playing for Glanmrie. It was soccer above other sports though. He was on a full scholarship in UCC for the soccer and later represented Ireland at the World Student Games in Turkey.

Would he be the type of person that would come to anyone's aid?

He would alright. Sure he didn't know the couple who were in need of help down at the beach that day. It didn't matter who it was being honest. He would have always done the right thing. In fact, there is a story we only heard down in West cork that week of how he pulled a small boy from a road where a bus was oncoming. That was over in Ocean City in America. He had never said anything. He wasn't one to brag or look for attention for what he had done. As I said, he was caring and always wanted to do the right thing

What do you know about what happened that day?

Well, I was actually in Spain on a holiday. I had got a phone from my Dad, obviously every tough phone call for anyone to make. And hard to be on the other line too. But with regards the actual incident, my Mom and Jon were down having a stroll on the beach before the All Ireland Final.

He saw a couple in need of help, that's when Jon and peter went to their aid. I don't think either of them thought about it twice. Two genuine guys who just wanted to help. They had swum out, given the buoys to the couple, once the couple was safe, Jon and Peter began to swim back. Then, the current kind of took them away I suppose.

As a family how have you all coped since losing Jonathan?

I mean like it's very tough. I'd be lying if I said we're all ok. But the support we got was unreal. Glanmire, West Cork, the whole of Ireland. The incident really brought a huge amount of support from Glanmire. I know it seems simple but that meant the world to us.

The whole of Glanmire was down at the search, so much to the fact that they were actually stopping people coming into Owenahincha at one point. There were too many people there. But nearly 4 years on, we're all coping Ok. My parents are working and I'm finishing up in college so we're all just keeping busy. We feel very lucky to have got Jon's body back; a lot of families have to live their lives without recovering the body. Now that would be very tough. We're lucky.

You accepted numerous awards on behalf of your family honouring Jonathan's bravery can you tell us a bit about them and did it help to comfort your family at all the he was recognised for his act of bravery?

The awards were outstanding. Being honest there were so many awards but there is a few which were exceptional that I would have to mention. The Irish water safety awards and the Comairle na mire gaile medals were outstanding awards to have received. Once again it's knowing that Jon was recognised for his bravery.

The way he passed away was a true reflection of who he was. Also, one that was very close to the family was Jon getting Glanmire person of the year that year. Sounds simple but he loved Glanmire and to be recognised this was way was as good as it gets. I'd love that award myself. Also, West Cork community recognised his bravery too with the West Cork Garda special bravery award.

Can you tell us about The Jonathan Herlihy Fund and The Jonathan Herlihy Scholarship, how did these come about?

Fund - with regards the fund, there was a recognition at the time that the rescue services had done a brilliant job, there was still a need to improve the rescue coastguard services in the greater Owenahincha area. People contributed towards a fund so that a boat could be purchased for the Owenahincha coastguard unit. I'm sure that the coastguard services are looking towards improving this service and we will contribute the monies of the fund once it's set up. We're mad to get this moving in case of another tragedy occurs.

Scholarship - this is something that's very close to my heart. A group of 5 of us set this up. It is basically 1,000 euro for a student who specialises in a sport studying 3rd level for every undergraduate year he studies.

Right now, we have a recipient in 1st year Arts, 2nd year Commerce and 3rd year commerce in UCC. We're looking at another recipient for the coming college year now so it will be totally working then. That means we're giving 4000 euro to the youth of the greater Glanmire area every year. We aim to keep this going for as long as possible in memory of Jonathan's name but obviously this involves fundraising events. We know how Jon felt about Sports, Glanmire and also how he loved college so we see this as a perfect thing to have in memory of him.