Packie O'Donnell, right, presenting a plaque to Tony McCauley in recognition and thanks for his bravery in saving his life in Cornwall in 1959.
On a sweltering hot summer Sunday 58 years ago two young friends from Dungloe, decided to go for a swim in a river near the village of Lostwithiel in Cornwall.
Both had been working in the area on a construction site and Sunday was their day off.
Packie O’Donnell, just 17, stood on the bank of the river. The water looked inviting but he was hesitant, he couldn’t swim.
“Jump in Packie, that’s the only way you’ll ever learn to swim,” someone shouted from the bank.
Packie took a leap of faith and he soon found out that water in a river is a lot colder than the sea. He also found out the river was much deeper than he realised. He was out of his depth.
Standing on the bank with a group of fellow Irish workers was his old primary school pal from Dungloe, Tony McCauley. Like Packie, he was just 17 years of age, and like Packie feeling the world was at his feet until that moment of terror. It was, on reflection, a moment to define both men, as you will read later, a moment of heroism and bravery that, until today, when I have been given the huge privilege of telling this story, went more or less unspoken for almost 60 years.
Tony takes up the story: “I knew Packie couldn’t swim. ‘That’s how you learn to swim’ someone said to him and he foolishly listened to them. What was worse he went into a hole in the river, he didn’t realise the depth of the water and he was immediately in trouble.
“He went under for the first time. I was expecting some of the stronger swimmers to jump in and rescue him. I could swim, but wasn’t what you’d call, ‘a strong swimmer’.
“Nothing was happening, no one moved to help, they may not have realised he was in trouble. He couldn’t swim. I knew this from Dungloe and I had to make a move.
“He went down for the second time and as he did, he let a roar out of him so loud that they said afterwards they heard it in the village, almost a mile away.
“I knew that once someone went down a third time there was little or no chance of saving them.
“I could see the top of his head, I could see his red hair just below the water line. ‘I have to get to Packie now or he’ll be a gonner,’ was all that I could think.
“I jumped in and as much as he had gone out from the bank six to twelve feet, he had moved downstream too with the flow. I was no champion swimmer but I was young, fit and strong, and I got to him. I put my hand under his chin and pulled him up and to me. We made it together to the river bank.
“It was all in an instant, these things happen so quickly, you have no idea how quickly they happen. We lay on the bank and those around us helped us up to the dry ground.”
Dungloe natives Tony McCauley (left), now living in Letterkenny who saved Packie O'Donnell, now living in Birmingham from drowning in Cornwall 58 years ago (1959). Also pictured is Tony's wife Shelia and Packie's wife Bridie, Packie and Bridie's son Patrick and his wife Sally and grand-children Aoife and Niamh O'Donnell. Photo Thomas Gallagher
The story is remarkable in so many ways, but what’s possibly more remarkable is that 58 years later, this is Tony telling the story publicly for the first time.
In 58 years he mentioned it only once and only very recently, to his wife Sheila - never a word to his seven children - one of whom he said jokingly remarked earlier this week - “so Dad you’re a hero, and we have to buy the Democrat to read about it!”
And, but for the intervention of Packie O’Donnell, the story might well have remained untold. Tony doesn’t think it that unusual he never spoke about it: “It was the natural thing to do, that was why it was put on the back burner. I was glad I was able to save Packie, of course, but that was the way it was, you didn’t go around talking about it.”
And he’s only talking about it now because Packie O’Donnell wanted to talk about it. Shortly after the rescue he and Packie went their separate ways, Packie joined his brother, Manus, on a big job in north Wales working on the dams. Tony headed to London for work. They lost contact and never spoke again, until Packie, determined to put his thanks on the record, searched out Tony and found him.
Packie’s first contact was last November with Tony’s sister, Agnes, in Dungloe who he ‘phoned and explained who he was and why he was keen to speak to Tony.
The wheels were put in motion and armed with a telephone number for Tony, Packie made contact with him and they organised to meet up “after Christmas” as Packie put it.
Last Thursday night they did just that, in the Clanree Hotel in Letterkenny, the two met for the first time in 58 years.
It was a lovely meeting and they did so in the love and company of their families. On Friday we spoke to both men about their meeting and their shared memories.
“I always felt I had to make contact with him before it was too late, I owe my life to Tony,” was how Packie put it on Friday, content that they had finally met.
“It was a lovely night and we were there with family, too, and it was good to share the experience with them all. For me it has always been on my mind and it was one of those things I simply had to do, to say thank you and give Tony recognition for his bravery,” added Packie.
Tony told the Democrat he was taken aback but very grateful for what Packie had said and done. “I appreciate his lovely gesture to me, my wife Sheila and my family in acknowledging what happened so many years ago.
“Packie owes a lot to the prayers of his mother who, like every Irish mother of that period, prayed for their husbands and children who, in order to seek employment, had to leave their native homes far away from all that were dear to them.
“I was but a conduit for those prayers and I was very glad to be present and to be able to assist in such a crucial time in Packie’s life.
“It was truly a delight for me and my wife Sheila to meet Packie and his lovely wife Bridie, together with his son Patrick, Patrick’s wife and their two children.
“It was quite obvious from their reminiscences of times past and friends gone to their eternal reward after so many years, that they were very thankful for the good life, health and happiness they were privileged to enjoy with family and friends since that fateful day in 1959 when Packie thought his life could have ebbed away.
“Yes there were bumps along the road with a few potholes, but how could you ever say you enjoyed life if you never experienced the challenges and difficulties that life presents? May Packie, his wife and famil, continue to enjoy life and prosperity to the full in the years ahead,” said.
After a 58 year gap the two lads, who went to school in Dungloe National School together, worked side by side in England for a summer they will never forget, plan to meet now on a more regular basis and rekindle the friendship of their youth and share the memories that forever link their lives inextricably.
LIFE FOR BOTH SINCE 1959
Packie O’Donnell spent the rest of his life working across England, Wales and Scotland and he now lives in Birmingham with his wife Bridie, who hails from Swinford. They have three children, Paul, Patrick and Sandra. He founded Barnesmore Construction, a very successful civil engineering firm which his sons now run. Packie is happily retired and loves nothing more than returning to Donegal for a visit. Packie will be 75 on March 1st.
After Cornwall Tony McCauley, who will be 75 in June, worked in different parts of England, mainly in construction. He and his wife Sheila came back to Donegal in the 1980s, working with the OPW as a Clerk of Works initially and then was appointed District Inspector for Donegal. He retired in 2006, lives in Ashlawn, Letterkenny and still has a house in his native Dungloe which he says he and the family use frequently. He and his wife Sheila have seven children, Anthony, Josephine, Veronica, James, Rosemary, Gerard and Sarah, all of whom are hugely proud of their father’s bravery on a summer Sunday in 1959.