THE last moments of the men at the centre of the recent double drowning drama in Ireland are to be made public for the first time as moves are afoot to award them the Irish State’s highest bravery award.
Lee Cooley – the man who husband-to-be Peter O’Keefe and honours graduate John Herlihy died saving off the coast of west Cork just over two weeks ago – said last night he is planning to attend their inquest.
Because the cause of their deaths is unlikely to be disputed, the 29-year-old English traveller is not legally obliged to attend.
But last night, Cooley – who ran into difficulty in choppy waters off Owenahincha Beach with swimming pal Cliona Murphy – said: “It’s something I feel I have to do, for the sake of those brave men and their families.
“I don’t want to talk about what happened because it is still very painful for all concerned at the moment and because I think the inquest is the appropriate place for whatever I might be expected to mention.
“I also hope to be able to finally meet members of Mr O’Keefe and Mr Herlihy’s families and thank them personally, as well as to tell them how sorry I am about what happened.”
Since the two men drowned, Cooley has been staying at a number of locations around Bantry, west Cork.
Before the tragedy, he had been staying at a secluded airstrip on the outskirts of town, but had to move on when part of a planned agricultural show was held on the spot where he was camping.
He helps make ends meet by selling second-hand books in Bantry’s Friday carboot market on Wolfe Tone Square, although a fellow stall holder said last night he has not been seen on the market for the past two weeks.
Indeed, he rarely ventures into the town, except in the evenings.
When approached on Saturday night, Cooley had just visited a local shop to buy some food and fruit juice and was walking along a pier used by local fishermen.
He is said by locals to be concerned about the negative publicity about his criminal past and the fact that he is expected to attend a court hearing in the UK in connection with an incident in 2004.
A man claims to have been attacked by Cooley on the Isle of Wight.
Cooley’s life was saved when he ran into difficulties at a notorious spot off Owenahincha Beach, west Cork.
Peter and John were strolling at different parts of the beach when they both heard Cooley’s cries for help.
Despite pleas from his fiancee Ann Riordan, Peter – due to get married in five months – dashed into the water after grabbing a life buoy and closely followed by 23-year-old John.
Although they managed to reach Cooley and Murphy and throw them the life ring, they were overwhelmed by a huge wave.
It dragged them under the water before effectively pushing the saved swimmers into land where they were both treated for shock after their ordeal.
If Cooley changes his mind about attending the inquest, he also later has the option to provide a statement in suppport of current moves to have Peter and John posthumously awarded the State’s ultimate award for bravery.
Clonakilty Gardai have started the process whereby the heroic pair are likely to each be awarded a bronze deed of bravery award, An Bonn Ghniomh Gaile.
Usually awarded to Gardai, fire officers and service men, they are the highest honour for bravery that an Irish person can receive and it is rare for civilians to get them.
Part of the process involves statements from witnesses before a file is sent to the Deeds of Bravery panel, Comhairle na Mire Gaile for consideration.
The panel cannot decide on an award until after an inquest.
But once approved – which in this case would appear to be a forgone conclusion given the extraordinary bravey of the two men involved – the awards would be given to the men’s families by the Lord Mayer at a Cork County Council civil ceremony early next year.
The last time a Corkman received An Bonn Ghniomh Gaile was in 2003 when Detective Garda Jim Kelly’s bravery in saving two people from drowning more than two years previously was recognised.