The majestic River Shannon as it flows through the heart of Athlone is central to the town’s attraction as a tourism destination but sadly, through the years, has been the scene of tragedy with families impacted by lives lost in the often turbulent waterway.
In recognition of the latter circumstance, a number of concerned local business personnel, prompted by the initiative of Athlone Town Mayor, Cllr Aengus O’Rourke, and supported by An Garda Siochana, Athlone Sub Aqua, Defence Forces, Lough Ree RNLI and Order of Malta, united with the sole focus of providing additional safety measures within the vicinity of the river to enhance the survival prospects of those who have the misfortune to enter the water.
“Tragically, the experience in Athlone has been that if someone finds themselves in the river in the urban part of town, for whatever reason, the outcome generally is not good, and a recovery operation then proceeds.
“Prompted by this very poor record, I invited a group of people to come together comprising local business personnel and supported by An Garda Siochana, Athlone Sub Aqua, Defence Forces, Lough Ree RNLI and Order of Malta. We all agreed that more could be done to improve the survival prospects of those in the water.
“Our objectives are threefold - to raise awareness of water safety in the urban part of Athlone. Secondly, to better inform people of the steps they should take if they encounter someone in the water and finally, to put life saving equipment in place that can assist in a rescue and to train volunteers to use it safely and effectively. Signage and public awareness will also feature largely in what we do.
“Since the group’s establishment we have achieved a lot thanks to our generous contributors, donors and fundraisers. We now have two large secure ‘life saving yellow boxes’, one on each side of the river, at The Docks and at The Strand.
“Each box has essential equipment inside, for example, a VHF radio that connects us directly to the RNLI crew, a defibrillator, high powered lamps, loud hailer, life jackets, first aid kit, throw-bags and a reach pole.
The yellow boxes are locked with a combination lock. People trained in the use of the items inside are all given the code,” Cllr O’Rourke remarked.
The persistent presence of Covid-19 has hampered the group’s intention to conduct necessary and regular river safety training but it is hoped in time, with the easing of restrictions, such activity will be noticeably enhanced.
“Covid-19 has hampered our efforts to carryout training. However, we are making progress, we aim to train An Garda Siochana, fire brigade crews and those working in the night time economy like door staff and bar personnel because they are often first on the scene.
“In recent times we completed live training exercises on the water with members of An Garda Siochana in the use of throw-bags and life jackets. We have also donated throw-bags to the gardai who now currently carry two in every squad car in the Athlone area.
“We are delighted to have the support of so many local and national organisations - Lough Ree RNLI, An Garda Siochana Athlone, Order of Malta Athlone, Irish Water Safety, Westmeath County Council, Athlone Sub Aqua, Athlone Chamber of Commerce, Defence Forces Custume Barracks and the Irish Coast Guard.
“Along with private donations, we have also received funding from the Athlone Anglers Association who were the first organisation to support this initiative.
“A word of gratitude is also extended to the members and friends of Athlone Regional Sports Centre, Westmeath County Council, Judge Hughes - Athlone Court Box, Sean’s Bar, Athlone Sweets and Midland Print & Signs.
“If what we are doing prevents one person from entering the water or helps to save just one person from the river, it will all have been money and time very well spent.
“While we have made great progress in recent times we have more plans to make the river a safer place,” the Town Mayor concluded.
Conor Hannon, Chairman of Athlone Anglers Association, noted the necessity to maintain safety measures in close proximity to the River Shannon, lauding the continuous efforts of the Athlone River Safety Awareness Group.
“Since the foundation of our club, we have assisted in the search and recovery of people who have gone missing in the Shannon. We have been happy to assist the Athlone Sub Aqua Club in their search and recovery endeavours over the years. In doing this, we have become acutely aware of the anguish of families waiting for the recovery of their loved ones.
“This is why we were happy to support the Athlone River Safety Awareness group in the good work they are doing. When we were approached by Cllr Aengus O’Rourke for sponsorship, the club decided to purchase one of the safety boxes in its entirety at a cost of €6,510.
“We hope this will help in the safety and welfare of people using the River Shannon,” Conor concluded.