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By Jason Michael
OVER THREE DECADES AFTER the disaster, Seán O’Donoghue was still trapped beneath the burning platform of the Piper Alpha oil rig. The poems he wrote and the art he produced always wept for the memories he could never escape. More often than I can remember he told me of the searing heat in the air hanging over the foam of the North Sea. Black oil falling, in flames in parts, from the towering platform above into the water below where it continued to burn. Fire rose from the rig, a hundred meters high and more. “Carnage,” he called it. “A hellish carnage.” The flames were still raging even during the recovery operation, when he and his mates were looking for the bodies of the men who lost their lives. Piper Alpha cost the lives of 167 men. It almost claimed one more – Seán’s.
In a small Charismatic church in Dublin city centre, while reciting his poem ‘Bubbles,’ his eyes filled with tears – his eyes were always filled with tears when he remembered the Piper – he first told me of how he nearly never came home. Too deep in the pitch-dark brine to swim up for air, he spotted the millions of tiny bubbles swimming like a cosmos of stars and planets about his head. The sight was wonderful, he recalled, beautiful and peaceful – even amid the hell and carnage, but he knew the awfulness of what it meant. He was in bad trouble. In spite of the bulk of the gear he was wearing, it was a toaty wee valve in his helmet that had broken. The mist of bubbles around him was the oxygen he needed, and it was fast escaping. What had begun as a recovery became a rescue. Seán’s life was on the line and he was drowning.
At twenty-seven years of age, Seán was a broken man. The trauma of what he witnessed and the effects of his near drowning caused him a severe emotional and psychic collapse, the ripples of which washed up against him – sometimes pulling him back under – for the rest of his life. His bi-polar disorder produced a curious older man; someone who would laugh with all the joy of life and sink into the bleakest recesses of the valley of the shadow of death – sometimes in the same day. Seeing him looking frightened and lost in a grim-looking psychiatric ward was rough, though, in fairness, it could sometimes be tough when he was loose and in fine fettle. It could be annoying. The man had no filter. Whatever came to his mind he’d blurt right out, no matter how awkward – or incriminating. “You do have the right to remain silent,” Dom in the Men’s Centre once advised him to the uproarious merriment of the men. Seán was some man. A Character.
He has the dubious distinction for being the only person I know to be chucked out of Sinn Féin for “talking too much – can you believe that, for talking too much? The cheek of them!” I would have put him out just for turning up in his biker boots and waders. He didn’t even go fishing. Come to think of it, he never had a bike. He didn’t much like coming to my house because – the horror – I leave my toilet seat up. Some rot he had picked up from Feng Shui, apparently my big white telephone was robbing the house of energy and letting bad vibes in – man, I could have told you that! Visiting friends is important. Actually, it kinda is.
He developed Parkinson’s disease a couple of years ago. He was shaky on his feet. He was finding it hard to get around. Last time I saw him it was in town for a coffee. He was all chat about Scotland and loved the fact that I’d become a terrorist – or so the police think. This tickled him pink, a dyed in the wool Republican who had “feck all time for the Brits.” The real scandal of the oil rigs was that “Scotland was being fleeced.” When I set up the Butterfly Rebellion he insisted on donating. He wouldn’t take no for an answer – “this is Braveheart stuff, this,” he said. He wanted to be a part of it – “History, Jason. It’s History.” Last time I saw him he asked if I would come out to his house and pay him a visit. I promised I would, and I would have.
This afternoon I got a call from Áine, a mutual friend and neighbour of his. Cait, her daughter in Orkney, wanted her to tell me the news – Thank you, Cait! Seán was found dead this morning. He had hanged himself. And I’m left wondering how much of this was July 1988, how much of it was the darkness he carried about with him, how much of it was the illness that terrified him, how much of it was the loneliness, how much of it was me not visiting. Visiting friends is important.
Odd as it might sound, the first thing I did when I came off the phone with Áine was go and put my toilet seat down. Strange symbolic gesture of making him welcome, and I could do without the bad vibes. Seán, ignoring all his strangenesses – and there were a few of them – was a good man. He was a poor soul, but a gentle man who was always struggling, often against himself, to be the best version of himself he could be. Hoping someone throws him a wake. If anyone needs a wake, it’s him. See, he told that many stories about himself – but the ones others tell of him are better. He’s the guy who ran his bath all night to flood his flat so the council would move him to a better place. It worked. Those antics were real investments in the future, making it hard to understand why he did it. Well, please God, he’s in a better place now.
4 thoughts on “Hero of Piper Alpha”
Lovely ode to a man troubled yet talented.
Many an activist for better humanity has there own struggles.
Peace for Sean now.
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A beautiful narrative about a real hero who literally gave his life eventually for a tragedy which happened many years ago. Who knows the price people pay for others or causes? These are the true newsworthy stories, not the glorification of nobodies we are fed by the press. I hope this great man rests in peace.
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A lovely tribute to your friend, Jason, and I’m so sorry to hear your sad news. I hope Sean has found the peace he deserves.
I worked on Piper A for many years from hook up to first oil. Piper bought my first house. On shore leave from Piper almost 42 years ago I married the love of my life Izzy. I remember the poker school the movies shuffleboard and galley on board. Most of all I remember the ordinary men like Sean that made Piper a warm welcoming and friendly bolt hole from the rigours of the North Sea.
All to often the scale and statistics of such an catastrophic event can blind us to what actually happened.
PIPER ALPHA TRAGEDY
The Piper Alpha was not one tragedy but 167 now 168 tragedies. Thank you Jason for stripping back the scale of that horrible event and through Sean’s story reminding us that all the souls lost on board Piper that night had lives beyond the headlines.
God bless Sean and all the ordinary men everywhere.
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