Easter 1966 was a tragic holiday period in Kerry. Within a few days of one another, a student from University College Dublin and a teenage member of an English school party were killed in separate incidents on Carrauntoohil, Ireland’s highest peak. It was as a direct result of these two tragedies that the Kerry Mountain Rescue Team was formed in July of that same year, largely as a result of the vision and energy of Frank Lewis of Killarney. The Team at that stage consisted of a group of concerned people, not expert rock climbers, but men and women who knew the mountains and were prepared to set their own lives at risk to help others in distress.

The original nucleus of the Team were found in Killorglin, and the early members included Paddy O’Callaghan, Stan Brick, Gearóid O’Sullivan and Richard Morrison, along with Killarney representatives such as Terence Casey and John McGuire. Meetings were held around the fireplace in Paddy’s house, and as Gearóid O’Sullivan recalled “It didn’t matter whether we had high heels or mountaineering boots at the time – those questions weren’t even asked then”.

The Team had an early ‘baptism of fire’ in the form of the July 1967 all-night rescue of Bill Collins, after whom Collins’ Gully is named (see above for newspaper story and photographs). This was the Team’s first major rescue and to this day remains one of the most epic ever undertaken in Kerry. In the words of Paddy O’Callaghan, “The rain was dreadful that night and we weren’t even sure about where we were going. The terrain was desperate and we had no helmets and only minimum equipment. We could have been killed or injured ourselves but the mission was a success and we went on from there”.

And go on from there they certainly did. Although shortage of funding, and therefore equipment, has always been a problem for the Team, the efforts that Team Members have put in over the years have gradually built up the Team’s resources, and in 1979 the Team acquired its first ambulance. Another major milestone came in 1983 when the Country’s first dedicated Mountain Rescue station was opened in Killorglin, after Team Members raised three quarters of the £15,000 cost of the base. In 1990 Klaus Noelke, honorary German Consul, presented the Team with an ex-army Mercedes Unimog field ambulance and ‘troop carrier’, which was the Team’s main operational vehicle until it was recently replaced by a newer version of the same vehicle.

Also in 1990, the first two specially trained search and rescue dogs in the country took their place in the Team, along with their handlers Mike McCarthy and Don Murphy. This has enabled the Team to search large areas much more quickly and efficiently than would be possible using manpower alone.

In recent times Mountain Rescue came under the remit of the Irish Coast Guard, who now provide a sizeable proportion of the Team’s annual running costs, the remainder being comprised of an annual grant from Kerry County Council and the considerable fundraising efforts and generous donations of private individuals and community groups.

The Team’s current base at Killarney Garda Station was opened in 2004 after a sustained period of fundraising and a capaital grant from the Irish Coast Guard, along with the very kind gesture of a nominal lease of the site from the Office of Public Works. The opening of the base marked another major milestone in the development of the Team.

Thankfully, the Team has continued to go from strength to strength, and although the equipment used by the Team now appears luxurious compared to the spartan early days when even a single rope was a major asset, ongoing fundraising is essential.

Over the years there have been many notable callouts. Apart from the Collins Rescue mentioned above, there was the weekend in 1986 which resulted in the hospitalization of three Cork climbers after an avalanche, followed immediately afterwards by the death of a young female walker after a slip close by. Another callout which has become a ‘legend’ was the huge but unsuccessful 1989 search for a missing walker whose body was eventually found over six months later. Sadly, the Team has attended over 40 fatalities over the years, many in the immediate Carrauntoohil area. This is an unfortunate but necessary part of the job which members take on when they join the Team.

On a lighter note, many of the early Team members still enjoy a chuckle over the ‘missing’ honeymoon couple, who were eventually found tucked up safe and well in their tent after trying to get away from the crowds. As one Team member said, “It was hard to know whether it was us or them who had the reddest face when we unzipped the tent!”

Today’s Team would like to say a very big thank you to all past members and supporters, whose efforts have helped to build up the Team over the years. Our hats go off to the participants in some of the heroic rescues of the past, which were achieved without all the equipment and training we have come to depend on today.

May the next 50 years be as successful as the first!