Mark “ships out”

This month, I’m indebted to my good friend Mark Fenton for a story to bring a smile to people’s faces. Mark like myself was reared in a home where the sea was in our blood and we wanted nothing more than to sail away into the wild blue wonder. Maybe thats why we got on so well when we first met in a factory in Waterford. Friends ever since, he sent this story on to me recently of his maiden voyage. Just the antidote to the present Corona virus crisis.

When I was a child, all I wanted to do when I grow up was drive lorries or go to sea. The motivation for the lorries, was that my uncles in Cork drove regular runs to the continent or were hauling beet and molasses to and from the sugar factory in Mallow. But the sea was my first love, because my father Sean, God rest him, was a seaman. Not a sailor, not a weekend yachtsman but a true, deep-sea-going, bulk tanker, smelling of diesel and Old Spice, hard-working, hard-living and drinking seaman. He was, as it would turn out to be, one of the last of a breed and the likes of which is unlikely to be seen again on these shores. He was at home among the local band of salty characters, some of whom had exotic nick names like ‘Moochy Machi’, ‘Three-dog Kayting’ and ‘The Dinger’. Everyone either knew my father or knew of him and they knew he went to sea, and I the young me was determined to follow him.

Tea break (Smoko) on the Irish Sycamore 1966. Sean Fenton from Waterford, and Chippy Cormac Lowth.
Photo courtesy of Cormac Lowth

We grew up at the end of the Rock shire Road in Ferrybank, Waterford. Our house was practically in the yard of the then fledgling Bell Lines, which grew to be a major container shipping operation. The skyscraping flour mills of R and H Hall was another neighbor on the North Wharf where ships came and went twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. Our weekends and holidays were spent walking the river wharves and banks from Redmond Bridge to the Barrow Bridge, along the now defunct Rosslare railway line, dodging the boat trains, counting wagons on sugar beet trains and waving to the crew of passing ships heading in and out of Waterford City. Bell Boats, Rock Boats, B+I Boats, Purcell cattle boats, tramp boats and coasters carrying livestock, soya, coal, timber and combine harvesters…. we knew all the names, ‘Racer’, ‘Rover’, ‘Ranger’, ‘Skellig Rock’, ’Livestock Express’,  ‘Miranda’, ‘Wakfuji Maru’… the list goes on. Global trade and transport were all around us. The ports of Rosenberg, Radicatel, London, Abudabi, Dubai, Karachi, Newark and New York were as familiar names to us as Kilmacow, Tramore or Wexford. And I dreamed of one day being at helm of one of them big ships traveling the oceans of the world.

Crew MV Bell Racer at Kagoshima Japan 30-3-1977. Sean Fenton Bosun. Photo courtesy of Mark Fenton

It was clear to me then that there was no point staying on in school until I was eighteen when I could get away to sea at fifteen. From the 1950s right up until the early ’Eighties, this career path was possible and I had no reason to believe it would be a problem for me. However, the harsh economic realities of the time combined with a decade long dock strike in Waterford port, conspired to ensure that 1982 to 1985 were probably the worst time in Irish maritime history to attempt to embark on a seafaring career in my home town. The R and H hall boats were sold, Arklow Shipping had a reduced fleet, Bell Lines was struggling, opportunities on the cattle boats didn’t arise for an inexperienced 16 year old, it was a grim time on the quay side, the only boats going in and out of Waterford were few and far between, and foreign.

I had taken what was probably one of the last deckhand apprentice exams for Irish Shipping Ltd but by the time that competition was finalized, Irish Shipping had disappeared from the world’s oceans. In desperation, I applied to the Navy, my heart wasn’t in it and I held small hope of success.  With my dreams on hold for the moment, I took a position in a supermarket and spent my days stacking peas and beans while wishing I was instead ploughing the ocean wave.

But I never really gave up hope and one day, out of the blue, I received a call from a shipping agency based in Cork. They had a vessel due in Waterford in a couple of days and needed a crewman ASAP. My enthusiasm made up for my lack of experience and I was offered the job. I handed in my notice at the shop, put my love life on hold and packed my bag in preparation for my first signing on. The night before the big day, my mates and I rallied in Jordan’s ‘American Bar, a traditional seaman’s pub on the quays in Waterford, to toast my luck and to wish me ‘bon voyage’. Wasn’t I the proud sailor next morning as I stood on the aft deck, heartily waving to the lads on the pier as the ship slipped her moorings and pulled away?  I wondered where my first exotic destination was going to be?

But my beaming smile was quickly disappearing as I realized something was terribly wrong. The ship was turning about in the broad basin of the river and was heading inland towards the open span of the Redmond Bridge. Horror of horrors for a would be Waterford salty sea-dog, it dawned on me that , my first port of call could only bet a place called Fiddown, a little village 14 miles upriver in County Kilkenny not far from Kildalton,  the biggest farming college in Ireland.  My face was frozen as it dawned on me that I was probably the first person in my seafaring family to head away to sea and to end up in a village in the heartland of Irish agriculture. It took us about four hours to plough our way up there (pun intended) and when we tied up at the little quay, I swiftly secured a lift home from a Michael O’Brien and was sitting at my mother’s table in time for tea. My father told nobody – it would have been unpardonable for a Fenton to head to sea and end up in the middle of Co Kilkenny.

Dredger Lake Lothing. Heading downriver through Redmon Bridge. Courtesy of Michael Butch Power

Unperturbed by this little hiccup I rejoined the vessel later that night and next morning we set sail for the port of Swansea, I held my breath as the ship slipped under the centre span of the city bridge and I waved up at the people looking down on us.

By the time we dropped the pilot at Passage East I was on the bridge and as the vessel made open sea between Dunmore and Hook head I couldn’t help but feel a little bit nervous, particularly as I noticed that  all the trawlers were steaming towards the shelter of Dunmore. I was wise enough to know that those men would go out in any kind of weather and seeing them heading for shelter had to be a bad omen. We spent two days and two nights between the lights of Dunmore and the beacon of Hook Head, bow into the storm without making any headway. When we eventually arrived in Swansea I thought I couldn’t possibly have been more ill. I had never been to Swansea before and probably because I was so ill, found it to be a rather depressing place full of coal and electricity pylons. Here we loaded coke for St Helier in the Channel Islands and with a quick turn-around we were gone. The trip down to the Channel Islands was uneventful although quite rough, particularly around The Needles and Lands End.  Arriving safely in port, I was a bit more upbeat about prospects. Which was just as well because things were about to take a turn much for the worse.

The first sign of disaster was when the ‘Old Man’ informed me that I was to take over the duties of cook. My culinary skills at this stage in my young life were confined to making toast. The second sign was when it became evident we were running out of food and water soon after leaving St Helier for Dieppe. The old man felt we would make it but the weather had other ideas. I still have nightmares about the nights between the lights of Phare de Cap Levi and Phare de Getteville on the Pointe de Barfleur in North West Brittany; I saw visions of death as the elements hammered our little vessel like a pencil in a swimming pool. Every now and then we would rise up on the crest of a massive wave only to find ourselves at the top with no support, to fall with a sickening slap, lights out, propeller spinning uselessly in the air and stalling on entering the sea again where the lights would go out. But we survived. The storm passed and we arrived in Dieppe.

But not before I learned something new about myself. Each morning the captain, the first mate and the chief engineer had a rasher, a sausage, and an egg for breakfast while the crew ate only cereal. This particular morning I was faced with the following dilemma: I had no bacon or sausages and just one egg. So who was to get the egg – the old man, the chief or the mate? I boiled it up and ate it with toast, before calling everyone else to a cereal breakfast. There was muttering but no mutiny.

SS Kattegat. At R&H Halls, North Quays Waterford in 1937.
Courtesy of Michael Butch Power

In Dieppe, we were to load soya for Belfast, but here too was another dockers’ strike. By now, the shine was wearing off my dreams of a life at sea and as we were heading to Belfast I thought, I’d call it a day there. As they old sea-dogs say, after many other adventures, I arrived home on Christmas Eve, my mother was delighted to see me and never asked any questions. Neither were any explanations offered. Since then, my career path has not strayed from terra firma but I still get a great laugh from recollections of my short but sharp seafaring adventure.

My thanks to Mark Fenton, who shared this lovely, humorous, account of his first and final shipping out. He made it further than I ever did! Livig through these unprecedented times with the Corona Virus shutdown, we need every and any oppotunity to smile. I’m indebted to Mark for just such a tonic. If you want to pass on any comments to Mark, if you email i will happily pass them on.

“Hail Glorious St Patrick”

Today is a historic and unprecedented first I believe. Due to the spreading pandemic of Corona Virus, the national Irish holiday of St Patricks Day is effectively cancelled. No parades, the pubs where people traditionally “wet the shamrock” are closed and people are asked not to gather at house parties. And shock of all shocks, even the churches are closed. So this year, I thought I’d reshare an old story of mine on my childhood memories of the day.

On St Patrick’s Day my thoughts often wander back to the “wearing of the Green” of my childhood, and particularly the 9am mass at Faithlegg Church. I suppose the mass stands out, as in those days before the day became a “festival” it was much simpler of an affair. As we didn’t have a car we rarely got to see a parade, except on television. But it was a day off, which like so many others was spent out rambling the strand and the Minaun. However if we were unlucky and it rained we probably had to re-sit a re-run of Darby O Gill and the Little People or, my mothers favourite, the Quiet Man.

One of my earliest memories is of coming home from school with a hand made badge with a saftypin stuck on the back with sellotape and a drawing of a harp and plenty of green white and gold. I understand that the badge went back to the Irish soldiers that fought in the trenches in World War I. We could look forward to a break from school, and also a break from lent. Lent then generally meant no chocolate, sweets, or my favourites -Tayto crisps. But on this one daywe were allowed to relent the fast and I remember one Paddy’s Day being almost sick after gorging myself on bags of Cheese & Onion.


Church was very important in our home growing up, and Patricks morning was a major occasion. The main difference on this morning of course was the obligatory bit of shamrock, splashed across the left lapel of the coat on us boys, and affixing it always happened just as we were about to go out the door- this in case it would wilt before we got to mass.

There were mornings of course when the shamrock had not been sourced due to scarcity. Those were even better, as we were dispatched across the strand and up to Nanny’s in the Russianside. Nanny, like many of the older citizens, took a marked pride in the display of the trinity leaf.

Whereas at home my mother or father first adorned their own attire and we got the scraps, Nanny’s was different. Nanny would have a bowl, fully laden, and as we crashed in atop of her, she would line us up and fuss and bother (in a way my mother didn’t have the time to with five to divide her time) by picking a nice piece and then pin it in place with an eye to detail.

Her own attire on the day always had a lot of green, and could include in part, and sometimes in total blouse, cardigan, head scarf and coat. The coat would have a spread of Shamrock that would have fed a sheep. On then we went, up to the cross roads with her, to board the Suirway bus.

Accessed from . Photo of the late Johnny and Lena O’Keeffe, Main Street, Millstreet. With thanks to Paudie Creedon for the information,

The Suirway bus of course was a trial. This local service ran for Sunday mass and on holy days of obligation, and was crammed with mass goers of all ages. The old lads blackguarding accusing your shamrock of all manner of insult. Some would say it was wilted, others that it looked scrawny whilst others, and perhaps the worst insult of all would call it a “a bit of oul clover” At the church the unspoken competition would be in full swing for the most impressive display, but I can never remember anyone besting Matt “Mucha” Doherty. The spray of shamrock would be emblazoned across the left side of his chest, like the mane of a lion. You could only marvel at how he managed to keep it fresh looking.

The ceremony on that day always appealed to me. I loved the stories associated with Patrick, but most of all I loved the singing. Songs in the church were generally the preserve of Jim “Lofty” Duffin. Jim would stand up in the centre of the congregation and from his hymnbook, sing solo. It didn’t feel right to accompany him, and generally people didn’t. But there were days during the church year that the congregation shook itself free and one of these was St Patricks morning.

It’s as if we dropped our reserve on those days, and, generally led off by Jim, first the women and then all but the most impervious of men joined in and as we all stood, the mass ended is a crescendo of a community event. For me, I think the day meant a lot to us as a community in a nationalistic kind of way, a day that celebrated something that made us proud to be Irish in a country that at the time, probably didn’t have a lot to be proud of. And in standing to sing, it was almost like singing the national anthem. For several years it was the central meaning of the day for me.

After more than fifty years, I can hear the singing yet…Hail, Glorious St Patrick

Hail, glorious Saint Patrick, dear saint of our Isle,
On us thy poor children bestow a sweet smile;
And now thou art high in the mansions above,
On Erin’s green valleys look down in thy love.

On Erin’s green valleys, on Erin’s green valleys,
On Erin’s green valleys look down in thy love.

Hail, glorious Saint Patrick, thy words were once strong
Against Satan’s wiles and an infidel throng;
Not less is thy might where in heaven thou art;
O, come to our aid, in our battle take part.

On Erin’s green valleys, on Erin’s green valleys,
On Erin’s green valleys look down in thy love.

In the war against sin, in the fight for the faith,
Dear saint, may thy children resist unto death;
May their strength be in meekness, in penance, their prayer,
Their banner the cross which they glory to bear.

On Erin’s green valleys, on Erin’s green valleys,
On Erin’s green valleys look down in thy love.

Thy people, now exiles on many a shore,
Shall love and revere thee till time be no more;
And the fire thou hast kindled shall ever burn bright,
Its warmth undiminished, undying its light.

On Erin’s green valleys, on Erin’s green valleys,
On Erin’s green valleys look down in thy love.

Ever bless and defend the sweet land of our birth,
Where the shamrock still blooms as when thou wert on earth,
And our hearts shall yet burn, wherever we roam,
For God and Saint Patrick, and our native home.

On Erin’s green valleys, on Erin’s green valleys,
On Erin’s green valleys look down in thy love.

Warm memories for me now, made more so this year by the required isolation of social distancing. But we can still celebrate the day. The flags are up, food is in, a few drinks on the sideboard are ready to be poured. I wish everyone who reads this a happy “La Le Feile Padraig” and will keep in mind all those who won’t have the time to celebrate today, as they will be working on the frontline to keep us all healthy and safe.