Three Sisters Turkey Trade

Traditionally Christmas has been a time of excess when whatever you were celebrating was marked by feasting and making merry.  Turkey originated in Europe with the early explorers returning from America with breeding pairs.  The large bird became a favourite for feasting and special occasions.  The industrial revolution led to an increase in demand as more and more families’ incomes rose.  Turkey, a large, meaty bird, provided an excellent option to feed large hungry families. The imported birds quickly adapted to the new climate and quickly established themselves on Irish farms, principally for an export market of the large industrial cities of Scotland, Wales, and England.  This article paints a picture of what the local scene looked like in the opening decade of the 20th Century.

Waterford Quays in the early 20th Century were heaving under the weight of fowl lining the busy streets of the town.  The city was utilising its location and thriving coastal trade links to the UK to service a voracious market within hours of the city, supplied from the conduits of the rivers, roads, and the train lines that radiated towards the city quays.

A Fowl Trade

A local paper gives a sense of this trade in 1907 with a roundup of the local suppliers and their activities.  The firms included Messrs Flynn and Young of Conduit Lane, W Street of Beau Street, Messrs C J Hill, King Street (Now O’Connell St).  Prices vary from each firm for the birds, but for a sense of the variety on offer and the price here’s what Street & Co are paying: Cock turkeys, from 12s to 25s per pair; hen turkeys, 9s to 11s per pair; geese,  9s to 11s per pair; chickens, 4s to 4s 8d per pair, and ducks 4s 6d per pair.[I] 

A load of Turkeys outside the Flynn & Young premises in Conduit Lane. AH Poole photo originally via Val Flynn

Although the market includes the local, a significant amount is for export to Scotland, Wales, and England.  An estimated 25,000 turkeys have already been processed in Waterford that year  – killed, cleaned, plucked, and trussed.  Some were also sent abroad as presents.  According to the article, the quality of the Irish turkey exceeds that on offer from the continent or Russia and prices are good to the women on the farms of the surrounding countryside.[ii]

An internal shot of the Flynn & Young Premises with a large supply of salmon laid out on the left, suggesting it is summertime. Note a block of ice suspended overhead. AH Poole photo NLI

Each of the companies seems to have a different focus and it seems geese are making a better price this year but had slumped previously due to cheaper imports from Russia.  The farm women had got out of geese as a consequence, but due to a fall in supply from the East, geese were now in demand and prices were good for those who continued to rear them.[iii]

AH Poole photo from the NLI showing cartloads of Turkeys and other goods along the Quay of Waterford in 1907

Hill reports that, although Irish birds are meeting stiff competition from the French and Italians, (apparently because they show little care in the feeding and general treatment – but maybe that was just a bias of the journalist!), Irish reared turkeys continue to hold their own.   Irish geese, they claim, are a thing of the past.  “We are unable to compete with cheaper produce from Russia, and consequently there is neither the supply nor demand that ruled previous years”.[iv]

As I said not all these birds were for the foreign market.  A reporter of 1901 gives a sense of a vibrant scene, that would not be out of place in 2021.  “The season of Christmas is fast approaching, and the owners of business houses in the city are taxing all their ingenuity to make their respective establishments as attractive as possible. This is as true of the smallest shopfront to the monster warehouses. Fowl of every kind—geese and turkeys in particular—is very much in evidence… All the business houses in the city are arranged with excellent taste, especially those along the Quay, indicating that Christmas is to be viewed with eagerness and looked back upon with pleasure.”[v]

Adverts also highlighted a vibrant local trade as evidenced by the advert from AS Furlongs of 77 The Quay, Waterford. Waterford Standard – Saturday 20 December 1902; page 1 and below Waterford Standard – Saturday 12 December 1903; page 2
And not all that were sent abroad were specifically exports. Some were sent as presents to relatives working abroad as evidenced by this advert from the Waterford Standard – Wednesday 11 December 1901; page 2. And just like today’s retailers, Flynn & Young were keen to let local customers know that it’s best to get your orders in early to avoid disappointment.

In 1906 inmates and staff of the Waterford District Lunatic Asylum, 572 in all, were said to have “enjoyed a fine Christmas with the dining hall decorated with flowers, evergreens, and mottoes…  dinner…consisted of roast beef and mutton, turkeys and ham, potatoes and vegetables… afterward plum pudding was served…and a bottle of stout to those inmates who could take It or to whom it was allowed”[vi]

Meanwhile, at the Military Barracks, the day was celebrated with “more than the usual gusto…The fare for dinner consisted of turkeys, goose, partridges, pheasants, and roast beef and mutton, with veg of various kinds and potatoes” drink isn’t mentioned, but doubtless if flowed.[vii]

Markets and Transport

In 1907, it would appear that Messrs Flynn and Young were buying largely in Wexford.  “Several times during the past week they chartered the new steamer on the Waterford and Duncannon service, and one day alone this steamer brought 2,085 turkeys from South Wexford and district” [viii] The steamer was the SS Duncannon which due to local pressure was brought in to replace the loss of the PS Vandeleur and other ships that had connected Duncannon, Arthurstown, Ballyhack, Passage and Cheekpoint with daily sailings from 1837.  The Duncannon service would continue to 1917 when the vessel was requisitioned for war services and the service was discontinued. The turkeys were also transported via road on carts or via freight carriages on trains.

A price list for Flynn & Young, date unknown. Image courtesy of Val Flynn.

Local agents also worked on behalf of the firms, middlemen who in some cases could be rather unscrupulous as we will see below.  In New Ross a fowl market was held on a regular basis, the Paddle Steamer Ida acting as a good conduit for the transport of the birds to the city.  The PS Ida stopped running to Waterford in 1905 – the New Ross to Waterford railway had opened in 1904!) In 1903 for example the New Ross Standard reported that “The great Christmas fowl market was held in New Ross on Saturday last. Turkeys and every description of fowl were marketed in great number and good condition…The market was well attended by the Waterford, Wexford, and local buyers”[ix]

Some turkey farmers had their private clientele too as this postcard highlights sent by Mrs Pearl O’Neill nee Phelan anxious to be sure the turkey dispatched by rail had arrived safely from her farm on the Fethard Road, Clonmel, Co Tipperary. With thanks to Alan O’Neill
Patrick Kirby employed up to 300 seasonal town workers at Christmas time in Lough St, Carrick On Suir. In 1911 for example he delivered 100 tons of dead turkeys to England and on 11th December alone sent 1,000 chickens. Extra railway porters had to be employed to handle them. Photo and information supplied by Patsy Travers Mullins

In 1908 a market was held in Chaple in Wexford and was described as follows: “…was of very large dimensions, people attending with their turkeys and geese from a radius of five miles…The attendance of buyers was very good, Wexford and New Ross were well represented, and it was estimated that no less than £2,000 worth of the feathered tribe were purchased. The vicinity of the railway station was packed, and several wagons left during the day, besides many horse load by road… [a] representative of a large London poultry firm, with his New Ross agent, was in attendance also, and purchased very cautiously.”[x]  For a sense of the export business in 1908, the Waterford Chronicle reported that Flynn and Young alone, disposed of some 10,000 turkeys for the English and Scotch markets.[xi]

In 1909 we are told that Waterford poultry merchants have spent at least £10,000 in purchasing turkeys to meet that year’s demand. A good financial season is hoped for and  “…This is made more ensured now that the local railway and steamship company are offering exceptional facilities to the poultry merchants, rates having been reasonably reduced, and besides transit is now much quicker and safer than in years gone by.”[xii]

PS Ida alongside in New Ross. Andy Kelly Collection.

A flavour, if you will pardon the pun, of the scene at Ballyhack is provided by the New Ross Standard that same year:  “The turkeys are gone, but not with a vengeance. They went in carts and cars, hundreds upon hundreds of them, to Ballyhack on Monday and Tuesday last, and from thence to Waterford to undergo the death sentence in preparation for the Christmas dinners of the inhabitants of John Bull’s land. John Bull has an enormous appetite, and thousands of turkeys will go to satisfy it on Christmas and succeeding days. Everywhere you hear talk about the turkeys. They are a fertile source of gossip. It would be difficult to imagine Christmas without them. It is a pity that we cannot keep some of them for use in Ireland, and not send them all to gorge John Bull”[xiii]

In 1906 the new railway line connection to Rosslare opened up new possibilities to exporters.  However, trade continued in and out of the port city.  In December that year, Great Western Railroad Co ran the Great Southern and the Great Western on a regular basis to Fishguard and on by rail to London.  Clyde Shipping Co and Waterford Steam Ship Co also continued to trade as the advert below highlights.

Source: Waterford News Letter 8 December 1906; page 2
SS Dunbrody alongside one of Waterfords many floating hulks to avoid the notorious mud banks

Foul Trade – Crime and punishment

Given the popularity of the bird and the economic benefits, a criminal element was also associated with them.  In 1909 for example there was a crime spree reported in the Campile and Sheilbaggan districts of Wexford where no distinction between rich or poor turkey farmers was made by the perpetrators of “this reprehensible work”  The “stealers…carried on their work cleverly, stealing only a small number of birds, and extending their operations over a wide area. One poor woman had three birds ready for the market, and when she went out one morning she found that they had been stolen”  It was described as “low conduct” and  “a very mean crime”. [xiv]

In 1906 the same paper reported on two cases connected to the feathered friend, or maybe in this case fiend!  The petty sessions at Arthurstown heard of a dispute between two locals named Young and Conway who in an ironic twist, had throttled each other after a falling out about the cost of a bird.  Meanwhile, two men from Nuke – John Shea and John White had come to blows over a matter of turkey trespass. [xv] The two johnnies how are you!!

In September that same year in Fethard (On Sea had yet to be added), Ellen Jacob Ralph summoned a neighbour James Dunphy after his dog savaged her “real good turkey that was laying all the year round”  The turkey strayed “only into Dunphy’s Turnips – not in his corn” and was so badly mauled she could not even eat it. It seems no defence was put forward and Dunphy was fined a shilling and paid his neighbour 5s in compensation.[xvi]

Of course, there were other challenges for farmers; unscrupulous business practices.  At the Callan Petty Sessions in Kilkenny in January 1908 no less than four buyers were before the magistrates charged with having inaccuracies in their weighing measurements – calculated to give them a financial advantage over the producer.   Sergeant McDermott, inspector of weights and measures successfully prosecuted all four, despite their excuses, named Nolan, Lanigan, Griffin, and Costigan [xvii]

Blackguarding was just as harshly dealt with in Wexford Town.  That same January a laggard found himself before the court.  ” Why did you steal the turkey?” asked the magistrate. “Oh, it was merely due to impulse,” responded the prisoner, in an off-hand sort of way, glancing the while round the court as if he were a mere spectator. “yes, impulse is a curious thing,” responded the magistrate, musingly, after trying vainly to attract the prisoner’s attention. ” I feel an uncontrollable impulse just now to sentence you to six months. It is merely impulse, but there it is.[xviii]

Meanwhile back in Waterford turkey tangler Mrs. Mary Cullen was before the courts for using language that was described as abusive and filthy and given the season “…could not by any means be taken to convey peace and goodwill” Mrs. Cullen was delivering a load of turkeys at Messrs Flynn and Young’s in her cart when she stopped in the middle of High St., which was highly congested at the time.  When Constable Organ told her to move on, as the cart was causing an obstruction and congestion in the street, things became heated.  The case before the City Police Court was adjourned to await the next Petty Sessions court.[xix] (Where Mrs. Cullen was fined 5s and Costs!)

Husbandry

Although I can’t pretend to know much about the rearing of turkeys or the details of farm life then or now some details that I picked up from the papers may give a sense of the reality of the time.  The work seems to have been an aside for the women of the farms, and as such probably represented their only income stream independent of their husbands.

The work was difficult, particularly when the birds were younger.  In 1902 the New Ross Standard gave this description. “Turkey poults are notoriously delicate during the very early stages of their growth. They are very dainty feeders and require to be very carefully watched and very frequently fed if successful results are to be achieved with them. During the first few days of their existence, they should be supplied with hard-boiled eggs broken into small pieces and given in conjunction with a little biscuit meal or common bread worked into a crumbly mass either with boiling water or hot skim milk. Care should be taken not to give the meal or bread to the young birds in a soft sticky condition. Like other fowls, they do much better when the food is given rather in the form of a crumbly mass than of a soft paste”[xx] 

And of course, if you managed to get them from the hand-reared stage, you had to be constantly vigilant – including as we saw from straying into neighbouring fields! But also from illness.  But there was something to be bought for this too.  The New Ross Standard tells us of a “…certain cure for Gape in Chickens and Turkeys. Hundreds cured with one shilling tin. Sold by W. G. Williams, Quay-street, New Ross.[xxi]

Many farmer wives seem to have kept their own breeders to ensure a regular supply, but they could also be bought as this advert suggests.  New Ross Standard – Friday 11 September 1908; page 1
The aforementioned Mrs Pearl O’Neill nee Phelan was obviously a progressive farmer. Buying in an incubator to ensure healthy new chicks made it to adulthood. Although not visible, the postmark is dated 1912. With thanks to Alan O’Neill

And it seems there was also advice to be had, at least in 1908.  At the monthly meeting of the County Committee of Agriculture in Kilkenny, a report was given about poultry instruction in the county by Miss J. M. Campbell, Poultry Instructress.  She reported that she had been busy providing lectures around the county, making “…periodical inspection of the 17 egg, 22 turkey, and 3 goose stations in the county, and visiting poultry-keepers in the vicinity of these stations…”[xxii] I know absolutely nothing about this detail at all, was it in other counties? What is a turkey station?  Or what form the lectures took?  I’m sure they must have targeted the farm women – as I would doubt the men would take instruction from Miss Campbell in the era?

In a follow-up comment on the published story, Tony Molloy reminded me that there was a poultry and dairy school run by the St. Louis Sisters in Ramsgrange as part of the Home Economics College. The college started in May 1871 and continued into the 1970s. And it was not just for locals, it took in boarders from all over Wexford, Waterford, and beyond.

And of course, the economic benefits were clear to see for the farm wife as this advert proclaims New Ross Standard – Friday 29 November 1907; page 6

Conclusion

Although the trade in turkeys and other fowl was a vibrant one, it might be easy to conclude that the port trade was flourishing as a result in that opening decade.  At that stage however, rail was providing competition which was increased further when the SW Wexford line linking Waterford to the new port facilities at Rosslare opened in 1906.  Although large beasts such as pigs, cows, and horses would continue to be transported from the quay, exporters favoured rail for the lighter produce of fowl.[xxiii]

The local market must have continued to be small, for example, my mother and father rarely if ever ate Turkey in their childhoods in Ireland of the 40s and 50s.  It was, however, firmly part of our childhood in the late 1960s early 70s.  I can also remember some of my more wealthy friends having the bird at Easter, something I thought was an amazing extravagance.  But maybe that family was just ahead of the wave.  It’s now commonly available as sandwich filler and all manner of fowl can be had from the frozen goods section of supermarkets throughout the year.  Who knows what the future holds.  Meat-free turkey breast anyone?

My thanks to Val Flynn who assisted with some family mementos of Flynn & Young to enliven this piece. Alan O’Neill did likewise. I also got some information from Carrick On Suir via the one and only Patsy Travers Mullins. Also to Myles Courtney of New Ross Street Focus for clarifying some details. All errors and omissions are my own needless to say

Bestic and the bombing of ILV Isolda

In a follow up to an earlier article on the life and times of Irish Master Mariner Albert Bestic, author David Carroll affords a second installment of Bestic’s career -the tragic sinking of the Irish Lights Vessel Isolda on 19th December 1940. Take it away David:

Earlier this year I wrote about Captain Albert Bestic and his survival from the sinking of RMS Lusitania in 1915. Twenty-five years later, he was again involved in another tragic sinking of a vessel. This time it was off the Saltee Islands, while he was Master of the Irish Lights Vessel ‘Isolda’.  My father considered Captain Bestic a heroic figure and held him in the highest esteem. My interest in his story, therefore, was sparked at an early age.

Albert Bestic aboard the ILV Alexandra in 1922. Source Kicking Canvas – Evans Publishers

“The seas off the south-east and south coast of Ireland remained the location for German attacks through the winter of 1940.”

‘Guarding Neutral Ireland.’ [1]

The south-east of Ireland had certainly seen the viciousness of the war throughout 1940.  On August 26th, the peace of the small village of Campile in County Wexford had been shattered, when a lone German bomber appeared without warning and dropped four bombs on the creamery of Shelburne Co-op, which employed approximately 150 people. Sadly, three young women lost their lives.  Guarding Neutral Ireland records that on July 28th, the SS Rockabill, the Clyde Shipping vessel that was much regarded in the Waterford area, was attacked by an aircraft off the Saltee Islands. Because it was outside Irish territorial water, the British registered vessel was able to open fire with her own anti-aircraft gun.  The bombs missed and the Rockabill made it safely into Waterford. The German aircraft continued to circle the area and then attacked the Belfast registered SS Carnalea, a collier, outward-bound from Waterford but without success.

The SS Ardmore was not so lucky. She was on passage from Cork to Fishguard in South Wales on November 12th, 1940, but never reached her destination. She had a full cargo of livestock on board, mainly cattle and pigs. A total of twenty-four lives were lost. When her wreck was finally discovered in 1998, it was found that the hull bore evidence of a massive explosion and it is believed that the ship may have hit a magnetic mine.

In addition, off Co Cork coast, the Irish-registered SS Kerry Head was attacked off Kinsale while on a voyage from Swansea to Limerick on August 1st. The Kerry Head escaped damage in this attack but was not so lucky on October 22nd. Coast Watchers on Sheep’s Head, Co Cork could only look on with horror as a German aircraft dived low over the ship. An immediate explosion was followed by a big cloud of black smoke. The plane was not seen again. The ship sank in a few minutes. There were no survivors from the crew of twelve.

The Weekly Irish Times of December 28th, 1940 carried the following report:

GERMAN CLAIM TO HAVE SUNK SHIP OFF WEXFORD

On December 20 The German High Command communiqué stated: – The German Air Force yesterday carried our armed reconnaissance flights over Great Britain. In St. George’s Channel south of Carnsore Point, (Wexford, Eire), a ship of 1,200 gross registered tons received a direct hit and sank’’.

The report was accurate.  The ship was the Irish Lights tender SS Isolda, which on the morning of December 19th 1940, left Rosslare Harbour at 08.50hrs, with a crew of twenty-eight and seven relief men for the Barrels and Coningbeg lightships to provide them with crews and Christmas provisions. After placing the first crew at the Barrels lightship, Isolda then headed towards the Coningbeg lightship. But she didn’t make it very far, as three miles out, Isolda was attacked from the air by a German Condor aircraft and sank with a loss of six men.

Kenneth King’s iconic painting of the bombing of the Isolda. Image courtesy of Cormac Lowth.

Irish Lights, operating the lighthouse service, was considered neutral during World War ΙΙ and Isolda had ‘Lighthouse Service’ clearly painted in large letters on both sides of the hull. Royal Irish Academy historian, Dr Michael Kennedy has stated that the Isolda was carrying buoys, which viewed from the air may have been mistaken for mines. [At a recent online lecture Elleesa Rushby (granddaughter of William Rushby) discussed several theories, and seemed to lean more towards the fact that Isolda, registered in the UK was flying the blue ensignit is now published online by the National Maritime Museum and is highly recommended viewing]

In command of the Isolda was Captain Albert Bestic, the same person who was Junior Third Officer on RMS Lusitania, torpedoed off the Old Head of Kinsale on May 7th, 1915.  Captain Bestic had entered the service of the Commissioners of Irish Lights on November 24th, 1922, and was appointed 2nd Officer of the SS Alexandra.  September 1934 saw him being appointed 1st Officer of the SS Ierne and in 1939, he became 1st Officer of the SS Alexandra.[2] These lighthouse tenders maintained, supported, and provided supplies to the lighthouses and lights vessels around the Irish coasts and facilitated crew changes.

In 1935, Captain Bestic was granted three months leave from Irish Lights to accompany the salvage ship Ophir as it attempted to find the wreck on the Lusitania. Also, aboard was another survivor of the disaster, Mr Robert Chisholm, formerly second steward of the Lusitania. A newspaper report stated that Captain Bestic was familiar with every passage and deck on the lost liner and knew exactly where on the Lusitania to find the thirty-two-ton safe where passengers deposited their valuables and money on the ship’s last voyage and his knowledge would save divers much time in searching the wreck.[3]

A large crowd had witnessed the Isolda being launched from the Dublin Dockyard on January 26th, 1928. Amongst those in attendance was Captain Bestic, who recalled in a newspaper article in the Irish Independent on June 26th, 1946:

“I saw the Isolda, gay with coloured bunting, launched at Dublin in 1928. Little did I think then that, thirteen unlucky years later, I would be jumping into the water from her deck as, crippled and burning, she disappeared into the insatiable maw of the sea. Never will I forget those appalling ten minutes before she went to her doom— those annihilating explosions, the deafening roar of the plane as it zoomed overhead almost as low as the mast trucks, a veritable zoom of death.”

ILV Isolda, built at Dublin Dockyard and launched January 26th, 1928. She was 198ft in length and 734 tons. Image courtesy of Irish Lights.

Captain Bestic, who was a prolific contributor of articles of maritime interest to Irish newspapers and periodicals, continued to give a personal and graphic description of the sinking:

It was the 19th, December 1940. The weather was perfect. The sun sparkled on a blue and undulating sea and everybody on board was in good spirits for to all appearances we would be back in Dún Laoghaire for Christmas. Ahead of us we could see the Coningbeg lightship, whose leave party awaited our arrival to take them ashore. On our starboard beam less than three miles distant, lay the Saltee Islands, off Co Wexford.

Coningbeg’, the lightship that Isolda never reached on December 19th, 1940.

The Coningbeg lightship was established in 1824. It marked the rocks of the same name off Wexford’s Saltee Islands. Despite several efforts, Coningbeg confounded attempts to build a permanent structure there. It was replaced by a “superbuoy” with a 14km radius light and several smaller navigational aids in 2007. It was one of the last of an original fleet of eleven lightship stations moored around the coast.

Photo: Courtesy of Brian Cleare

About 11, as I was sitting in my cabin, a messenger from the bridge suddenly appeared at my doorway; “There’s a ‘plane in sight, Sir,” He said.

‘Planes, those days, should they have any hostile intentions, did not leave much time for deliberation. Although, I did not anticipate any attack, as we were in neutral waters, I snatched up my cap and hurried on to the bridge.

The ‘plane, about a quarter of a mile distant, was cruising in the same direction as ourselves on our starboard beam, and not more than fifty feet above the surface. Apparently, he was taking stock of us to see if we were armed. Having satisfied himself to the contrary, he prepared to attack.

Accelerating, he encircled our bows until he was on the port beam with the sun directly behind him— and then came straight for us. His intentions were now unmistakable.

Take cover!” I yelled and with one accord, the Chief and Second Officer, the lookout and myself dived into the concrete bullet-proof shelter, better known as the “funkhole” which had been erected on the bridge in case of emergency. This house also protected the helmsman.

Like some diabolical bird that had escaped from an evil world, the ‘plane roared over the bridge and above the noise, I heard two hard thuds. “He’s hit something up aloft” I shouted to my companions. He had made a hit all right, but not in the place I thought, for the thuds were bombs and about five seconds later their explosion seemed to lift the ship about half a foot out of the water.

I stepped out on to the bridge to survey the damage. To my consternation, I saw that the ‘plane had turned and was racing towards us for a second attack. Once again, the dreadful roar as he passed over our heads—to be followed by the ominous thuds as the bombs hit us. I held my breath. Crash!

The ship jumped like some wounded animal, and almost immediately developed a list to starboard. The list, together with the roar of escaping steam from the engine-room as well as volumes of smoke, told me the worst—the ship was finished.

Realising that nothing could be done to save her, I passed the order to abandon ship. The men sprang to the falls and were lowering the boats when that portentous roar I had grown to dread increased again. The ‘plane was coming back.

Once again, a repetition of the fearful ordeal. The order to” take cover,” the darting into the “funk hole”, the same significant “thud, thud”, another nerve-wracking upheaval – death, destruction— and a heavier list.

The survivors, realising that the ship was making water fast, sprang to the boats, lowered them away, and tumbled in. Our troubles were not over yet over. Even as my companions and I prepared to follow, I saw that the ‘plane was sweeping round to bomb us from a stem to stern angle.

Diving for our “funk hole” was becoming quite a routine and once more we sought the shelter of this well-tested refuge. The bombardment which followed seemed to me to be more devastating than any of the previous ones, as the bombs hit us just in front and just behind the bridge. The subsequent explosion was terrific. The bridge seemed to bound furiously up and down and then subside piteously.

Blinded by smoke and fumes, we instinctively staggered aft— to emerge suddenly into clearer atmosphere. To us it breathed a hope of life anew. We could see our boats standing some distance off, but we knew that nobody in them could hope that anybody on the bridge had survived the last fearful bombing.

Time was precious. The ship, fast settling down in the water, felt as though she might take her last plunge at any moment, and were a boat recalled, it might become engulfed in the vortex. Under the circumstances, we decided to get the remaining boat away ourselves but alas, it filled directly as it reached the water.

A boat awash, however, is better than none and we tumbled in—only to find her sinking. To add to our predicament, the funnel, owing to the vessel’s list hung precariously over our heads.

Keen eyes in the motorboat, however, had spotted us despite the smoke and steam. Quickly she sped towards us, and, with her coming, we abandoned our hazardous craft and swam towards her. Within minutes, willing hands had hauled us aboard.

Then came the roll call. Six had been killed outright, while six*, who had been wounded, were with us in the boats. Realising that nothing further could be done we sadly made for Kilmore, our nearest landing place, and, in a couple of hours were receiving that wonderful hospitality which is always accorded to the shipwrecked sailor.

Observers in the lookout post, LOP 14 at Carnsore Point, and crewmen on the Limerick steamer Lanahrone, only eight miles away, witnessed the massacre.  RNLI records show that both the Kilmore Quay and Rosslare lifeboats were launched.

At 10.45hrs, the Kilmore Quay lifeboat was launched after information was received by the coxswain Jack Walsh that a ship was on fire southeast of the Saltee Islands. The coxswain had heard the bombs exploding and saw an aeroplane over the Saltees, but the disaster was behind the small island and not visible from Kilmore. In the meantime, the survivors of the Isolda were heading to Kilmore Quay on a course that would take them west of the Saltees, thus missing the lifeboat.[4]

The lifeboat crew continued and found wreckage in the area but no sign of life. On learning that the survivors had made their way to Kilmore Quay, they returned to the station.

The six crew members of the Isolda who were killed were all from Dún Laoghaire.  There were very harrowing scenes at the railway station in Dún Laoghaire as families and loved ones waited for the survivors to return from Wexford by train. The men lost were; William Holland, Patrick Shortt, Jimmy Hayden, William Rushby, Paddy Dunne and Patrick Farrell.

The Coningbeg was serviced for the remainder of the war by William Bates of Kilmore Quay who provided crew exchanges and supplies in his fishing boat Saint Joseph. James Bates provided the same function to the Barrels with his boat the Pride of Helvic.[5] For more information on the rescue and immediate aftermath at Kilmore Quay consult John Powers “A Maritime History of County Wexford Vol II” pp326-330

Later, while serving as 1st Officer on the Irish Lights vessel SS Alexandra, Captain Bestic was seconded to Royal Naval Reserve as Lieutenant from April 28th, 1942 – January 1st, 1945, when he re-joined Alexandra as 1st Officer. He retired in 1949. This remarkable and distinguished mariner died in Bray on December 20th, 1962. [6]

Sam Williams was the last surviving member of the crew of the Isolda. He was only 18 years of age when the vessel was sunk. He died on August 26th,2014 and had been coming to the annual commemorative service in Kilmore Quay, every year up until 2013, to lay a wreath for his six lost comrades.

Kicking Canvas was a memoir of Bestic’s first trip to sea on the SV Denbeigh Castle. It’s still available to buy online, and I can highly recommend it.

REFERENCES:

  1. Guarding Neutral Ireland, Dr Michael Kennedy, RIA, Four Courts Press 2008.
  2. Information on Captain Bestic kindly made available by Irish Lights.
  3. The Irish Times, Tuesday, July 9th, 1935
  4. ‘When tragedy struck twice off the Saltees’, by Elaine Pepper, Wexford People, August 11th, 2020.
  5. Details provided by email correspondance with Dick Bates
  6. Bray People, April 29th, 1999, ‘Looking Back’ by James Scannell.

*All articles, read by this writer, relating to the loss of the Isolda give seven as the number of crew members that were injured. Captain Bestic in the 1946 newspaper article gives the number as six.

A fitting tribute and short video, narrated by Dr Kennedy, commissioned in December 2020 by the Commissioners of Irish Lights to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the loss of the Isolda, may be accessed on this link:

I would like to thank Niamh Collins, Archivist at the Commissioners of Irish Lights, Maritime Historian Cormac Lowth and Marine Painter Brian Cleare for their assistance with this article.


 

 

 

 

 

Captain Tom Donohue’s remarkable war afloat

David Carroll, author of Dauntless Courage, and a regular and ever-popular guest blogger with the page, brings us the story of Waterford sea Captain Tom Donohue who died on this day in 1949.

When Captain Tom Donohue, a fifty-nine-year-old native of Dungarvan, and the most renowned member of its maritime community, took command of the MV Kerlogue of Wexford in late 1943, he was no stranger to the shocking violence encountered at sea in World War ΙΙ and very much aware that neutrality was no safeguard for Irish seafarers.

Captain Tom Donohue. Courtesy of Waterford County Museum

The MV Kerlogue (335 tons) was built in Rotterdam in 1939, just prior to the outbreak of World War II for the Wexford Steamship Company. By late 1943, the neutral Kerlogue had been attacked by both sides as well as saving the crew of a Liverpool collier. As we shall read, she would go on to take part in one of most amazing and dramatic rescue operations of World War ΙΙ.

MV Kerlogue off Tuskar Rock, painted by maritime artist, Brian Cleare.

Back in 1941, Captain Donohue was in command of the Lady Belle of Dungarvan. Built in 1900, by J Fullerton & Co. at Paisley in Scotland, the Lady Belle was 140 ft in length, 24 ft beam, and had a cargo capacity of about 330 tons. She had been purchased by the Moloney Steamship Company of Dungarvan in 1925.

On March 26th, 1941, the Lady Belle was attacked from the air by the Luftwaffe while on a voyage from Dungarvan to Cardiff to collect a cargo of coal for her owners, A Moloney & Sons Ltd., Dungarvan. Ten miles SE of the Smalls, at the entrance to the Bristol Channel, she became the target of one of the many marauding German planes that pillaged the British coast. Although severely damaged, she made it to Milford Haven, under her own steam in a crippled condition. The crew was uninjured. She was sold soon after to Sheehan and Sullivan of Cork.

SS Lady Belle of Dungarvan.

The Lady Belle is still fondly remembered in the folklore and maritime heritage of Dungarvan. It also gives it name to a well-known pub, located in Grattan Square, Dungarvan.

On October 7th 1941, while sailing from Port Talbot in Wales to Rosslare, MV Kerlogue was damaged by a mine but survived. Earlier in that same year, on April 2nd, a British convoy was attacked by German bombers. Distress signals were seen by the Kerlogue, which altered course and went to aid of the disabled Wild Rose, a collier from Liverpool. The crew members were rescued and the Kerlogue managed to tow the Wild Rose and beach her on the strand at Rosslare.

In May 1943, Tom Donohue was serving on the SS Irish Oak, homeward bound from Tampa, Florida to Dublin with a cargo of 8,000 tons of phosphate fertiliser. At 08.19hrs on May 15th, when 700 miles west of Ireland, she was torpedoed and sunk without warning by
a then-unknown German submarine. Later it transpired that the identity of the submarine was U-608. Another submarine U-650 had encountered the Irish Oak on the previous day. The Irish Plane, the Irish Rose, and the Irish Ash responded to the SOS. The full crew of survivors was located by the Irish Plane, having spent eight hours in lifeboats and were landed at Cobh on May 19th.

May 1943 saw the greatest losses suffered by U-boats up to that time, with 41 being destroyed during the month- 25% of the operational U-boats. On May 24th, the German Naval Commander Karl Dönitz ordered a temporary halt to the U-boat campaign. Sadly, for the Irish Oak, this withdrawal had come too late.

Artistic impression of the sinking of the SS Irish Oak, May 15th,1943, 700 miles west of Ireland. Kenneth King Image courtesy of Cormac Lowth

Later that year, on October 23rd, 1943, 130 miles south of Ireland, on passage to Lisbon with a cargo of coal, MV Kerlogue was circled by a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Sunderland flying boat. Three hours later, she was attacked by two unidentified aircraft for over twenty minutes. Another RAAF Sunderland came on the scene and the Kerlogue signaled, requesting an escort and medical assistance. The Sunderland replied that help could not be given. The severely damaged Kerlogue limped back to Cobh, where it was found that the cargo of coal had saved her; without it, the shells would have penetrated the hull. The ammunition fragments were found to be of British origin. The identity of the attackers remained a secret until the thirty-year rule released Air Ministry documents into the Public Records Office at Kew, London.1 The aircraft were found to have been Mosquito fighters of No 307 Polish Night Fighter Squadron.

The Master of the Kerlogue on that voyage, Captain Desmond Fortune had both his legs fractured. The attack left Captain Fortune relying on crutches and suffering from wounds he received for the rest of his life. Second Officer Samuel Owens had shrapnel fragments in his chest and John Boyce of Rosslare and Jim Carty of Wexford were also injured.

The Kerlogue was repaired in Cork and on December 27th, 1943, with Captain Tom Donohue now in command, departed from Lisbon homeward bound to Dublin with a cargo of oranges.

All hopes that the Captain and crew had of having a trouble-free voyage were soon dashed. At first light on December 29th, the Irish vessel was in a position some 360 miles equidistant south of Fastnet and west of Brest, was repeatedly circled by a German aircraft signaling an SOS, and that help was required in a south-easterly direction. Kerlogue altered course and after two hours steaming came upon the most appalling aftermath of naval warfare from the previous day.

The German Narvik-class destroyer Z27 and two Elbing class torpedo boats, T25 and T26, had been sunk. More than seven hundred men, most of them dead, were in the water. The sea all around the Kerlogue was covered with men floating on rafts, on the wreckage, and in lifejackets.

These sailors had intended to escort Alsterufer, a German blockade runner, which was on a voyage from Kobe, Japan to occupied France with a cargo of rubber and other strategic war materials. The Admiralty in London had mounted ‘Operation Stonewall’ to intercept blockade runners and the cruisers HMS Glasgow and HMS Enterprise sailed from Plymouth to intercept her. An intense naval battle took place in the Bay of Biscay and in the action the two British cruisers, despite being outnumbered, sank the German ships with their 6-inch guns. Unknown to them, Alsterufer had been set on fire by a Liberator aircraft of 311 Squadron, RAF, and sunk on the previous day, December 27th.

Bay of Biscay where a fierce naval battle took place on December 28th, 1943.

“As rafts rose into view on the crests of the giant waves, we could see men on them and others clinging to their sides. At first, we did not know whether they were Allied or Axis until somebody noticed the long ribbons trailing downwards from behind a seaman’s cap which denoted that they were German Navy men.” 2

Captain Frank Forde in his excellent book, ‘The Long Watch: World War ΙΙ and the Irish Mercantile Marine’, graphically describes the action:

“For ten hours the rescue work continued, Kerlogue moving from group to group, dragging exhausted men, many ill-clad and suffering from exposure, on board. Cabins, storerooms, and alleyways were soon packed with shivering, soaked and sodden men; others were placed in the engine-room where it became so crowded that Chief Engineer Eric Giggins could not move around to tend his machinery, and so by signs – as none spoke English- he got the survivors to move the instruments he could not reach. Fourteen men were packed into the tiny wheelhouse, leaving the helmsman, Able Seaman Thomas Grannell of Wexford, barely room to steer. Captain Donohue had the most seriously injured placed in his cabin, and assisted by Third Officer, Garret Roche, began first-aid treatment. It was a hopeless task; there was no doctor on board, or amongst the Germans, and medical supplies were totally inadequate for the numerous injured. One man was burned from head to foot and though conscious when taken on board, died a few hours later. Another two died during the night. It began to grow dark about 4pm, but the rescue work continued by floodlight until 9pm when, with 168 survivors on board, Captain Donohue turned north for Ireland.”

Lieutenant-Commander Joachim Quedenfelt was the senior German Officer that was rescued. He was in command of the 1,300-ton torpedo destroyer T26. Out of a crew of 206, Kerlogue picked up 93 from this vessel. The German Officer described how after a night on a raft, he watched the next morning “the little ship bravely moving through enormous waves to pick up more and more of my comrades.” 3.

Lieutenant-Commander Quedenfelt requested that the ship sail to La Rochelle or Brest in France to land his men. Captain Donohue steadfastly refused, which was a very brave act when you consider the Germans outnumbered the Irish crew.

A roll call and inspection of the survivors after their first night aboard Kerlogue disclosed that three sailors had died. During the afternoon of December 30th, the Kerlogue stopped and the sailors were buried at sea. Subsequently, another wounded sailor died but it was decided to retain his body on board for burial in Ireland.

Under the terms of the navicert issued to Captain Donohue by the British Naval Authorities at the beginning of the voyage, he should have headed to Fishguard for examination and clearance before proceeding to Dublin. (The navicert was a permit given to neutral ships by the British Authorities that required them to call at a designated UK port for examination and clearance on both outward and homeward legs of their voyages from Ireland.) Because of the condition of the survivors and shortage of supplies, Captain Donohue headed for Cork, the nearest Irish port.

The Kerlogue maintained radio silence for fear of drawing attention to its destination. As luck would have it, the cargo of oranges proved to be valuable in sustaining the German sailors on the voyage and preventing dehydration. To avoid being spotted by Allied planes, the sailors were kept out of sight below decks during daylight hours, only coming on deck for fresh air at night.

At 22.00hrs on December 31st, when about 30 miles south of Fastnet, Kerlogue, broke radio silence and advised Valentia radio of their position and that they had 164 survivors on board, seven of them seriously wounded and one dead body. They requested medical aid on arrival. Valentia acknowledged the message and signed off with ’Well done, Kerlogue’. Fifteen minutes later, Land’s End Radio in Cornwall broadcast a message, which was repeated every fifteen minutes, instructing Kerlogue to proceed to Fishguard as required by the conditions of her navicert. This order was ignored by Captain Donohue, who acted in the tradition of Admiral Nelson’s ‘blind eye’ and switched off his radio receiver.

MV Kerlogue is met by the Irish Marine Service patrol vessel Muirchú and Motor Torpedo Boat, M1 at Roche’s Point at the entrance to Cork Harbour, January 1st, 1944. Painting by Brian Cleare and by kind permission of Mr Eoghan Allan of Cobh.

Captain Donohue described the homecoming as follows:
“At 10 am on Saturday, New Year’s Day 1944, we stopped off at Roche’s Point. Doctors boarded the vessel and sent some of the survivors ashore. I then proceeded into the harbour and docked at the deep-water quay in Cobh. I was boarded by the ship’s owners together with Naval, Military, and Red Cross people as well as some people of Cobh. The wounded men were removed ashore together with all other survivors. The crew and me went to the hotel for a good wash, food, and, needless to say, sleep. I had all the beds and bedding removed from the Kerlogue. Crew’s quarters cleaned, washed, and fumigated by shore people. We left Cobh on Sunday, January 2, shortly after 4 pm bound for Fishguard for examination.” 4.

The German sailors were taken to Collins Barracks, Cork, where one of the wounded, Petty Officer Helmut Weiss, died from burns. Along with Lieut. Braatz, who had died at sea, the two sailors were buried in Cobh but re-interred later in the German War Cemetery at Glencree, Co Wicklow. Once the other sailors were declared fit, they were transferred to the Curragh Internment Camp for the duration of the war.

When Kerlogue reached Fishguard, to obtain her clearance, Captain Donohue underwent what he described in the newspaper article by Tom Tobin, as ‘his most trying experience of all’. The senior British naval officer raged at Captain Donohue for not bringing the Germans to the Welsh port and threatened to withdraw the ship’s navicert. It was described as an ugly scene as the irate Dungarvan man, flushed with anger, reminded the shouting bully that his only concern was to save life. It was to the credit of the other Royal Navy officers listening, that they apologised for this ill-mannered outburst. 5

The Kerlogue eventually docked in Dublin on January 5th, 1944. A letter from Dr. Eduard Hempel, German Minister to Ireland, was delivered to Captain Donohue. In it, he expressed, ‘To you and your crew my profound gratitude as well as my high appreciation of the unhesitating valiant spirit which has prompted you to perform this exemplary deed, worthy of the great tradition of Irish gallantry and humanity. I hope to make your personal acquaintance soon.’ 6 Later, Dr. Hempel presented a solid silver cup to Captain Donohue with smaller replicas for each of the other members of the crew on behalf of the German Government.

Captain Tom Donohue died on December 2nd, 1949, and is buried on the grounds of Abbeyside Church near Dungarvan. John Young, the recently deceased Dungarvan maritime historian, previously remarked on how poignant it is that he was buried in a site that is only fifty yards from the sea.

In 1994, a Commemorative Service was held in Abbeyside Church to mark the 50th anniversary of the rescue. A wreath was laid on the grave of Captain Donohue and the ceremony was attended by members and relatives of his family, survivors, Naval and Diplomatic personnel, and Public Representatives.

Commemorative Service held in Abbeyside Church, May 29th, 1994. Photos: Waterford Co Museum
Kerlogue memorial on the Crescent, Wexford Quay. Image courtesy of Leo Coy

In 2015, a memorial was unveiled at Crescent Quay, Wexford to honour the ten men who risked their own lives in December 1943 to save the lives of others, responding to the age-long code of the sea- help a fellow seaman in distress.

David recently gave a public lecture on his book Dauntless Courage, which is now available to be viewed.

Bibliography:
The Long Watch by Captain Frank Forde, Gill, and Macmillan, 1981
‘The Kerlogue Incident’ by Patrick Sweeney, Maritime Journal of Ireland, Spring 1994, No. 31
A Maritime and General History of Dungarvan 1690-1978 by John Young
‘Why oranges were scarce that 1943 Christmas’. Newspaper article by Tom Tobin. Kindly made available by Waterford County Museum.

References:

1 The Long Watch, page 118.

2 The Long Watch, pages 119 /120. Words spoken by Chief Officer, Denis Valencie

3 The Long Watch, page 121.

4 ‘Why oranges were scarce that 1943 Christmas’. By Tom Tobin

5 The Long Watch, page 123.

6 Ibid.

Many thanks to Brian Ellis, Honorary Librarian, National Maritime Museum, and Willie Fraher and staff of Waterford County Museum for their assistance with this article.

A model of MV Kerlogue and other interesting information is on display at the National Maritime Museum, Haigh Terrace, Dún Laoghaire.