My first introduction to Falskirt Rock was in the Spring of 1984 fishing on the decked motor boat Reaper with Jim Dips Doherty and his neighbour Denis Doherty. Denis pointed it out to me as we steamed away west from Dunmore East towards Tramore Bay with a deck filled with ground nets on a frosty but clear March morning. The seas were breaking around it and the jagged top was exposed as the seas surged.
The sight of the rock alarmed me I had to admit. Not just because I was aware of how dangerous it could be to a boat that had lost power and might drift atop of it. No there was another reason – and for me a scarier reason. You see during that previous winter when I first fished out of Dunmore for herring, several nights we had set our nets close by, and I was ignorant of the rock and the inherent dangers it posed. The fact that Jim and Denis knew, and I trusted them completely, was beside the point. It reminded me of how little I knew of the deep waters off the coast and how literally out of my depth I was in these unfamiliar waters.
As if to underline these fears Denis told me about a fishing boat that was washed close to the rocks while fishing at night in a raging storm and blizzard of snow in December 1950. The crew alerted fellow fishermen by flares of their difficulty and the local lifeboat Annie Blanche Smith raced to their rescue. But by the time the lifeboatmen arrived the boat (Naomh Déaglán) was almost atop the rock and the fishing nets were starting to bunch around her almost like a shield or protective boom. Somehow the lads on the lifeboat managed to negotiate their way in despite the obvious risks to themselves if the prop of the lifeboat was fouled, got a line to the fishing boat, and managed to tow the five-man crew to safety. I had goosebumps listening to Denis that day (although I was sure he was putting legs on the story). However, David Carroll shared it with us before, and if anything the story was more incredible.
Falskirt is a rock that is barely visible at high water but partially strips when the tide recedes. It is about 400 meters off the coast, close to Swine Head (sometimes referred to previously as Swiny Head/Point). It lies off the coast between Portally and Rathmoylan. The Waterford Harbour Commissioners Bye Laws of 1960 define the outer limits of their influence as a straight line drawn between Hook Head and Swiny Point. The International Shipping & Shipbuilding Directory of 1940 defines the outer limits of the pilotage of the area as being determined within an imaginary arc with a radius of 4 miles drawn seaward from a midway point between Hook Head and Falskirt Rock.
Origins of the name
Although I am using the spelling Falskirt I’m aware of at least two other spellings. Fileskirt from the Robert Sayer chart dated 1787 called “An actual survey of the harbour and river of Waterford, and of the bay of Tramore,” Another spelling I have read is Foilskirt. The meaning or origin is not included in Canon Powers Placenames of the Decies alas, although I did find one article from 1871 claiming it to mean “The Cliff of the Sea Rock’ – which seems to suggest a part of the actual coastline rather than the rock itself. Ray McGrath, writing in the quarterly newsletter of the Barony of Gaultier Historical Society in 2017 draws on the knowledge of the late fisherman and lifeboat legend Stephen Whittle and speculates that although the name is obscure, the first part may refer to ‘cliff’ and the second syllable ‘scairt’ possibly meaning separation.
After publication Seán Ó Briain commented (see full comment below) that it is also mentioned in The History, Topography and Antiquities of the County and City of Waterford and named as Fileskirt.“..at the projecting headland called Fileskirt or Swinehead, there are sunken rocks nearly covered by the sea at high water..” Seáns conclusion is that Fileskirt could have been the name of the headland, to which the rock got its name.
Incidents associated with it
Although the five-man crew of the Naomh Deaglán had a narrow escape in 1950 at least three shipwrecks have been recorded that I am aware of on the spot. In 1804 an unidentified brig was sunk after striking the rock but all the crew was saved. In 1867 a vessel called Willie was wrecked on the rock – no details of the crew were recorded. (Pete Goulding later sent on a newspaper clipping stating the crew were saved. The Willie had departed Waterford of a Tuesday afternoon and grounded and later broke up about midnight. Carrying oats, a large part of this floated off and into Tramore Bay.) Meanwhile in June 1884 the crew of 6 off the trawler Welcome Home was rescued after striking the rock.(1) Of course many shipwrecks down through the ages were simply referred to as lost off the Waterford Coast – its possible, if not probably many others were claimed by the Falskirt. As recently as June 2021 the Dunmore East lifeboat Elizabeth and Ronald went to the rescue of 4 people in a 4-meter fishing boat that lost its propeller and drifted close to Falskirt.
This concludes a series of Lifeboat related posts to acknowledge the RNLI fundraising efforts associated with the Mayday Mile. Members of the Dunmore East Team would still benefit from any donations, please consider them, the website remains open for the first week of June. I’m indebted to David Carroll for his assistance with the content this month.
(1) Sourced from Shipwrecks off the Waterford Coast by Tony Caulfield
We completed our Mayday Mile event – Cheekpoint to Dunmore by Cliff and Shore – in aid of our local RNLI station at Dunmore East on Sunday, May 22nd, 2022.
Although the day dawned overcast and damp by 11 am the cloud was lifting and the walk proceeded in a fresh SW breeze but an increasingly sunny and pleasant day. The aim, of course, was to raise funds for the local lifeboat by the end of the evening we had gone past the €1000 mark which was really something.
Thanks to everyone who supported us on the way to everyone who donated. Big thank you to Carol McGeary for the technical support. To David Carroll for such great research and the Geoff Harris of WLR FM for a welcome interview to promote the walk and the fundraiser. And of course, the team who made the day happen. Remember, the Mayday Mile continues for the rest of the month and many of our teammates at Team Dunmore East RNLI would still appreciate your support. Oh and we will still have one further blog to celebrate the lifeboat this coming Friday.
Will we do it again next year? Watch this space! Oh and please remember you can still donate to Team Dunmore East throughout May and into the first week of June.
On May 2nd, 2013, Dunmore East RNLI Station was honoured to receive a visit from His Royal Highness Prince Edward, Duke of Kent. The Duke has been President of the RNLI since 1969. He succeeded both his father and his mother as President of the charity and in this role, he has provided unwavering support to the RNLI for over 50 years. He has been a true advocate and ambassador for all RNLI volunteers, and he has regularly visited lifeboat stations and attended many RNLI events throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland. Many people would have imagined that this occasion would have been the very first visit by a member of the British royal family to the Dunmore East RNLI station. But as we shall read, this was not the case.
Sifting through an old minute book, held in the Dunmore East RNLI station archives, one can find the annual report for 1889 and it records that Prince George of Wales was in Dunmore East on August 28th, 1889, on naval duty and paid a visit to the station. So, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent was not the first royal visitor to the station as most people would have expected.
Born in 1865, during the reign of his grandmother Queen Victoria, Prince George of Wales was the second son of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, and was third in the line of succession to the British throne behind his father and elder brother, Prince Albert Victor. In September 1877, when George was only 12 years old, he joined the cadet training ship HMS Britannia at Dartmouth, Devon, along with his older brother, Albert Victor. From 1877 to 1892, George served in the Royal Navy. During his naval career, he commanded Torpedo Boat 79 in home waters. Later he commanded HMS Thrushon the North America and West Indies Station. In 1891, when Prince George of Wales was promoted to commander, he assumed command of HMS Melampus. He relinquished his post in January 1892, on the unexpected death of his elder brother, which put him directly in line for the throne. On Victoria’s death in 1901, George’s father ascended the throne as Edward VII, and George was created Prince of Wales. On his father’s death in May 1910, he became King George V until his death in 1936. He was the grandfather of Queen Elizabeth ΙΙ.
When King Edward VΙΙ visited Waterford on May 2nd, 1904, HMS Melampus was one of four Royal Navy warships that steamed up the harbour to the city to take up stations in advance of the royal visit. (Please see: ‘1904 Waterford Royal Visit from the River Suir.’).
1889 came just one year after the four-masted American sailing ship Alfred D Snowwas sadly lost with all hands at Broomhill on the Wexford shore of Waterford Harbour on January 4th,1888. The lifeboat In Dunmore East was pilloried for not putting to sea earlier. Launching the lifeboat was delayed and by the time it reached the wreck, all hope of saving lives had gone. An inquiry was carried out, resulting in the coxswain Captain Christopher Cherry being sanctioned.
Subsequently, it is probably fair to say that Lieutenant Tipping RN, the RNLI Inspector in Ireland, was closely monitoring the performance of the station. It is not surprising that the 1889 Annual Report is written in such a positive and upbeat fashion. The report contains the following:
“Four practices of Boat and Crew were held during the year. At one of them, on August 28th, the Inspector (Lieutenant Tipping, RN), was present; and on this occasion also His Royal Highness Prince George of Wales, who happened to be in the harbour with his torpedo boat, visited the Boathouse. The Coxswain (Mr George R Wood) has given much satisfaction both in his care of the House, Gear, and Stores, and also by his steadiness and zeal in time of danger. The Committee are glad to report that the Crew are much improved and working well and harmoniously together, and that if called on at any time, day or night, every man will do his duty.”
RNLI Annual report 1889
I suspect it was considered a good idea to give Prince George a mention in the report. It certainly would have done no harm when the report landed on a desk in London. The art of ‘spinning’ good news is therefore not a recent phenomenon.
Coxswain George R Wood was a fisherman from Tenby in Pembrokeshire, South Wales, and was appointed coxswain after the loss of the Alfred D Snow in 1888. He was replaced by a member of HM Coastguard, George Bliss in 1892. It is most likely that he returned home to Tenby at that time.
In a supplement to the Waterford Mirror and Tramore Visitor, published on Thursday, August 22nd, 1889, the arrival of Prince George in Dunmore harbour on the previous Monday, was extensively reported upon. The actual visit to the lifeboat station by Prince George would have taken place when the torpedo boats returned for a second visit. The report began as follows:
PRINCE GEORGE OF WALES IN DUNMORE EAST
The unexpected arrival of his Royal Highness at Dunmore on Monday evening created quite an interesting surprise. The flotilla of torpedo boats were scarcely observable until they steamed right alongside the quay. They entered the bay at a rate of seventeen knots an hour, and from their dark grey colour and partial submersion in the water, they could be hardly discerned, although it was a beautiful, clear evening, and just then about ten minutes past seven o’clock. There were six boats altogether, the seventh one, as already mentioned, having been left at Queenstown for repairs. Each boat carries a lieutenant commander and a crew of from 16 to 18. Although the boats do not look larger when in the water than a ten-ton steam launch, their actual registered tonnage varies from 90 to 150 tons each. When partially submerged, there is nothing seen but the ‘tower,’ a circular structure about 14 inches in diameter, which is used for look-out purposes.
Machinery is provided on board for giving a continuous supply of compressed air, and the various apparatuses for condensing water, firing the deadly torpedoes, and working the vessels at a high rate of speed when submerged are most intricate and elaborate. The boats that arrived on Monday are known as No 79 (of which his Royal Highness has command), 25, 41, 42, 50 and 59. Amongst the first officers to land was the Prince. He wore the ordinary uniform of a lieutenant of the Royal Navy, and of course, was not then recognised. He was followed by the commodore of the flotilla and several lieutenants, who walked through and spoke to the fishermen and others whom they met. On returning to the boats an order was given that all available men should have ‘leave’ until eleven o’clock. The blue jackets to the number of about a hundred immediately came ashore, and at once sought how the evening could be best enjoyed.
Mr Patrick Harney’s beautiful new hotel was first visited, and the bulk of the men remained there until the time arrived when their leave expired. They spent a jolly time of it, music both vocal and instrumental, being freely brought into requisition. When darkness set in, some of the men left in charge of the boats laid on the search light, which produced a sterling effect on the town. It was first directed to Mr Harney’s house, and by its brilliant rays, the number of seamen in each room, the blinds being up, was ascertained. Next it was laid on to ‘the Island,’ where it was brought bear on two ‘jolly tars’ who had managed on short notice to strike up an acquaintance with a pair of Dunmore lassies. Their discomfiture was quite palpable as they were ‘shown up’ to all who were in the neighbourhood of the dock. The quartet were exhibited with the vividness of a scene thrown on a screen by the aid of the limelight, all the surroundings being dark. The embarrassed victims of this clever joke tried to escape but it was no use. Every step they took they were followed by the powerful search light, until at last, in despair, they separated and found shelter from the rays of the light. In this way, those on board of the boats found an easy method of amusing both themselves and the others who were fortunate enough to be allowed on shore.
The newspaper report continued at length and referred to the beautiful scenery that Dunmore presented and how His Royal Highness and his naval colleagues were entranced by it. Mr. Harney, proprietor of the hotel gets considerable coverage, and his conversation with Prince George, who ordered stores for the flotilla when it would return to Dunmore in about a week’s time from Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire). For good measure, the reporter included a paragraph about Lord Charles Beresford, or ‘Charlie B’ as he was affectionately known. Lord Charles (1846-1919) was the second son of John Beresford, 4th Marquess of Waterford, and was an admiral in addition to being a member of parliament. Much later in his naval career, he was thwarted by his nemesis, Admiral of the Fleet, Sir John Fisher, from his ambition of becoming First Sea Lord.
The newspaper report finally concluded as follows:
Within a week the flotilla may be expected to return, and if the seamen’s genial qualities are not exhausted in the metropolis, and that any of the convivial spirit which they showed at Dunmore on Monday night remains, their visit once more will relieve the tedium of the dull Dunmore evening.
The visit was not just newsworthy in Waterford. On Thursday, August 15th, readers in Scotland received coverage of the events in Dunmore under the title ‘AN INCIDENT OF THE NAVAL MANOEUVRES – TURNING THE SEARCH LIGHT ON.’
Easter Sunday in 1953 fell on April 5th. The weather was very unkind, and the Munster Express reported that the few visitors in the area were compelled to seek the pleasures of the fireside. The newspaper reported that the recent rainfall had proved to be a blessing for local farmers as the ground had been parched. Disappointment was expressed that a local-bred horse called Free Lancer, supported by many local punters, had a very unsatisfactory outing in the Irish Grand National on Easter Monday. This was offset, somewhat, by the news that local jockey Jimmy Power had won at Manchester Racecourse on Saturday, riding Mosten Lane at 9/2 odds. Closer to home, a successful and well-attended dance was held on Easter Sunday in the Fisherman’s Hall, Dunmore East with music provided by Frankie King and his band. An Easter Dance held in the Haven Hotel was also reported as being enjoyable.
As the fishermen of Dunmore East put back to sea and others in the village returned to work on Tuesday, April 7th, after the Easter break, little could they expect the dramatic event that would later unfold.
At 10.45 pm, Mr. Arthur Westcott-Pitt, Honorary Secretary of Dunmore East RNLI received a wireless message stating that a passenger on board the SS Corrientes, of Glasgow, was seriously ill with a perforated stomach ulcer and asking if the lifeboat would land him.
By 11.10 pm, in a moderate south-westerly breeze, Dunmore East lifeboat RNLBAnnie Blanche Smith (ON 830), had slipped her moorings and was on her way and set a course to intercept the steamer, which was proceeding to Waterford Harbour about twenty miles due South.
The seriously ill passenger was Captain More, a harbour master from Leith in Scotland. The SS Corrientes was on a voyage from Stockton, California to Liverpool, traveling via the Panama Canal. The Waterford Standard newspaper reported that Captain More had been ailing for the last three weeks and within the last few days his condition worsened, and medical advice has been transmitted to the vessel by wireless from ashore.
At midnight, the lifeboat reached the steamer, about seven or eight miles from Dunmore East. The same newspaper went on to report that when the lifeboat came alongside, a member of the crew asked Mr. Westcott-Pitt to come on board and see how tenderly the ill man could be lowered from the vessel. With much difficulty, the sick captain, secured to a stretcher, was lowered to the lifeboat, which returned at full speed to Dunmore East, where an ambulance, doctor, and nurses were waiting to rush him to Waterford City and County Infirmary. Captain More and his wife, who came ashore also on the lifeboat had spent a six-months holiday in New York.
The lifeboat returned to Dunmore East at 01.10 am. Mr. Westcott-Pitt reported that the patient had been transferred to hospital, within 90 minutes of the lifeboat reaching the SS Corrientes. The crew of the Annie Blanche Smith for this service was as follows: Paddy Billy Power, coxswain, Richie Power, second coxswain, Richard Murphy, mechanic, M Whittle, second mechanic, and crew members, J Power, Maurice Power, and A Westcott-Pitt (Hon. Sec.).
The SS Corrientes was a 7,058 GRT, a refrigerated cargo liner that had been built by Short Brothers Ltd, Sunderland and launched on December 21st, 1943, and completed in April 1944 as Empire Cromer. The Empire ships were a series of ships in the service of the British Government. Their names were all prefixed with Empire. They were owned and used during the Second World War by the Ministry of War Transport, which contracted out their management to various shipping lines. In the case of Empire Cromer, it was the Blue Star Line.
In 1946, Empire Cromerwas sold to the Donaldson Line, Glasgow, and renamed Corrientes. This was the second ship of that name to serve with Donaldson Line. This previous vessel was torpedoed and sunk in 1940.
The Donaldson Line was originally founded in 1855 under the name Donaldson Brothers, the company began service from Glasgow to South America using a wooden barque. Over the years, many changes and acquisitions took place and new routes were served as the company developed. In 1966, Donaldson stopped their last passenger service, and in 1967 with the advent of containerisation, the company was liquidated, and the fleet sold.
This lifeboat service on April 7th, 1953 was not the only association that Mr. Westcott-Pitt would have with Captain More and his recovery to full health.
Many people, nowadays, may not know that in the years after World War ΙΙ, Dunmore East had its own small aerodrome in Coxtown, which was developed, owned, and operated by Mr. Westcott-Pitt. The land is now occupied by the Airfield Point and Shanakiel estates. In the early part of World War ΙΙ, Mr. Westcott-Pitt had flown with the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), a civilian organisation tasked to deliver new and repaired aeroplanes to the RAF. In 1946, Mr. Westcott-Pitt resumed his private flying activities. He purchased an Auster Autocrat airplane and during the 1950s and 1960s, it was a familiar sight to local people as it flew over the village.
On Saturday, April 18th, 1953 the Dunmore East aerodrome was to play an important part in Captain More’s safe return to the United Kingdom.
An article entitled: ‘Arthur Westcott-Pitt: Waterford’s Aviation Pioneer’, by Patrick J. Cummins, appeared in Decies, No 66, in 2010.
The following news item appeared in the Waterford Standard, issued on April 25th, 1953:
“There was considerable excitement in Dunmore East on Saturday afternoon last when a special ambulance plane arrived from England to take back Scots harbour master, Captain More, who had been lying seriously ill in the Waterford City and County Infirmary since he was taken from the SS Corrientes by the Dunmore lifeboat on April 7th.Still seriously ill, Captain More, accompanied by Dr W O’Keeffe, was taken by ambulance to Dunmore, and I am told, such was the timing, that the air ambulance flew in to land at Mr. Arthur Westcott-Pitt’s airfield at almost the same minute.A doctor and nurse were on board the air ambulance, and in a few minutes Captain More was being winged across the channel, to, I hope, a speedy recovery.”
What became of the SS Corrientes?
In 1954, Corrientes was sold to the Blue Star Line. It was intended that she would be renamed Oakland Star, but instead, she was declared surplus to requirements and in January 1955, Corrientes was sold to Williamson & Co Ltd, Hong Kong, and renamed Inchmay. On 3 April 3rd,1962, Inchmay ran aground at Wakayama, Japan. There were no injuries amongst her 45 crew. In 1966, Inchmay was sold to the National Shipping Corporation of Pakistan, Karachi, and was renamed Kaukhali. She served until 1968 when the vessel was scrapped.
I wish to thank Coxswain Roy Abrahamsson at Dunmore East RNLI for allowing access to the station records and to historian Cian Manning for his help with access to local newspapers of April 1953.
Today marks the 75th anniversary of the loss of a very important vessel in Irish maritime heritage and history, the Muirchú and page regular David Carrol has agreed to share the story of the ship and her final voyage with us.
Having been laid-up since late 1946, the Public Armed Ship Muirchú steamed from Rushbooke Dockyard near Cobh out of Cork Harbour on Wednesday, May 7th 1947, and a short time later she was given a farewell salute of twelve sirens from two naval corvettes. The officers of the corvettes lined the bridges as the Muirchú returned the last salute.
This event was not without a certain sense of irony. The recently formed Naval Service had purchased these two former Flower-class corvettes from the Royal Navy, along with a third corvette. These were named Macha, Maev, and Cliona. The famous and historic Muirchú was now deemed surplus to our naval defence requirements and was put up for sale by the Government. The Hammond Lane Foundry of Dublin bought the vessel for scrap.
Daire Brunicardi in his book ‘‘The Sea Hound: The Story of a Small Irish Ship’, described the condition of the Muirchú on her final voyage:
“She was a sorry sight, her drab grey paintwork streaked with rust, dirt and rubbish around her decks from her long lay-up prior to disposal. She presented a sad contrast to those who remembered her before the war, when her sides were painted smart black, picked out with a thin white line, her black funnel gleaming, all the profusion of her brass work polished like gold.”
The final voyage from Cobh to Dublin was to be another dramatic one just like many of the ones it had encountered in a varied and adventurous career since the vessel had been first launched in 1908. The Muirchú had a crew of ten with Captain WJ Kelly of Dún Laoghaire in command. Also on board were three passengers. Two representatives from the Hammond Lane Foundry made the voyage and the other passenger, making a foreboding total of thirteen persons on board, was Brian Inglis a journalist with the Irish Times, who had been asked by his editor, the legendary RM Smyllie, to record and write about the historic last voyage.
‘SPLENDID NEW FISHERY CRUISER BUILT FOR THE DEPARTMENT’ was the headline from the Irish Independent of Monday, May 18th,1908, and the newspaper went on the describe the impressive launching ceremony, witnessed by a large crowd, on the previous Saturday morning of a twin-screw fishery research and protection cruiser built in the Dublin Dockyard and named Helga ΙΙ. Dublin Dockyard had won the contract to build the new vessel for the Fisheries Branch of the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction in open competition with famous Clyde shipbuilders. Helga ΙΙ was 155ft. in length and as the newspaper reported:
“The steamer is modelled on fine lines indicative of speed and sea-worthiness. Her laboratory is fitted up in the most modern style with every requisite for research work. The appointments, fittings, and furniture of the various rooms have been carried out in handsome style.”
The new fishery cruiser replaced an earlier vessel called ‘Helga’. Such was the interest in her design that Canada ordered two ships to be built to the same specifications by Dublin Dockyard. These were HMCS Galiano and HMCS Malaspina.
Helga ΙΙ remained under the control of the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction until she was commandeered by the Admiralty in March 1915. She was now described officially as His Majesty’s Yacht Helga, an armed steam yacht. At this time the ‘ΙΙ’ was dropped from her name. She served as an anti-submarine patrol vessel as well as undertaking armed escort duty in the Irish Sea.
In Ireland, Helga is infamously best known for her part played in the 1916 Easter Rising. On Wednesday, April 26th,1916, according to an extract from her log, the ship proceeded up the Liffey and stopped near the Custom House. Twenty-four rounds were directed at Liberty Hall, headquarters of the Irish Citizen Army, which had been abandoned since the beginning of the Rising. It has been reported that her 12-pound artillery guns had to stop firing as the elevation necessary to fire over the railway bridge meant that her shells were endangering the Viceregal Lodge in Phoenix Park.
In April 1918, the Helga was credited with sinking a submarine in the Irish Sea. While no record of the sinking could be confirmed at the time, for the remainder of her career, she carried a star on her funnel as an indicator of this event.
Later in the same year, on October 10th,1918, in the final weeks of the First World War, the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company steamship RMS Leinster was torpedoed near the Kish Bank and sunk by German submarine UB-123. Current research shows that 569 lives were lost, resulting in the greatest ever loss of life in the Irish Sea and the highest ever death toll on an Irish-owned ship. Helga was fuelling in Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire) at the time. She rescued ninety of the passengers.
Helga was released from the Admiralty in March 1919 and returned to fisheries work. She was later used to transport the British auxiliary troops known as Black and Tans around the coast when many of the roads in Ireland were rendered impassable by Irish forces in the War of Independence.
When the Civil War broke out in 1922, the Helga came under the control of the Irish Army authorities and acted as a supply and landing ship to the Government soldiers as they fought the Anti-Treaty forces in Munster.
Helga was handed over to the Irish Free State in August 1923 and was renamed Muirchú, an Irish name that means ‘Sea Hound’. She became one of the first ships in the newly established Coastal and Marine Service, Ireland’s first Navy. However, between February 29th and March 31st, 1924, all officers of the Coastal and Marine Service were either demobilised or transferred to the army. The first Irish Navy had lasted only ten months and twenty-seven days. Muirchú was returned to the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries to carry out her duties of fishery protection, a task that she had originally been commissioned for and had carried out.
Sadly, from 1924 to 1938, there was little interest in maritime affairs in Ireland. The sole official representative of the Irish Free State, on the seas, was the unarmed Muirchú, a situation that was not helping its task of detaining illegal fishing vessels. Permission was sought and granted from the Admiralty in 1936 to carry a gun on the ship.
In 1938 Great Britain handed back the Treaty Ports and control of Irish waters, to the Irish Free State. When the Second World War was declared, Ireland established the Marine and Coastwatching Service and on December 12th,1939 Muirchú was taken over by this Service from the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. The former Royal Navy base at Haulbowline, near Cobh, was reactivated to act as a headquarters for this Service. By 1941 the Marine Service consisted of ten craft. Six of these were motor torpedo boats (MTBs) purchased from Great Britain and another four assorted vessels, one of which was Muirchú. Daire Brunicardi described her new role:
“Muirchú, for the second time in her life, was painted the drab grey of a naval ship. The conversion work was carried out in the same yard as before, but whereas the previous time she was becoming a very small unit in the mightiest navy the world had ever seen, now she was to be flagship of what probably the world’s smallest.”
The tasks of the Marine Service during the ‘Emergency’, as World War ΙΙ was called in Ireland, included mine laying in Cork and Waterford Harbours, regulation of merchant shipping, upkeep of navigational aids and fishery protection.
During all these years, the Muirchúwas widely known in the fishing waters off counties Waterford and Wexford as she valiantly attempted to apprehend the many foreign fishing trawlers who fished illegally inside Ireland’s three-mile fishery limit. When an illegal boat was apprehended, a court case to prosecute the skipper and confiscate the catch and gear would take place. Looking back on old local newspapers, one can read several accounts of these proceedings. The Muirchú’s master was obliged to attend. Prosecutions were not always successful as some newspaper reports recorded- the offending fishing skipper getting off on some technical issue. It is recalled that when Breton skippers from France were being prosecuted at Waterford District Court, Major Wilfred Lloyd, Harbour Master at Dunmore East had to be engaged to act as interpreter. All the while, with theMuirchú being tied up in Waterford or elsewhere for the court proceedings, the rest of the foreign fishing fleet would fish away with impunity. Rather unfairly, Muirchúbecame a vessel that was often the butt of jokes and unkind comments made by politicians and its main nemesis was the satirical magazine ‘Dublin Opinion’, which constantly lampooned it.
Quidnunc writing in the Irish Times on May 12th, 1947 put the matter into some perspective:
“As a fishery protection vessel between the wars there was some justification for laughing at her, as she had not the speed to be really effective at her rather ignominious task of chasing foreign fishing pirates. But during the war, on her anti-mine patrols, she did a first-class job, at a time when the loss of a single ship’s cargo might have meant the difference between frugality and really want.”
Just a week short of being forty-years old, the early part of the Muirchú’s voyage from Cobh to Dublin was uneventful. It was raining but the sea was calm. The thirteen persons onboard could reflect on the remarkable fact that they were on a vessel, whose lifetime, 1908-1947, coincided with the most important period in Irish history. It had been present at the birth of a new state and was Ireland’s first fishery-patrol and research ship. Many dramatic events occurred during its lifetime and the Muirchú /Helga was there for many of them. It had been involved in two World Wars, a Rebellion, a War of Independence, and a Civil War. To this day, Helga’s shelling of Liberty Hall is mentioned in every account of the 1916 Rising.
The Irish Times eye-witness report by Brian Inglis from May 9th, 1947 continues the story:
“It was not until shortly before dawn that the engineers found difficulty in keeping up steam and Captain Kelly discovered that ship was not answering well to the wheel. Investigation showed the forecastle was flooded. At first this was attributed to a smashed porthole.
When the combined efforts of all the pumps failed to keep the water in check it was obvious that the leak was far more serious. The bunkers were flooded and soon afterwards the forward bulkhead gave way and water poured into the stokehold.
There was no radio on board, and despite the risk, the engineers and firemen stuck to their jobs until we came within hailing distance of some trawlers fishing nearby.
The captain ran up the distress signal and as soon as it was acknowledged gave the order to abandon ship. It was then 9.30am.
By this time a heavy sea was running, and it took us all our strength to swing the lifeboat out on the davits. The Muirchú was wallowing broadside to the swell. The boat was on the weatherside and we had no steam to turn so we had to trust luck.
As we were being lowered the stem falls came away, leaving the lifeboat hanging almost vertically by the bows with eight of clinging to it. The next wave lifted her just long enough for us to cast off, but every time we pushed away from Muirchú a wave would dash back against her hull.
The oars which we tried to fend ourselves off were old and rotten, and one was snapped in two before we scrabbed our way around the stem and round on her lee.
As we pulled away from the Muirchú we realised for the first time how far she had gone, listing heavily to starboard and down by her bows, looking as she might plunge at any moment. For a time, we feared for the safety of the five men left on board, but their dinghy was on the leeward side and they were able to lower themselves into the sea with less difficulty.
Getting on board the trawler, Ellesmere, was unexpectedly easy. They threw us a rope, pulled us alongside and hauled us bodily over the bulwarks. The dinghy crew followed.
There we were uninjured except for a few cuts and bruises, putting away mugs of scalding tea.
The Ellesmere finished her trawl and was just starting back for Milford Haven when she saw our distress flag, so less than an hour after the abandonment she cut loose our lifeboat and dinghy and started for base.
So, we did not see the Muirchú go down. Two hours was that any of the crew gave her, but I would not be certain. Ships have a queer obstinate streak in them.”
The Muirchú had foundered and sank about five kilometers SE from the Saltee Islands off the Wexford coast, a stretch of water that it would have known intimately from her days as a fishing protection and naval vessel. (See chart). The Cork Examiner of May 9th, 1947 reported that a distress call, later canceled, was made to Dunmore East Lifeboat but as Muirchú did not have a radio, this does not sound plausible. What was more important was that everyone had been safely rescued and landed in Milford Haven.
Again, there was certain irony as the Muirchú crew were rescued by the same British trawler that it had arrested off Sheep’s Head, County Cork in 1940. Irish Times Journalist Brian Inglis, who was one of the rescued, writing under the pseudonym of Quidnunc on May 12th,1947, described the Welsh fishermen:
“The crew of the trawler Ellesmere, who picked us up, were a most genial crowd, from their captain, a good-humoured Welshman, inevitably called Jones, to equally inevitable Irishman, Gerald Flaherty, from the Aran Islands. They were much amused at their last haul; looking over at the sinking Muirchú, the Ellesmere’s engineer remarked: “To think of all the times she’s chased us, and now we are picking up her ——- crew.”
The national newspapers on May 9th, 1947 also carried reports that the Wexford schooner Antelope, which was damaged by heavy seas while bound from Waterford to Dublin with 200 tons of wheat, was taken in tow to Rosslare by the Dublin schooner Invermore, confirming the severe weather conditions that prevailed on that fateful day.
The Irish Times of May 9th, 1947 reported the names of all those on the Muirchú on its final voyage:
“There was a pair of fathers and sons among the crew of ten and three passengers on board Muirchú. Captain WJ Kelly in command with his son, James Kelly, chief engineer, both of Dun Laoghaire; and W Roche, bosun, and his son, G Roche, fireman, both of Dublin. The others in the crew were: TA Knott, of Drimnagh, second engineer, HM Taylor, of Ayr, mate; C Plummer, G Lemasney and P Scannell, all able seamen from Cobh; a second fireman, P O’Toole also of Cobh. There were three passengers, Messrs. DJ Flavin, manager of Hammond Lane Metal Company, a subsidiary of Hammond Lane Foundry; J Hodgins and Brian Inglis.”
The wreck of the Muirchú lies in the vicinity of two other Irish vessels that were victims of World War ΙΙ, during late 1940. The SS Ardmore 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. Her wreck was discovered in 1998 by a group of local divers, off the Great Saltee Island in 183 ft of water. The hull bore evidence of a massive explosion and it is believed that the ship may have hit a magnetic mine. The Irish Lights tender Isolda, while carrying Christmas supplies and relief crews to the Barrels and Coningbeg lightships, was bombed and sunk near the Saltee Islands by a German aircraft on December 19th, 1940, resulting in six deaths.
The following news item appeared in the Irish Press on Friday, January 23rd , 1948:
Result of Inquiry on Muirchú Loss A finding of the Inquiry into loss of the SS Muirchú on May 8 while proceeding from Cork Harbour to Dublin where she was to be broken up, is that a porthole failed to withstand the impact of the sea and as a result the forecastle became flooded and the bulkhead gave way under pressure. The Muirchú was designed for specific purposes with unusually large portholes very close to the waterline. The vessel had undergone repair before sailing from Cork and had a certificate of seaworthiness. The lights and sound signals were functioning satisfactorily, and the life-saving appliance requirements were fully complied with. The Inquiry held by Capt. H Freyne, Nautical Officer of the Department, on the direction of the Minister for Industry and Commerce, did not disclose any ground for further investigation.
Many songs and verses have been written about the Muirchú through the years. Much of it has been somewhat uncomplimentary, but one thing that everyone agrees upon is that it had a stubborn streak and was determined not to end her days in a scrapyard. She decided to go to a watery grave instead. James N Healy was a well-known Cork actor, writer, and theatre producer and he wrote a very long ballad about the Muirchú. The last four lines go as follows:
Footnote: Brian Inglis, having served with the RAF during World War ΙΙ, rejoined the Irish Times and worked as a journalist in the late 1940s. He moved to London in 1953 and became a very famous journalist, prolific writer, and television presenter. He was editor of the Spectator from 1959 to 62. He died in 1993, aged 76 years.
References: ‘The Sea Hound: The Story of a Small Irish Ship’, by Daire Brunicardi, in addition to contemporaneous and other newspaper reports were the main source of information for this article. Included are the following: Irish Independent May 18th, 1908, May 9th, 1947 Irish Times May 9th ,1947, May 12th, 1947, June 27th, 2014 Cork Examiner May 9th, 1947 Irish Press March 18th, 1947, May 9th, 1947, January 23rd, 1948 Evening Echo March 3rd, 4th, and 5th, 1975 – a series of articles entitled: ‘Birth and Growth of Irish Naval Service’, by Denis Reading. Wexford People August 11th, 2020 Other sources: http://www.llangibby.eclipse.co.uk/milfordtrawlers/ https://www.wrecksite.eu/ Report No. 137289 https://coastmonkey.ie/ http://www.irishships.com/helga_11_muirchu.html
Further Reading: ‘The Sea Hound: The Story of a Small Irish Ship’, by Daire Brunicardi, Collins Press, 2001.
Many thanks to Dr Pat McCarthy and Cormac Lowth for their assistance with this article.
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