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 Muirchú was 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 the Muirchú 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, Muirchú became 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.
‘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
https://www.wrecksite.eu/ Report No. 137289
‘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.