Daphne French – Remembering a pioneering yachtswoman

Today, March 8th is International Women’s Day. To celebrate it, we have a guest blog from David Carroll to recall the life and times of Daphne French, a yachtswoman who lived in Dunmore East during David’s childhood in the 1950s and 60s. David was the son of the Harbour Master, Captain Desmond Carroll, and his mother Freda, and had a front-row seat to much of the seafaring activities of the village.

When I was growing up in Dunmore East, people arriving at the village along the Ballymabin Road would have been familiar with a sign outside a bungalow called ‘Pamir Cottage.’ Many may have wondered what ‘Pamir’ meant and pondered the background of this name. However, I knew all about the famous barque called Pamir, thanks to my father’s seafaring knowledge.

Pamir was a four-masted barque, built in Hamburg in 1905 and owned during the 1930s by the famous Finnish shipping line of Gustaf Erikson for use in the Australian wheat trade. In 1949, Pamir was the last commercial sailing ship to round Cape Horn.  The ship would play a significant role in Daphne’s world of sailing and significantly she named her house in Dunmore East after it.

Daphne French was born in Co. Roscommon in 1905. The French family were Anglo-Irish whose home was Cloonyquin House near Strokestown.  It is said that they were decent landlords, their estate was never subject to land agitation. Daphne’s father was Arthur John St George French, born in 1853. He married Pauline Anna Haddock in 1898 and they lived at Lichfield in Staffordshire, where he served in the Army. Arthur’s younger brother, born in 1854, was the popular, well-loved, and yet sometimes neglected of Irish geniuses – William Percy French or as he was more popularly known, Percy French, songwriter, humourist, entertainer, and painter.

Cloonyquin House near Strokestown, Co Roscommon. Image courtesy of Percy French Society.

The 1911 Census shows Daphne living in Meath Terrace, Bray with her family. Her father is described as a retired military officer. Daphne’s age is given as four years, which surely is an error. Her older sister, Maeve, is noted as being born in Lichfield, Staffordshire.  Interestingly, the family’s governess is named Frances Alcock, who was born in Co Waterford. Edward H Alcock was the harbour master of Dunmore East in 1884 and one wonders if there is any connection?

It may have been living close to the sea that gave Daphne her lifelong love of sailing and the sea. Journalist Lorna Siggins has said that her life revolved around sailing and boats, since, as she said herself, “she read nothing but sailing and adventure books in her childhood.”

In 1935, Daphne French was the owner of a 30-foot ketch Embla. While sailing back into Dublin Bay after a cruising holiday with her friend Betty Parsons, she saw the Pamir entering Dublin Port with a cargo of wheat.

Ketch Embla, built in Southampton in 1908. Drawing courtesy of Irish Cruising Club

On reaching the shore, Daphne and  Betty caught a bus to the South Wall, boarded the Pamir and requested to see the master. They asked to be taken on the ship’s books for the ship’s next voyage – to Australia. They were signed on as stewardesses at one shilling per month. The voyage to Port Lincoln in South Australia took a record seventy-seven days to complete. “The irresistible silent march of the great ship, under 50,000 square feet of canvas, was a fine sensation,” Daphne wrote in her log.

Pamir berthed at Sir John Rogerson’s Quay, Dublin, 1935. Photo: Courtesy of Cormac Lowth.

The arrival of the Pamir and subsequent stay in Dublin Port gave rise to much coverage in newspapers.  An overly descriptive report of her departure on October 10th, 1935, appeared in the Irish Independent on the following Monday and was written by a journalist who was titled ‘J.A.P.’  The article began with a transcription of Masefield’s Sea Fever. Near the conclusion of the report, the two female sailors are mentioned:

On arrival in Australia, the 12,000 miles voyage voyage made by the two female sailors was reported in the newspapers.

Daphne and Betty did circumnavigate the world, but their homeward voyage was on another Erikson four-masted steel barque, the L’Avenir. The following year, (1938) while sailing from Australia to Hamburg, with a cargo of wheat, the vessel radioed her position as 51˚ S and 172˚ E on March 1st, stating ” All well.” She was never heard from again.

Daphne’s arrival home to Ireland was noted in the ‘Irishman’s Diary’ columns of the Irish Times on June 16th, 1937. It noted that she had arrived back in Liverpool on June 5th and had left for a two-week holiday in Roscommon while her yacht was being fitted out in a Ringsend boatyard for a planned cruise.

In 1939, as clouds of war gathered over Europe, Daphne with one crew member and a paid hand embarked on a 2,500-mile cruise, through the Forth and Clyde canal in Scotland, across the North Sea and as far as the Aland Islands, north of Stockholm.  Many of the crew members of the Pamir were natives of the Aland Islands so maybe that was the attraction in venturing that far. This cruise took forty-four days and seventeen nights at sea with twenty-two days spent in port, starting on July 5th, and safely returning to Dún Laoghaire on September 8th. Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1st, and Britain had declared war on September 3rd. In recognition of this epic voyage, the prestigious Faulkner Cup presented by the Irish Cruising Club, was awarded to Daphne.

 Interestingly, Daphne was not the first female sailor to win this prestigious award with that honour falling to Elizabeth Crimmins of East Ferry in Cork in 1934. In more recent times, the award has gone to Co Waterford sailor, Máire Breathnach of Dungarvan, who made a rounding of Cape Horn in 2004.

Map of Embla’s voyage to the Aland Islands, Baltic Sea, July – September 1939. Courtesy of the Irish Cruising Club.

During the war, Daphne was a trainer of women trainees who were drafted to work aboard canal boats, as part of a Ministry of War Transport scheme, on the Grand Union Canal, delivering coal by barge from coalfields around Coventry to the factories along the Birmingham and Fazely canal and down to the docks in London.  

Daphne French on board the barge Cleopatra. Photo: Courtesy of Cormac Lowth.

After the war, Daphne came back to Ireland and moved to Dunmore East, setting up home in Pamir Cottage with its beautifully maintained garden.  

I can remember Daphne French well during my childhood in Dunmore. With my father as Harbour Master, she was a regular and courteous visitor to our house discussing seafaring matters and seeking my father’s advice or opinion on a myriad of nautical issues. She was a distinctive dresser, always wearing blue or navy sailing clothes, denim trousers, a reefer jacket, a knitted hat and sailing shoes. She drove a small ‘bubble car,’ a Messerschmitt. I can remember the distinctive sound of the two-stroke engine as it went up and down the village.

In Dunmore, Daphne sailed Dara, a small 4-ton yacht that was moored near the RNLI lifeboat, Annie Blanche Smith, close to where the Island was in the harbour. She had a circle of friends that crewed with her on short cruises from Dunmore or ones further afield. Paddy Billy Power, the well-respected coxswain of the Dunmore East lifeboat was a great confidant to Daphne, assisting her with the care and maintenance of Dara.

Dunmore East Harbour 1950s.  Dara is moored close to RNLB Annie Blanch Smith. Photo: Courtesy of Brendan Dunne, enhanced by Brendan Grogan.

The 1956 Irish Cruising Club Annual details an account of a cruise made by Daphne and her crew on Dara to the Scillies off Cornwall and back to Dunmore East. 

I can remember on one occasion, Daphne invited my mother to afternoon tea in Pamir Cottage and being an only child, I also went along. It was like a scene from a sea captain’s house in an Enid Blyton Famous Five novel. There were numerous books, ships in bottles, paintings of ships and all sorts of nautical memorabilia decorating the lovely bungalow.

During her time living in Dunmore, Daphne French was the Port Representative for the Irish Cruising Club. This entailed meeting and greeting the visiting yachts of club members and attending to their needs. Each year, she compiled a list of visiting yachts to Dunmore, and this was published in the Irish Cruising Club Annual. Her report in the Annual from 1962 makes interesting reading:

“In spite of gales of wind and rain, sixty-two yachts, sail, and power, visited Dunmore East between May and September. The pier as it was, is hard to recognise. The removal of the stone houses by blasting began in August. They have buttressed the outer wall against the most furious storms for 150 years, and it is difficult to imagine that their destruction could be justified in order to provide a double lane for fish lorries for a limited period- architecturally it is a tragedy.”

D. French.

The sailing activity was much curtailed during the harbour development for a period from the mid-1960s. It was not until the sailing club premises were completed and sailing activity moved to the Stony Cove area, that it flourished again. Unsurprisingly, during this period Daphne sold her yacht. Her active sailing time was ending and in 1966, Pamir Cottage was put up for sale and sold by Palmers from Waterford.  

Daphne spent the last years of her life living in Greystones, Co. Wicklow. She lived a life close to nature, tending her garden and learning to paint watercolours after the style of her Uncle Percy. She fascinated many of her sailing friends with her tales of the sea.

Daphne French died on July 20th, 1995, aged 90 years, and is buried at Redford Cemetery, Greystones. A fitting epitaph from the RL Stevenson poem is written on her grave – “Home is the sailor, home from the sea.”

The assistance of  Brendan Grogan who enhanced the Dunmore East 1950s photograph is appreciated. I also wish to thank Cormac Lowth, Brendan Dunne, John Aylward, Captain Alex Blackwell of the Irish Cruising Club, Mr Berrie O’Neill of the Percy French Society and Karen Poff and June Bow of www.youwho.ie. All assistance for this article is very much appreciated.  Previous related writing by Marine Correspondents Lorna Siggins and WM Nixon were a source of information.

More on the role of women in the area here:

If you liked David’s account you might also like to read another of his stories of growing up in Dunmore East

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1950’s Dun Laoghaire visitors to Dunmore

My guest blog this month is from a stalwart of the page, David Carroll.  Like myself he has a passionate interest in the local maritime heritage story and his personal reflections and research into the stories make a significant contribution to our understanding.  This month he considers the regular summer visitors from Dun Laoghaire to Dunmore during his childhood and paints a very vivid scene.

Both my parents, Desmond and Freda, were from Dun Laoghaire but had come to live in Dunmore in 1947, six months after I was born. The reason we arrived was that my father was appointed Harbour Master in succession to Major Wilfred Lloyd.  My parents were very happy living in Dunmore and had integrated well into the maritime community of the village. They remembered Dun Laoghaire fondly and loved every opportunity that presented itself to catch up on gossip and news.  Countless visitors made this possible; members of the OPW dredger crew, visiting yachtsmen, fishermen during winter months and also those staying in the hotels, caravans or renting houses during the summer months.

1950’s Dunmore

One such visitor was my uncle Jim (J.J.) Carroll who came to stay with us one summer during the mid-1950s at the time the Dunmore Regatta was taking place. My uncle, who incidentally was the first curator of the National Maritime Museum, was an expert model maker of ships and locomotives. He brought with him a model yacht that I was able to race in the regatta, which was a great thrill for me. He also brought a replica model of the Kingstown lifeboat Dunleary 11, the last lifeboat to be stationed in Kingstown, which relied solely on oars and sails for propulsion. It was in service from 1914 until 1919, during which time the RMS Leinster was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine UB-123 off the Kish with the loss of over 500 lives in October 1918. I arranged for the model to be displayed in our garden beside the harbour to draw attention to the Annual Flag Day for the Lifeboat, which was always held on Regatta Day.  That was a time, long before Twitter and Facebook were used to publicise such events. The model is now on display in the National Maritime Museum.

JJ’s model as it looks today, highlighting the proud history of the Dun Laoghaire Lifeboat
Dunmore was a favourite port of call for Dun Laoghaire yachtsmen. It was an ideal ‘stopping-off point’ for a yacht sailing onto Crosshaven or West Cork and was also convenient for yachts coming from Milford Haven in Wales. Looking at visiting yachts to the harbour as recorded in the 1957 Irish Cruising Club Annual, over fifty per cent showed Dun Laoghaire as their home port. This would be typical of all summers in the 1950s and up to the time that the re-development of the harbour started in the early 1960s.
I have some fond memories of the Dun Laoghaire yachts coming to Dunmore and some that I might want to forget! The typical yachtsman arriving in Dunmore would have been a professional type of person as yachting was a pastime that required a lot money to fund. Having worked hard all year, many would let their hair down during their time in Dunmore. It was mainly all good-natured fun and antics but one escapade that I was told about, by my parents, involved a small Messerschmidt car being brought through the windows of the Haven Hotel and placed in a guest’s bedroom.

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One of the most ebullient yachting characters from Dun Laoghaire was a dentist called Gerry Reddy. He was a regular visitor, coming as a member of the crew on different yachts. On one famous occasion, he arrived, not by sea but rather by air and it almost had an unhappy ending. The front page of the Irish Press of 12th August 1954 reported as follows:
Escape In Waterford Plane Crash
“A 4-Seater Miles Messenger aircraft crashed at Dunmore East, Co. Waterford last night while attempting to land on a local air-strip. Neither of the two occupants of the plane was injured but both received a severe shaking. The plane was piloted by Mr. Cedric O’Callaghan, who had with him as passenger Mr. G. Reddy also of Dublin. After circling the harbour twice, the plane overshot the landing ground, plunged through a wire fence and landed heavily in scrub. The under-carriage and wings were wrecked”. [1]
The Waterford News went on to say: “..It was the second time within a week that Mr. Reddin (I think they meant Reddy) figured in an unpleasant incident. The first occasion was when the yacht in which he was a passenger was buffeted by mountainous seas five days ago off Hook lighthouse.

All on board though that they were going to be swamped and crushed to death on the rocks. They tried to light flares, but they had become so wet that they would not light. It was the intention to raise an alarm so it could be conveyed from the lighthouse to the crew of the Dunmore East lifeboat.

If the lifeboat had arrived at that time, according to Mr. Reddin, they would have abandoned the craft at sea. They steered the boat two miles out to sea after considerable difficulty and managed to get into Dunmore East on the tide.” [2]
Two other regular yachtsmen were Roy Starkey and Bob Geldof  who sailed a small 4-ton yacht called Bonita.  I can recall them coming into our house at midnight to hear the shipping forecast on BBC radio. This information was vital to them before setting off to round the Tuskar and heading up the Irish Sea home to Dun Laoghaire. Bob Geldof lived just a few doors away in Crosthwaite Park, Dun Laoghaire to where my mother had lived before her marriage. I can recall saying to her that Geldof was an unusual name and she told me that  it was a Belgian name and the family had come to live in Dublin, which satisfied my curiosity. Many years later, he rose to national prominence because of his famous son, also Bob who became celebrated as the singer with the Boomtown Rats and who brought Live Aid to the world.
Two motor yachts from Dun Laoghaire, listed in the 1957 Irish Cruising Club Annual were the Kittiwake and the Santa Maria and I have memories of them both for very different reasons.
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The Santa Maria, may have been a converted fishing boat, and was kept in pristine condition by two professional yacht hands from Dun Laoghaire called Pat Carey and Billy Davis. They crewed and maintained the motor yacht on behalf of the Creedon family, who were well known in business.  Pat and Billy were real seafaring characters and I always thought that they may have spent time at sea earlier, with Irish Lights or maybe on the mailboats.
During my summer holidays around that time (1957/58) I was allowed serve as an altar boy at the daily Mass in the small chapel attached to the Convent that overlooked the harbour.  On one occasion, I was told that  the priest celebrating mass would be the priest who was a guest aboard the Santa Maria. The priest was from Blackrock College in Dublin. He obviously was used to older and better-trained boys serving and was very intolerant of me as I struggled sometimes with the responses, which in those days were in Latin and I had a tendency to ring the bell at the wrong time!  After Mass, the priest took me aside and told me directly that I would need to speed up and cut out the errors. I was very upset and did not return to the Convent after that until the Santa Maria was well and truly around Hook Head.  Much later, I discovered that the priest was Father Walter Finn, nicknamed Wally, who was a famous rugby coach in the College and coached many successful SCT teams.
I had much happier memories of the Kittiwake. Another well-known person in business, called Sam McCormick, who held the agency for Caterpillar heavy-duty machinery in Ireland, owned this motor yacht. This company later became McCormick MacNaughton.  He and his family were always very kind and generous to my parents.  I often used to catch shrimps in the harbour and hand up a bucket full to the guests staying onboard, who always seemed to enjoy cooking and eating them.
At the end of the 1957 summer, my father was asked to skipper the Kittiwake on its return voyage to Dun Laoghaire.  Along with Sam McCormick and his eldest daughter Jean, I was given special permission to be part of the crew. I was absolutely delighted. This was to be first time to go past the Hook in a boat and I was told that the course my father was to steer would bring us right between the two Saltee Islands. I could not hide my excitement. From Killea church, you could see the Saltees in the distance off the Wexford coast.  I was looking forward to seeing them at close quarters, but the reality was somewhat different, as I got very seasick as we passed through the sound between the two Islands and had to lie down on a bunk in a cabin for a few hours. We reached Wicklow by nightfall and went to the Grand Hotel for a lovely meal. My appetite has returned at this stage.  Next day, was the All-Ireland Hurling Final and we completed a very enjoyable voyage to Dun Laoghaire along the Wicklow and Dublin coastline. I recall that it was about 3am, when we arrived back in Dunmore by car but I was still up in time for the first day back at school, which was overshadowed somewhat by Waterford’s narrow loss in the final.
It was not only during the summer that Dun Laoghaire folk came to Dunmore because during the winter herring seasons, fishing boats from Dun Laoghaire formed part of the large fleet fishing in the rich herring grounds at Baginbun and landing their catches at Dunmore.
Nordkap photo courtesy Richard Mc Cormick, National Maritime Museum” 

One Dun Laoghaire skipper who stood out and was held in very high esteem by my mother and father was Brian Crummey of the m.f.v. Ard Ailbhe. This was partly because he hailed from Booterstown, where my parents had lived but more importantly because he was highly qualified and trained skipper and a very ambitious one that had the expertise and drive to compete with foreign fishermen.

In 1967, Brian travelled to Norway to bring the trawler Nordkap back to Ireland. It was 65 feet in length (20 m), wooden hull and powered by a 230hp engine. It was an outstanding vessel.  Brian, of course continued the Dun Laoghaire / Dunmore East connection many years later when he married Frances and came to live in the village.
The two ports will always have connections and I am sure that other people will have as many happy memories to share, over the years, as I had growing up on the harbour in Dunmore.

Next month’s guest blog will feature Catherine Foley, who will introduce us to her uncle Joe from Passage East.  I’m always delighted to get contributions for the guest blog.  If any others out there would like to contribute, I would love to hear from you.  The brief is 1200 word count, on a theme of  the three sister rivers, the ports of Waterford and New Ross and harbour maritime history.  If interested to know more or discuss an idea please drop me an email. 
I publish a blog about Waterford Harbours maritime heritage each Friday.  
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[1] Irish Press 12 August 1954
[2] Waterford News 13 August 1954 (Thanks to Michael Farrell of BGHS for alerting me to this.)