An emigrants Christmas wish

To celebrate Christmas this year, I thought I’d bring you the words across the Irish sea, an emigrant’s lament, a cousin of mine from the Russianside, but one of my grandmother’s generation.  Fr Tom Doyle was one of two brothers to enter the priesthood and both spent their years in England and beyond.  This piece was published in the Munster Express in the 1960’s and the clipping was found by a relation of mine recently.
Fr Tom saying mass in the home of his cousin in 1980’s
L-R Jim Duffin RIP, Maura Moran (my maternal Grandmother) RIP, Gerry Murphy, Ella Hallahan RIP
Mary McDernott RIP, Fr Tom RIP, Brian McDermott RIP, Maureen Burke RIP
Memories
T’was Christmas Eve, I stood on Mersey’s Strand
And wished I were back home in Ireland.
Down by the Suir and gazing at the hook
Blinking “welcome home” to Passage and to Crook.
To Cheekpoint and my home of days gone by.
When Christmas really was a feast of joy.
I heard the slough of boots across the pass
That led to Faithlegg Church and Midnight Mass.
The heart greetings “Merry Christmas Pat”
The same to you, may all your pigs grow fat!
And in the morn, the tang of burning peat
Spurred on by turning wheel to cook the meat.
The crowded table on the old stone floor.
The stranger always welcome at the door.
The lamp-lit darkness of the Christmas night.
When tales of ghosts turned many faces white:
The fiddler played, the elders danced with glee.
And Grandpa bounced me on his bony knee!
Those were the days with innocence abroad
And Irishmen knew how to praise the Lord.
I see it all and sigh, and inward’ pray.
God bless the Emerald Isle on Christmas Day
Tom- An Exile

The house described above, is my aunts, Margaret O’Leary. His Grandpa was my own Great Grandfather;  Joseph (called Jose) Doherty of the Russianside who was married to Ellen nee Walsh. They had 9 children; one was my Grandfather, Andy, another, Tom’s mother Ciss. Ciss married a Wexford man named Joseph Doyle and they had 6 children, Tom was one of the youngest, born in 1919.  The family emigrated to Liverpool early on.
Ellen & Jose in the Russianside early 1900’s
Photo courtesy of Sean Doherty

Tom and his older brother Michael, both entered the priesthood, Tom was ordained a priest of the Monfort Fathers in 1948.  Fr Tom arrived  to Cheekpoint every summer for his holidays and offered mass in local homes, and always mass at Faithlegg church and Crooke if required.  I recall one Sunday, when I was serving as an altar boy.  A new PA system had been recently installed, so that the priest didn’t need to strain his voice to be heard. Now Tom had no fear of straining his voice, which boomed out and dominated every conversation. As my Father put it, “you’d hear him in Wexford even if there was a gale from the east”. When Tom started mass that morning even the sleepiest parishioners sat bolt upright under the aural assault. So much so, that during the mass I was called back into the sacristy by the chapel woman at the time, Joan O’Dwyer and told to turn off the PA. 

Fr Tom was the only priest I ever heard called by his first name, something he actively encouraged. He considered Cheekpoint home, and never missed a visit to the Russianside.  One of my fondest memories of him was the summer I was asked to show him round the village, and tell him the names of the people inside and who they were related to. Once I connected it back to my Gran’s era it all fell into place with him, and when the door was opened he was immediately at home, and always welcomed. On the occasions I got inside the threshold, I’d be treated like royalty, even if the occupant would turn their head to me normally.  Fed and watered and occasionally an envelope passed to Tom for prayers, we would saunter on to the next house and my intelligence called for once more. At the end of the visits each day, there was “an economic recompense for my time”, as he put it.

The one thing I never realised until I started to research this piece, and certainly not apparent from the poem above, was that Tom wasn’t actually born in the Russianside at all.  I can only imagine that having been born into the Irish emigrant community of Liverpool, the Christmas traditions must have been ingrained into him from the stories of his mother and his older siblings.  It was obvious to me all those years ago, that he certainly felt like he was coming home each summer.  Fr Tom died on the 10th November 1997 aged 78 and was buried in his communities burial ground at Romsey near Southampton. His obituary has more of his career.
I publish a blog each Friday.  If you like this piece or have an interest in the local history or maritime heritage of Waterford harbour and environs you can email me at russianside@gmail.com to receive the blog every week.
My Facebook and Twitter pages are more contemporary and reflect not just heritage 
and history but the daily happenings in our beautiful harbour:  

F https://www.facebook.com/whtidesntales  T https://twitter.com/tidesntales 

River Mersey rescue – SS Bannprince

It’s two years this month since I started to write my weekly blog about Cheekpoint and the Waterford harbour area. In that time I’ve written many varied accounts of growing up, the fishing, the sea and the history and heritage we have in abundance. Most of my favourite pieces are stories that took months to research and write and today I wanted to republish one that didn’t get a large audience but which was special to me. On Saturday night, 12th Nov 1955 my Father, Bob Doherty and two others from Cheekpoint, my Uncle John and Jimmy (O’Dea) Doherty, were departing Liverpool as seamen aboard the MV Ocean Coast in dense fog.  The ship was carrying general cargo and bound for Falmouth.  The three were just out of their teens, but already seasoned sailors.
 
The first official communication on the night was at 22:10 when the Ocean Coast sent out the following message “Queens Channel, Q15 Buoy, River Mersey. There has been a collision between two unknown ships. I am anchored and sending a lifeboat over. Strong ebb tide running. One of the ships in the collision has sunk”
 
 
My fathers ship, MV Ocean Coast, was a twin screw motor cargo vessel 250 ft in length and a 38ft beam and 1,790 tons dead weight. She was built for short sea route trips by Leith shipyard for the Coast Lines shipping company and was launched on 31st July 1935.  During the war years she had served as a supply vessel to Gibraltar and North Africa.  She also played her part in the D Day landings servicing Omaha beach carrying petrol. My father was in short pants at that stage, snaring rabbits to supplement the meager supplies at home in the village, and dreaming of going to sea like his father.
MV Ocean Coast

The collision, it would subsequently emerge, was between a fully laden Swedish motor oil tanker SS Juno and the SS Bannprince which was operated by S William Coe of Liverpool.  The Bannprince was crewed by Northern Ireland men and had been built in 1933 in Glasgow.  She was 165ft 5″ long with a beam of 27ft 2″ and a deadweight of 716 tons.

SS Bannprince

Like the Ocean Coast, the Bannprince had served with a volunteer crew during the war.  She helped to evacuate 337,130 Allied troops from Dunkirk between May and June 1940, following this she was taken over for “Unspecified special government services” and was one of the first ships to land at Sword beach during the D Day landings with much needed medical supplies.

 
The Bannprince was outward bound that fateful night, fully laden with coal for Colerain in NI. The first the crew knew of difficulties was when the ships horn sounded three shrill blasts moments before there was an almighty crash and the ship healed over.  She would sink in ten minutes and most of the crew of 9 had no time to get a life jacket.  Her lifeboats were submerged. In the freezing Mersey the crew did what they could to stay together and help those that couldn’t swim into life jackets found floating or other debris that would sustain them. The Juno was entering the Mersey and heading for the Liverpool docks.
Motor Tanker WWII era

It was almost an hour between collision and the calls from the lifeboat of the Ocean Coast were heard in the water.  At this point most of the sailors were close to exhaustion and had drifted apart.  The boat my father and Jimmy O Dea was in rescued six and a lifeboat from a sister ship Southern Coast picked up the remaining 3 men including the captain and the only crew man to lose his life, second engineer James Ferris of Limavady, Derry.

 
The Certificate my father received in 1957
They put the six survivors aboard the New Brighton lifeboat and returned to the Ocean Coast to continue their voyage.  On the 3rd April 1957 my father along with 5 other crew men (including Jimmy) received a certificate from the Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society in recognition of their efforts.  The Captain received a silver cigarette box and the chief officer a parchment.
 
The Ocean Coast continued to give service into the 1960’s when she seems to have been sold for scrap,  The Bannprince was risen from the Mersey as she was a hazard to shipping and was sold for scrap to a Dutch shipyard.  The Juno, which was only lightly damaged, returned to work. but I couldn’t source any further information about her.
 
My father went to sea as a teenager like so many other men of his generation.  Himself, Jimmy and Uncle John are now gone to their rest, and with them their best stories.  He never actually spoke at home of this rescue and it took a bit of time to actually research it. But then again, it was just after the horrors of the second world war, and events like this were trivial in comparison. Jimmy O’Dea did have a yarn about it however.
 
According to his telling when they approached the men in the water my father, who was an excellent swimmer, had to jump overboard to help some of the weakened men out of the water. Jimmy O Dea and the other rescuers were returning to their ship, when they noticed my father wasn’t aboard. They turned back, rowing now with a vengeance only to find my father swinging off a buoy shouting “where the hell were ye then ship mates???”  Fact or fiction we’ll never know, but my Father would have loved it, the bigger the laugh the better, even at his own expense.
This is an excerpt from my new Book. The cover includes the blending of two images, the building of Dunmore East pier and the city dredger, Portlairge from an original image by Jonathan Allen.
New Book Out Now