History of the MII

History of the Maritime Institute of Ireland


The Maritime Institute of Ireland was founded in 1941 at one of the most critical moments in this country’s history. Some of the founders and earliest supporters had been trying to impress on the general public and on government for at least the previous five years, in particular its real founder and longest serving President, Colonel Anthony Lawlor, that if, as seemed more and more inevitable, a catastrophic European war were to break out, Ireland would very quickly be in crisis. While we had very good reason to declare ourselves neutral, nobody in the highest position of critical responsibility had taken the trouble to ensure how a small neutral island which depended on the importation of vital food and other supplies was going to survive when the ships, mainly owned by non-nationals that carried our vital imports and valuable exports were no longer avail-able. Yet, by 1942, this was precisely what had happened and starvation and economic collapse were all too visible on the horizon to even the dumbest politicians.Crews superbFaced with this serious situation, the State decided to found a nation-al merchant shipping fleet to stave off the disaster. This could only be achieved by sourcing antiquated vessels, at enormous cost, and enlisting our country’s seafaring workforce, to rally round the country’s new merchant ensign.  In practice it turned out the crews were, in general, as superb as the ships in which they served were deplorable. Men from those crews gave their lives, as neutrality was no protection against the lust for destruction of the belligerent powers. Sadly, they are in danger of being forgotten by a nation that did survive but did not, until recently, properly appreciate their sacrifice. International authority

Dr. John de Courcy Ireland,
author of many works on maritime history

The Institute warmly welcomes, as a result of their years of campaigning, the establishment of the Marine Institute and its effective adjunct, the Irish Maritime Development OfficeThose who had urged the development of an Irish merchant fleet for years greeted its tardy arrival by the creation of the Maritime Institute of Ireland. The Institute considered its first task to be to win wholesale public support for this new venture to ensure that our State would never again be dependent for survival on foreign shipping. The Institute also promoted policies to ensure that, when the war ended, successive governments should be solemnly pledged to develop permanent maritime policies. These included a constructive policy based on serious encouragement of the marine sciences, which are now very effectively being addressed by the Marine Institute for the development of the national fishing fleet.

Lectures givenThe Institute’s initial campaigns to forward the objectives just recalled, consisted of public lectures on maritime themes and public film shows on maritime subjects, careful attention to the press with Institute intervention if possible if ever a newspaper published maritime news or other topics, the Institution of Maritime Weeks, with poster displays, lectures, film-nights, public library displays of maritime material and deputations to the government.These were expensive to run, but not so expensive as the National Maritime Exhibition run in Dublin’s Mansion House on several occasions. Probably the most varied, best-organised, most publicised exhibition was that of 1942 which was run to introduce the Institute and its aims to the Irish public. Perhaps the most fruitful educative work was done by the regular printing of articles on our aims and activities and on famous Irish-descended seamen under foreign flags in the Maritime Magazine.Policy requestedThis journal was handed over to the Institute when its publishers changed direction, and for many months the Institute had its own journal, well illustrated with numerous photographs, edited by Desmond Branigan, now President of the Institute, who had served in the Irish Shipping Company’s fleet during the war. Though this particular publication was too expensive for us to keep going, the Institute has consistently published a regular journal of some sort, this one being the latest.

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History of the Maritime Institute of Ireland

INSTITUTE’S ADVANCE OVER YEARSContinued from previous pageIn the late 1940s, the Institute, like all similar bodies in other spheres, had been asked by the then Taoiseach, Mr Eamon deValera, to draw up a detailed maritime policy for the country as a contribution to a great national drive to prevent the country falling back into depend-ence on the British labour market for employment of the youth of Ireland. A very detailed policy statement was submitted which included a strong plea for the development of river and canal usage now being realised by a large fleet of leisure craft.The submission contained a forceful argument, urging a carefully planned introduction of fish-farming in Ireland.This was almost moribund before the war though the country was situated in the neighbourhood of some of the world’s richest fishing grounds (less rich now precisely because Ireland, despite progress in its fishing fleet, urged on down the years by the Institute, positive proposals from Ireland for proper conservation of the great fishing areas could not carry weight internationally).Craft assembled

Finally, to ensure that our country would henceforth have a coastal defence naval force suitable for a small neutral island to replace the ramshackle navy, which was improvised at the last minute of the eleventh hour of the crisis created by the outbreak of the Second World War, a number of craft were assembled.

Muirchu at anchor in 1937
The “Muirchu” in Dun Laoghaire. Formerly the British “Helga”when it shelled Liberty Hall and the Custom House in 1916.

Even this limited arrangement was made possible through the efforts of a great Irish seaman from a west of Ireland seafaring family, commander Seamus Ă“ Muiris. This officer, on the basis of many years in the Royal Navy, had made strong and persistent representations to successive governments in favour of the creation of such a fleet and was appointed as the Commander of the new naval fleet. In his efforts, he was strongly supported by Colonel Anthony Lawlor, then wartime Commander of the Marine Coast Watching Service.It was appropriate that these outstanding officers would be founder members of the Maritime Institute of Ireland, in 1941. They deserve to be recognised as the founding fathers of what was known as the Irish Marine Service.Now thrivingAlthough the public was told by the then Chief Inspector of Fisheries that fish-farming never could and never would take place in Ireland, it is now a thriving and developing industry, employing hundreds of workers, especially on the west coast and netting – pardon the pun -107m in 2001 in addition to providing in the region of 3,500 jobs.In 1950 the Institute benefited by the gift of a magnificent collection of ship models, (some unique), charts, uniforms, maritime pictures and books which were donated to them under the terms of the will of two daughters of one of the 19th century’s great Irish seamen, Captain Robert Halpin of Wicklow who made history by laying the first successful oceanic cables in the North and South Atlantic, Mediterranean and Indian Oceans. The ship that carried out this epic work was Brunel’s Great Eastern, for almost half a century the world’s largest steamship, a superb model of which, made under Halpin’s supervision, is a world-famous item in the Institute’s Halpin collectionIn 1957 Colonel Lawlor made a suggestion taken on by the Institute’s Council that the Institute should set up a Research Department with two main aims, to keep the Institute fully aware of all new technical, scientific, economic and social developments worldwide, and to make as systematic research as possible on the activities and presence of individuals of Irish birth or descent in the maritime history of the world, as well as looking for for-gotten or unknown maritime events or individuals involved in maritime affairs in our own country. The author of this review was appointed as Honorary Research Officer, a position he has held up to the present.The Institute now possesses over 600 exercise books with index and pages numbered, from Irish, British, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and also from Canadian and North and South A m e r i c a n newspapers, containing material invaluable for authors of books on or researchers of facts about more than half a century of the world’s maritime history.Probably even more important was the systematic compilation of facts about mariners, naval architects, marine scientists, and the life boat services known to be of Irish birth or origin from France, Spain, Portugal, Argentina and the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, as well as much less complete details for Great Britain, U.S.A., Uruguay, Brazil, Chile, China, the Netherlands and Germany. In total, the library of the Institute contains 4,000 books on maritime affairs and 1,600 items of interest.Continued in next page


History of the Maritime Institute of Ireland


Continued from previous pageThe Institute’s archives also contain details of Irish activities under diverse local rulers in Belgium, Australia, New Zealand and India. This material was gleaned from archives in London, all the great French ports, the Spanish naval archives at the Viso del Marqués and the Portuguese records at Belem. These records show that Irishmen, and some women, working at sea, in shipyards, shipping offices, light-houses, and lifeboats, and in various laboratories, have taken part in and sometimes altered the course of developments in maritime history, some great and some insignificant. It seems unlikely that so many persons of other national origins can have been so widely involved in the world’s maritime history.School experimentIn the 1960s, an experiment was introduced into Dublin schools in which pupils adopted various ships, especially of Irish Shipping Limited, the State-owned company. This was highly popular with both teachers and pupils, but sadly, interest waned and, unfortunately, the experiment was discontinued.

For over 40 years, the Institute has made an arrangement with City Quay Church and with St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, that each will have an annual service to recall the memory of all seamen victims of the wars of the last century, and particularly those from this country. These are always well attended.

Museum openedBy this time the Institute’s museum was open to the public in Dun Laoghaire’s Mariner’s Church, occasioning a steady flow of local residents and foreign tourists, some of whom posed serious and thoughtful questions. The Museum’s closure because of its physical condition is felt as a sad loss by quite a few local citizens. Ensuring its survival and future development must remain an urgent challenge for the Institute. Among the most interesting visitors, there over the years were the survivors of 3 German warships sunk in the Bay of Biscay in the Second World War. The survivors were picked up by the small Wexford coaster Kerlogue at very great risk. The story of this too little known episode of Irish heroism at sea has been written by former Institute President, David Sheehy. Another sad happening was the passing this summer of the Museum’s distinguished Manager, Mr Robbie Brennan (see page ?????).Through contacts made with the Institute’s museum, many of the world’s great maritime museums, such as the Musie de la Marine in Paris and the British National Maritime Museum, have developed permanent contact with the Institute, which in the past 30 years has been represented in large conferences on incidents or trends in international maritime history. In its 60 years of existence, the Maritime Institute has made great efforts to revive the once vibrant maritime spirit of this land of ours. We have had little help from the media, though from time to time newspapers, the television, and also radio stations, particularly local ones in and around Dublin, have shown genuine interest and great courtesy when we have sought their help in the struggle for restoration.The maritime spirit that once permeated this nation, and not only the spirit, but the practical effort needed to make Ireland a force again on the sea continues to thrive with developments like the creation of electricity from wave-power, and the design and use of fast all-weather passenger ferries.Hopefully, all will be well.

This article is from the 2002/2003 edition of Inis na Mara

The copyright of any articles published here remain with the author in all cases