Irish Flagged Ships lost during World War II

Sermon delivered in November 2003 by Robert C. Reed, Canon Precentor, St Patrick’s Cathedral.

This afternoon’s Gospel reading of Jesus calling his disciples evokes in me the words of the hymn Dear Lord and Father of Mankind when in verse 2 we sing, ‘In simple trust like theirs who heard, beside the Syrian sea, the gracious calling of the Lord, let us like them, without a word, rise up and follow thee.”

It’s an appropriate image for this service commemorating those who lost their lives on Irish Ships from 1939-45. The Gospel scene is set, after all, beside the Syrian Sea or the Sea of Galilee, that body of water, which provided fish and resources for its people… That body of water which could be whipped up into storms almost instantly, threatening the lives of the sailors and fishermen and even causing them to lose their faith in their beloved Saviour.

That sea gave Jesus solace. It also provided him, the opportunity to increase Peter’s faith, when they both walked on the water. The sea was the site of the saving grace of God. As an island people, we have and always have had a special relationship with the sea. When we consider its influence on us we are aware of its sustaining supply of warm water, ensuring our mild moist climate for the growth of our food supplies. Its waters provide us with a wealth of edible food and a treasured amenity creating spectacular scenery and enjoyable playgrounds. Like our Lord, how many of us seek its solace? Don’t we all love a water view? Those of us, who have been fortunate enough to live on the coast, never tire of the view, as so many different vistas are reflected by the sea and its moods.

But as an island people we must also be aware of the precarious position the sea places us in, for we are far too dependent upon it for our survival.

A look at the map of the Trans European Network shows Ireland and its peripheral location linked by two sea routes: Dublin to Holyhead and Larne to Stranraer.

In 2002, 45 million tonnes of cargo in the forms of Ro-Ro; Lo-Lo, liquid bulk, dry bulk and other goods were handled by ships in and out of Ireland.

How dependent we are not only on the sea, but on the merchant navies who ply its waters; those men and women, who for weeks deprive themselves of their families and loved ones, as they apply their skills of seamanship, so that the lifeblood of world trade flows.

Most disasters at sea are the consequences of human or mechanical failures, exacerbated by natural hazards of storm and shifting banks, but let us go back to the time that we are remembering today during the Second World War. A time when Ireland was similarly dependent on its merchant marine; a time when the hazards were man made by the warring nations, who regulated shipping by selecting:

  • what shipping routes may be used,
  • which ships may operate
  • and which ships shall be terminated.

Unlike the Irish men and women who enlisted in the armed forces of Britain or America, the Irish merchant marine was neutral, with no military aims. It was trying to enable our citizens to obtain fuel for our generating stations and transport vehicles, supplies and income for our agricultural and industrial providers as well as offer us an opportunity to visit loved ones abroad by keeping the channels of communication open.

1938 Inver Tankers Ltd was established to operate seven oil tankers. Two days after the outbreak of WWII, all were transferred to the British registry and all were sunk within three years. So the situation arose that every drop of oil and petrol during the war years was carried here in Allied tankers, for we had none ourselves.

Almost all the cross-channel passenger ships trading into Southern Ireland in 1939 were registered here, although they flew the Red ensign of the British Merchant Navy. In September of that year, the government required all Irish-registered ships to fly the Irish flag.

British crews went on strike and refused to sail under the Tricolour so a few days later, the ships were transferred to the British register, leaving only fifty-six ships to serve Ireland, 7 of which carried no cargo to this country but served as tenders to the Lighthouse Service.

“This country in the circumstances of today is almost entirely dependent on British ships for the supply of those commodities which come from outside.” Words which ring somewhat true today, although taken from an Irish Times editorial of 11/1/41.

The following month, in February, owing to this and the calls from the Federation of Irish Manufacturers, the government announced the formation of Irish Shipping Ltd to urgently acquire deep-sea cargo ships, which were in big demand throughout the world.

So short was the supply of ships, that they were offered a price earning 100% profit on a ship within days of purchase! But the real problem was manning them.

Fortunately, a vast pool of skilled Irish manpower was available serving with the British Merchant Navy with 3,470 men from the Irish Free State and 3,017 men from N.I.

But what has happened to Irish Shipping Ltd? It was dissolved by the government in 1984 as it absolved itself of the responsibility to retain some independence from the commercial forces that operate today.

Sadly, but inevitably, the significance of this has greatly accelerated. The status of our premier port, Dublin, which handles about 1/3 of the total tonnage of Irish ports, doesn’t even feature on some maps of ports of the European Union, although 15m tonnes of cargo, annually, is a significant amount.

However, this small economy of scale will not draw the super tankers and bulk carriers of today, so transhipment occurs in London, Rotterdam, Antwerp and Le Havre, where our cargoes are loaded onto smaller vessels, which have access to our ports. Having said that, we are aware of Irish Ferries boast of The Ulysses is the largest car ferry in the world.

In his book, The Long Watch, Frank Forde not only documents 41 belligerent actions against Irish Ships, but also relates in heartbreaking detail the background of those crews and the ships on which they served.

Young, idealistic, enthusiastic, these disciples of the sea obeyed the call of their master. Not only did the storms frighten them, or the sinful acts of man cost them their lives, but like Jesus, who kept Peter from sinking, these sailors were able to save others as well, as they plucked them out of their potential grave.

As Forde, writes, “on the hate-ridden, stormed-tossed oceans, the brightly lit and painted ships were a reminder to the combatants that humility still existed, for the Irish ships saved the lives of 521 men of all nationalities.”

An example is recalled from a battle on the 28 December, 1943, when the Royal Navy moved to trap 11 German destroyers, which were escorting a vessel bringing rubber from Kobe, Japan to occupied France. The British had managed to sink three of the German ships, which had broken away under the cover of a smoke screen. Not far away, the Irish ship Kerlogue was repeatedly circled by a German bomber, which signalled that help was needed. As Forde tells it, “At 11:00 a.m. she came upon an appalling scene; the sea all around her was covered with men floating on rafts, on wreckage and in lifejackets.

The German officer described how after a night on a raft he watched the next morning. “the little ship bravely moving through the enormous waves to pick up more and more of my comrades.” Ignoring British instructions to head for Holyhead, Capt Donohue headed straight for Cork because of the condition of the 164 survivors on board, seven of them very seriously wounded. 2 did not survive and are interred in the German War Cemetery in Glencree, Co. Wicklow.

In 1944, the German Ambassador to Ireland wrote to Capt Donoghue: To you and your crew my profound gratitude as well as my high appreciation of the unhesitating valiant spirit which has prompted you to perform this exemplary deed, worthy of the great tradition of Irish gallantry and humanity. I hope to make your personal acquaintance soon.” He did a few weeks later and presented a solid silver cup.

So exactly what are we commemorating this afternoon? Not only this heroism, but

  • The Leukos sunk off Donegal: 11 dead.
  • City of Limerick sunk by aircraft in the North Atlantic: 2 dead.
  • Kerry Head sunk by aircraft off Cape Clear: 12 dead.
  • The Ardmore missing off the South Coast of Ireland: 24 dead.
  • Isolda sunk by aircraft off the Wexford coast: 6 dead.
  • Innisfallen mined and sunk off Liverpool: 4 dead.
  • St Fintan sunk by aircraft in the Irish Sea: 9 dead.
  • Clonara sunk in the North Atlantic: 11 dead.
  • City of Waterford sunk in the North Atlantic: 5 dead.
  • The Irish Pine sunk in the North Atlantic: 33 dead.
  • Kyleclare sunk in the North Atlantic: 18 dead.
  • Cymric missing on passage from Ardrossan to Lisbon: 11 dead,
  • The Naomh Garbhan mined and sunk of the Waterford Coast: 3 dead.

The litany could continue with the names of ships attacked with the number of casualties, but all in all 149 merchant sailors on Irish ships lost their lives, while others received mutilating wounds, which they bear to this day. As Forde laments, “For some, death came quickly, in a searing explosion. To others, it came very slowly; on a raft, in a lifeboat, the crowded mess deck of a corvette, the hospital of a rescue ship.”

These men were not trained as military. They sailed on unarmed, defenceless vessels.

A 20’ high monolith of Wicklow granite, fronted by a 17 foot, 200-year-old anchor on City Quay constitutes a memorial to these men by naming all 149 lost.

It is fitting that we remember them, their service, fortitude and courage as well as appreciate all that they did and, for that matter, continue to do in the Irish Mercantile Marine.

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