Every December members of the National Organisation of Ex-Servicemen and Women gather at a memorial in Cobh, a monument to five men who died in a tragic shipping accident in Cork Harbour 79 years ago. Two of their bodies have never been recovered.
Seventy-nine years is a long time to be remembering, I thought, as I stood at the monument on East Beach in Cobh and heard the names of thefive men called out. It was a damp morning, with a cold wind blowing. Members of the O.N.E., prominent in uniforms, stood rigidly at attention facing the memorial on its red base, topped by a white navigational mark, as the names were called: Frank Powell, William Duggan, Patrick Wilshaw, Frank Lloyd, John Higgins. They died in the Irish Poplar tragedy on the very stormy night of Saturday, December 12, 1942, in the middle of World War Two.
Under wartime regulations every ship entering the harbour had to be inspected, so when Irish Shipping’s Irish Poplar arrived, bound for Cork Dockyard at Rushbrooke for an annual refit, the vessel hove-to at the Dog Nose Buoy, south east of Spike Island. The Cork Harbour Commissioners’ launch left the Cobh Pilot station to put a harbour pilot aboard. One of the crew was John Higgins. He would not return to the station that night. The Marine Service launch departed its Haulbowline Base with an inspection party. Frank Powell, William Duggan, Patrick Wilshaw, Frank Lloyd were on the crew. They would never return to their Haulbowline Base.
In the difficult, stormy weather conditions, Pilot Patrick Lynch and Marine Service Chief Petty Officer Frank Barry were assisted by the ships’ crew to get aboard Irish Poplar.Having completed inspection, Officer Barry prepared to disembark, but there was no sign of either the Marine Service or Commissioners’ launch. It was assumed that, because of the severity of the weather, those vessels had put back to their bases. But, unbeknownst to the Irish Poplar, both launches had collided in trying to cope with the increasingly severe conditions. Both lost power and drifted towards the ship’s stern. Without cargo the Irish Poplar was light in the water and part of her propeller was above sea level. There being no sign of the launches, the ship’s engines began moving the vessel from its hove-to position. “The launches were trashed by the ship’s propeller and six people were thrown into the water,” says the O.N.E. description of what happened. “Coxswain of the pilot launch, James Hogan, a very strong swimmer, managed to swim to Spike Island and raise the alarm.” Powerful search lights were turned on at the three harbour forts manned at the time – Davis, Meagher and Mitchel’ and a search began. Another Marine Service boat, Wyndham, got to the scene and Ballycotton Lifeboat battled around the coast to engage in the search. Following days of searching three bodies were found – those of Frank Powell and John Higgins were never located.
Representatives from several maritime organisations laid commemorative wreaths at the memorial as did family members of those who died. Rev.Paul Arbuthnot, Church of Ireland Rector, led prayers and the singing of ‘Abide With Me.’ Aisling McCarthy sang the lifeboat song. It is very special to continue remembrance for so long, 79 years from the night when the tragedy occurred.
Diarmuid Higgins is National President of the O.N.E. What he told me is worth remembering in these times when the Naval Service, the successor to what was, back in 1942, the Marine Service, has difficulty in recruiting and keeping its personnel. “The O.N.E. helps and supports service personnel who, for whatever reason, have fallen on hard times and we also focus on remembrance. Four of the men who died were of the Marine Service, the forerunner of the Naval Service where we all came from. We must remember them and their colleague from the harbour pilot launch.”
The O.N.E. has a five-bed home in Cobh and others in Athlone, Letterkenny and Dublin, for those who need support.
It was an emotional occasion which I will broadcast on the Maritime Ireland Radio Show – from Monday, December 20.
WATERFORD’S MARITIME DISASTER
My friend Andrew Doherty whose own blogs Waterford Harbour Tides & Tales is published on the last Friday of every month, reminds of another wartime tragedy.
Within two days in December 1917, Waterford experienced its worst maritime disaster with the sinking of Clyde Shipping’s SS Formby and SS Coningbeg. Of the 83 who died 67 were from Waterford, the harbour and hinterland including Faithlegg and Cheekpoint.
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