Southern Star – 4 September 1937.
SIXTY-YEAR OLD EPIC OF THE SEA
COURTMACSHERRY FISHERMEN’S THRILLING ESCAPE
(From our Special Representative)
A sixty-year old epic of the sea is recalled by the death of Mr. John Courtney (“Johnny O”), which was recorded in the “Courtmacsherry Clippings” in last week’s issue.
Those far off days were a halcyon time for the fishing industry when our Southern waterways harboured hundreds of craft manned by sturdy weather-beaten fishermen who extracted a lucrative living from the deep.
Courtmacsherry was then one of the leading centres of the industry and its boats and boatmen were well-known from Dunmore East to Dingle.
The thrilling episode in which eight Courtmacsherry fishermen were involved, occurred in April 1878, and of those concerned, only one survives – Mr. Timothy Keohane, now residing at Lislee, whom our representative interviewed, and who told the story of the happening with a clarity and expressiveness remarkable for a man of his 84 years. The names of the other seven men were – Jeremiah O’Driscoll, captain and owner of the fishing boat “Alma”; Thomas Jeffers, Pat Walsh, Pat Minihane, Larry O’Neill, John Courtney and Timothy Dormey, the boy.
MAIN-SAIL CARRIED AWAY
The “Alma” left Courtmacsherry on a Monday in April of the year mentioned and proceeded to the fishing grounds off Baltimore, where the nets were set. On Thursday night, a violent North-East gale sprang up, and the nets were torn away while the mizzen mast and sail were also carried overboard. The small craft was at once whirled before the gale, and it was fortunate that a small sail, belonging to the main-mast, was left intact. This the crew set and, with a silent prayer for deliverance, they turned the nose of the storm-tossed “Alma” into the wallowing waves and adopted the only course open – to run before the storm.
Throughout the weary and sleepless night, they fretfully watched their little boat behaving heroically as she rode the white-capped billows into the black unknown.
Dawn brought no relief and the storm continued unabated on Friday and Friday night when they shipped one tremendous sea from which the “Alma” barely shook herself free. On Saturday, the storm died down and the fishermen were at last able to relax from the terrible tension of the previous forty-eight hours, during which they had had hardly any food or sleep. Indeed, they had omitted to take in the usual quantity of supplies when leaving, so that on Saturday afternoon, they had only one loaf of bread left.
Their prayers were answered however, for they sighted on that afternoon a barque, under full said, which turned out to be the “Annabella Clarke”, out of Ardrossan, which answered their distress signals and hove-to.
Then they learned from the skipper of the barque they were about 150 miles off Cape Clear and 200 miles off Land’s End.
“On your present course” said the skipper to them “you will pick up the Tuskar light, off the Wexford coast”.
“We asked him to take us on board,” said Mr. Keohane to our representative, “and he agreed to do so, but would not take our boat in tow. We decided we would stick to our boat and try to make land, so we asked him for some food. His own supplies were low too, as he was on the last lap of a long voyage, but he gave us some biscuits and we parted. We saw, however, that as we had no water and only a very small quantity of eatables, we could not reach land before starving to death so we decided to go aboard the barque and cut the “Alma” adrift. We were lucky for the gale sprang up again on Sunday from the westward. On Tuesday evening, the “Annabella Clarke” which was proceeding to her home port, fetched up on the Tuskar lightship and there saw the Wexford mail-boat crossing the Irish Sea. Our skipper hailed her and put us aboard, and on Wednesday morning, we were landed a Bristol. That night the Cork mail-boat was leaving Bristol for home and we returned to Cork in her.”
Meanwhile, of course, the non-return of the “Alma” to Courtmacsherry had given rise to apprehension, which developed into fear, and in the course of a few days, to despair. Anxious watchers scanned the ocean from the Old Head lighthouse to Baltimore and when the “Alma’s” familiar bulk did not show itself she was given up for lost.
Courtmacsherry became at once a hamlet of wailing for the remarkable community on interest and sympathy of fisherfolk made the loss a personally tragic one for all.
Then about mid-day on Wednesday a lone horseman was seen galloping into Courtmacsherry conveying, in the form of a telegram, the glad news that the eight fishermen had been safely landed at Bristol. Grief at once gave way to rejoicing, which assumed remarkable manifestations that have now become part of that hamlet’s historic traditions. The men received a public welcome in Cork, and, needless to say, were joyfully feted on returning home, where a further surprise awaited them. This took the form of a message that the “Alma”, which they had abandoned, had been picked up by a Dutch barque on the day following their rescue and had been towed to Falmouth, where it was later recovered and sailed back by Captain O’Driscoll and two of his seamen to Courtmacsherry once more.
LIFE SAVING RECORD
Mr. Keohane has a fund of episodes concerning his association with the sea, which are a treat to listen to. He was for 23 years coxswain of Courtmacsherry lifeboat, during which time that vessel was called out to many craft in distress.
In 1904, they saved eleven of the crew of the barque “Falconier” of Dunquerque, which was wrecked at Travara.
Many coastwise dwellers remember the wreck of the Italian full-rigged ship the “Kiampi” of Bird Island, Dunworley in 1910, with a loss of all hands. The lifeboat reached to scene too late for the vessel had been dashed to pieces and the crew lost before help could arrive.
The greatest tragedy of all which Mr. Keohane witnessed was the sinking of the “Lusitania” of which terrible disaster he was an eye-witness from the cliffs of Coolim; but when he and his brave men of the lifeboat reached the scene, all they could do was to recover a number of dead bodies.
Mr. Keohane’s son, Patrick, who was an officer in the British Navy, was one of the men specially picked to accompany the ill-fated Captain Scott on his expedition to the South Pole. He was one of three Irishmen who were among the landing party in the frozen Antarctic, and who subsequently helped recover the bodies of Captain Scott and his five companions who perished with him. Mr. Keohane is divisional officer of the Coastguards in the Isle of Man.