independent

Thursday 21 September 2017

Remembering the boat people

THEY SPENT three days in Sligo, attended local church services, were fed by locals and there were plenty of tears as the refugee ship departed for Canada.

In 1948, a 700-ton ship called the S.S. Walnut, originally built as a minesweeper, was purchased by refugees, mostly from Estonia, who had fled to Sweden temporarily to avoid the Russian invasion of 1944. They wanted to settle in Canada and after purchasing the boat they set off for a new beginning on November 13th, 1948.

There were 365 refugees on board, including 120 families. Most were Estonians but there were also some Latvians, Danes and Poles, one Austrian and one German. After leaving the port of Gothenburg, they ran into poor weather off the North of Scotland and decided to make for Sligo to replenish their stocks of food and fuel.

The Sligo Champion of November 25th 1948 reported the "rare occurrence at Sligo Port on Wednesday morning, when a Swedish steamer sailed in from the North Atlantic with about 365 refugees on board and tied up at the Deep Water berths."

"News of the ship's arrival spread rapidly and before long a continuous stream of local sightseers were ending their way to the quays. There were several medical students and many were farmers. The oldest person amongst them was an 80-year-old woman and the youngest, an eight months' old boy. They all appeared to be well nourished and well dressed. The women wore slacks and the men military overcoats, while the children were dressed in furs and appear quite happy," stated the report.

It goes on to state that when the vessel arrived at Raughley, they were met by Dr. T. J. Murphy and a number of Red Cross personnel who supplied the ship with much needed bandages as well as vitamins and glucose which had run short. The skipper of the vessel was Captain August Linde.

"Through the initiative of the Red Cross and Dr. Murphy, arrangements were made to have the passengers, particularly the children, provided with hot baths in private houses in the town.

"On Thursday evening a deputation from the firm and staff of Messrs Macarthur's, bakers and confectioners, O'connell Street, Sligo made a presentation to the Captain of the Walnut, a gift of 250 loaves and several dozen barn-bracks, which was very much appreciated by those on board," said the Champion report.

A more personal account of the Walnut's stay in Sligo came about by chance. Ms. Heather Browne, now living in Dublin, but originally from Sligo, came across an account of the boat's visit which had been written by her father, Pastor C.C.W. Browne who became Rector of St. John's Church in

Sligo in 1947. He was first made Canon and then Diocesan Dean when St. John's status changed to that of Cathedral.

"For three days they stayed with us and won the sympathy and affection of the whole town. We all felt sorry for them when we learnt something of the tragedy of their lives and saw the conditions under which they were trying to exist on board," wrote the Rector.

"Every available room and cabin had been fitted up with row upon row of bunks, so that there was scarcely room to move and little or no privacy.

"On deck, coal had been plied up in every available space that could be spared, held in by hastily erected wooden barriers but sending a black dust over everything. But that coal was important. On it their lives depended. They wanted all they could carry for they could not be sure how long they might have to be at sea."

Some 200 on board, including the Captain, accepted an invitation to join in the Service of Evensong at the Parish Church of St. John the Baptist, a sight said the Rector was unforgettable, as so many nationalities crowded into an ancient Irish church.

Some returned the next day for Morning Prayer but the most moving Service of all, said the Rector, was that held in the afternoon on the quayside just before the Walnut set sail from Sligo.

"It was a solemn occasion, so moving that many of the men wept openly," he recalled.

As the ship's siren blew farewell, three rousing cheers rang out and then someone on board started singing, 'When Irish Eyes are Smiling.'

"Some of us who had cars hurried to Rosses Point five miles away, where standing on a rock we waved a last farewell as the ship went past. We could see hundreds of handkerchiefs waving back to us and we could still hear across the water the lovely singing of a hymn. Gradually they vanished into the greyness of a misty November afternoon. The last we could see of them was a small light flashing in response to signals from the headlamps of one of the cars."

That wasn't to be the last contact between Sligo and the Estonian refugees. Rev Browne was to receive a letter from Captain Linde dated December 20th 1948. He thanked the people of Sligo for their good deed. "We and our children will remember your people forever," he said, adding they had all arrived safely in Canada.

The Rector's daughter, Heather, recently made contact with some of the passengers who settled in Canada, including the Captain's daughter. There is now the possibility of a TV documentary being made on the Wanut's voyage, with hopes that it will be screened by RTE when or if it is made. THEY SPENT three days in Sligo, attended local church services, were fed by locals and there were plenty of tears as the refugee ship departed for Canada.

In 1948, a 700-ton ship called the S.S. Walnut, originally built as a minesweeper, was purchased by refugees, mostly from Estonia, who had fled to Sweden temporarily to avoid the Russian invasion of 1944. They wanted to settle in Canada and after purchasing the boat they set off for a new beginning on November 13th, 1948.

There were 365 refugees on board, including 120 families. Most were Estonians but there were also some Latvians, Danes and Poles, one Austrian and one German. After leaving the port of Gothenburg, they ran into poor weather off the North of Scotland and decided to make for Sligo to replenish their stocks of food and fuel.

The Sligo Champion of November 25th 1948 reported the "rare occurrence at Sligo Port on Wednesday morning, when a Swedish steamer sailed in from the North Atlantic with about 365 refugees on board and tied up at the Deep Water berths."

"News of the ship's arrival spread rapidly and before long a continuous stream of local sightseers were ending their way to the quays. There were several medical students and many were farmers. The oldest person amongst them was an 80-year-old woman and the youngest, an eight months' old boy. They all appeared to be well nourished and well dressed. The women wore slacks and the men military overcoats, while the children were dressed in furs and appear quite happy," stated the report.

It goes on to state that when the vessel arrived at Raughley, they were met by Dr. T. J. Murphy and a number of Red Cross personnel who supplied the ship with much needed bandages as well as vitamins and glucose which had run short. The skipper of the vessel was Captain August Linde.

"Through the initiative of the Red Cross and Dr. Murphy, arrangements were made to have the passengers, particularly the children, provided with hot baths in private houses in the town.

"On Thursday evening a deputation from the firm and staff of Messrs Macarthur's, bakers and confectioners, O'connell Street, Sligo made a presentation to the Captain of the Walnut, a gift of 250 loaves and several dozen barn-bracks, which was very much appreciated by those on board," said the Champion report.

A more personal account of the Walnut's stay in Sligo came about by chance. Ms. Heather Browne, now living in Dublin, but originally from Sligo, came across an account of the boat's visit which had been written by her father, Pastor C.C.W. Browne who became Rector of St. John's Church in

Sligo in 1947. He was first made Canon and then Diocesan Dean when St. John's status changed to that of Cathedral.

"For three days they stayed with us and won the sympathy and affection of the whole town. We all felt sorry for them when we learnt something of the tragedy of their lives and saw the conditions under which they were trying to exist on board," wrote the Rector.

"Every available room and cabin had been fitted up with row upon row of bunks, so that there was scarcely room to move and little or no privacy.

"On deck, coal had been plied up in every available space that could be spared, held in by hastily erected wooden barriers but sending a black dust over everything. But that coal was important. On it their lives depended. They wanted all they could carry for they could not be sure how long they might have to be at sea."

Some 200 on board, including the Captain, accepted an invitation to join in the Service of Evensong at the Parish Church of St. John the Baptist, a sight said the Rector was unforgettable, as so many nationalities crowded into an ancient Irish church.

Some returned the next day for Morning Prayer but the most moving Service of all, said the Rector, was that held in the afternoon on the quayside just before the Walnut set sail from Sligo.

"It was a solemn occasion, so moving that many of the men wept openly," he recalled.

As the ship's siren blew farewell, three rousing cheers rang out and then someone on board started singing, 'When Irish Eyes are Smiling.'

"Some of us who had cars hurried to Rosses Point five miles away, where standing on a rock we waved a last farewell as the ship went past. We could see hundreds of handkerchiefs waving back to us and we could still hear across the water the lovely singing of a hymn. Gradually they vanished into the greyness of a misty November afternoon. The last we could see of them was a small light flashing in response to signals from the headlamps of one of the cars."

That wasn't to be the last contact between Sligo and the Estonian refugees. Rev Browne was to receive a letter from Captain Linde dated December 20th 1948. He thanked the people of Sligo for their good deed. "We and our children will remember your people forever," he said, adding they had all arrived safely in Canada.

The Rector's daughter, Heather, recently made contact with some of the passengers who settled in Canada, including the Captain's daughter. There is now the possibility of a TV documentary being made on the Wanut's voyage, with hopes that it will be screened by RTE when or if it is made.

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