Thursday 19 September 2019

Lighthouse keeper honoured at ceremony marking 40 years since Fastnet tragedy

Nineteen people died in a freak storm in the Irish Sea in 1979.

Lightkeeper Gerald Butler, next to the portrait that honours him (Dan Llywelyn Hall/PA)
Lightkeeper Gerald Butler, next to the portrait that honours him (Dan Llywelyn Hall/PA)

By Michelle Devane, PA

A former lighthouse keeper has been honoured at a commemorative event marking the 40th anniversary of the 1979 Fastnet race disaster.

A portrait of Gerald Butler by Welsh artist Dan Llywelyn Hall was unveiled on Sunday on Cape Clear in Co Cork, Ireland’s southernmost inhabited Gaeltacht island, as friends and families remembered the men and women who died in the yacht race.

Tributes were also paid to those who risked their lives to rescue the sailors.

A total of 19 people – 15 sailors and four spectators – died in the Irish Sea in August 1979 when a freak storm wreaked havoc with more than 300 yachts as they raced from southern England to the Fastnet rock off the coast of Cork.

The 600-mile race began in balmy, calm conditions but three days later sailors were forced to deal with almost hurricane-force winds.

During the storm rescuers battled through Force 10 winds and 40ft waves to save dozens of crews.

A message from Irish President Michael D Higgins was read out at the ceremony.

He said: “During this decade of commemorations, it is important more than ever that we honour the 40th anniversary of the Fastnet disaster and most importantly, that the actions and bravery of the Baltimore Lifeboat crew as well as Mr Gerald Butler, the serving lighthouse keeper at Fastnet Rock at the time of the disaster, are never forgotten.

“The connection between Ireland and the ocean is as old as time itself and the sea has played a fundamental part in our social and economic history.

“As an island people, our proximity to the sea has historically created a special form of vulnerability to the forces of nature as we have looked outwards and beyond landfall to create a sustainable future from that great natural resource.”

Mr Butler, who worked on some of Ireland’s most remote lighthouses including Skellig Michael, was on duty on Fastnet island that fateful night.

He said that Mr Hall’s portrait of him would “come into its own when people concerned with the race are long gone”.

“Dan’s image of the Fastnet rock also appears to be caught in its own time and remains as the yachtsmen would have seen it,” he said.

He added: “Unbeknown to us a fine thread was woven through everyone involved at that time and we are all connected, although we have not all encountered each other.

“During the summer of 2018 I found myself doing duty on the Fastnet again. I had the profound pleasure of meeting Sally O’Leary, who landed on the rock having been a crew member on her father’s yacht during that race. When she told me this I then understood the connection that runs between us.

“Island people will never forget. These tragedies are embedded in their being. This 40th anniversary will be commemorated on both the Isle of Wight where the race begins and Cape Clear island, the closest piece of land to Fastnet.

“To be able to reach out and strengthen that thread that is interwoven through each of us is indeed a privilege.”

Mr Hall recalled visiting Cape Clear for the first time in 2018 and seeing this “cathedral-like island” on the horizon.

“It immediately grabbed my attention,” he said. “The lighthouse itself is a true feat of human endeavour and is inspirational. The disaster is synonymous with the lighthouse and it therefore serves as a focal motif in remembering one of the most ferocious storms in modern history.

“Gerald [Butler] has been my narrator for the story of the Fastnet and I simply would not have embarked on the project without him sitting.”

The search and rescue mission at Fastnet involved naval helicopters and ships from both sides of the Irish Sea, and French trawlers and a Dutch warship also assisted.

Rescue crews covered 20,000 sq miles of sea hunting for 303 yachts.

In the wake of the tragedy new regulations were introduced to limit the number of yachts competing in the race to 300.

Yachts must now be fitted with a VHF radio and qualifications for competing were also brought in.

In 1983 restrictions on electronic navigational aids were also lifted but the race is still considered a supreme challenge for all yachtsmen and women.

PA Media

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