Thursday 22 February 2018

'It’s like a dream to find them after all this time' - Families of 'disappeared' ship engineers reunited 60 years on

Lisa Gernon

The families of two of Ireland’s best known shipping engineers have been reunited after the men disappeared more than 60 years ago.

Eric and Roy Giggins from London were honoured at the annual seafarer’s mass last month after the Wexford Friends of Tall Ships finally made contact with their long lost families.

The men who came to Ireland in the 1930’s vanished without a trace from the lives of their British families in London and no explanation was ever given.

However, unknown to their families the missing brothers who spent the rest of their lives at sea, both went on to become involved in some of the most famous Irish rescue missions and trained hundreds of young Irish seafarers.

Roy Giggins
Roy Giggins

While Eric Giggins had a second family in Ireland who only learned of their new family in London earlier this year.

Eric’s niece Betty Reilly nee Giggins from Dartford, London, made contact with her new cousins after a connection was made through distant relatives in Australia.

Eric Giggins
Eric Giggins

Speaking to Betty, 80, said she had “no idea” whatever happened to her father Roy and uncle Eric and believed they had died in Rotterdam.

“My uncle Eric had a family in London, that I knew about but then he went on to have a second family in Ireland that none of us knew about. It’s like a dream to find them after all this time.

“We didn’t know my father and uncle were in Ireland, they were well educated in London and worked as mechanics in their own company before signing up to the ships.

"They disappeared, they were all over Europe I think. It’s such a tough life at sea, the priest at the seafarer’s mass said 'the life of a seafarer is a life of distress'."

Eric Giggins whose second family are from Ardee, Co. Louth was the Chief Engineer on the MV Kerlogue which was involved in the most heroic rescue mission in Irish Maritime History.

On December 29, 1943, under the orders of Captain Donoghue, the tiny 142ft coaster and its crew of just ten men, disobeyed Ireland’s neutrality by rescuing 168 Germans from the Bay of Biscay.

New cousins L-R Peggy Ramotor, Eric Giggins jnr, Betty Reilly and Mary OReilly
New cousins L-R Peggy Ramotor, Eric Giggins jnr, Betty Reilly and Mary OReilly

The men who were carrying a cargo of oranges from Lisbon to Dublin saw flares in the sky and went to the scene.

Three German destroyers had been bombed by the RAF and 700 young men were left to die in the sea.

Eric Giggins jnr receiving his fathers medal in Bride Street Church Wexford
Eric Giggins jnr receiving his fathers medal in Bride Street Church Wexford

For the next ten hours, the crew of the Kerlogue pulled in 168 men from the freezing water.

Eric was the only British crewman on board and the rescue was described by writer Marie Claire McGann in her article MV Kerlogue at War: Serving Neither King Nor Fuehrer, But Humanity. 

He never spoke about the rescue which had a profound effect on the crewmen who spent 10 hours pulling wretched souls from the sea.

The crew was forced to leave hundreds behind because of a lack of space and the ship was so packed that Eric Giggins couldn’t move around to operate his machinery, and so by sign language, because none of the men spoke English, he instructed them how to move his equipment and got the ship home to Cobh on New Year’s Day 1944.

Former Minister Dick Roche whose father was a crew member on board the Kerlogue that night said he “suffered with nightmares for the rest of his life” because of the men they left behind.

Betty Reilly receiving her father Roys medal
Betty Reilly receiving her father Roys medal

Eric Giggins suffered with post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism along with his brother Roy and they left Wexford in the 1950’s and lost contact with their colleagues.

Eric went to work as an Engineer for Guinness while Roy moved to Arklow and Cork where he continued working on the ships.

Betty said: “They never sought glory or recognition for the work they carried out and just seemed to keep running away from life. Yet they were known as two of the nicest men you could meet.”

Sadly, Betty’s father Roy, tragically took his own life in the River Lee on October 18, 1981 and is buried in a pauper’s grave in Cork while Eric, who was devastated by his only brother’s death died three years later and is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.

Betty, who went on to marry an Irishman, Paddy Reilly (deceased), said the last time she saw her father was in 1955.

“My father didn’t even come home for his mother’s funeral. I saw him just before I got married but my memory of him was that he was a very smartly dressed good looking man.

“My mother really loved him until the day she died and waited for him at every port when his ship docked. She just couldn’t hold him in the UK and we don’t know why.

“To finally have closure is like a dream.”

Last month Betty and her daughter Sharon Atlee and nephew Neil Deinhardt travelled to Ireland to retrace Roy’s steps.

“I had such an emotional time in Ireland, meeting family for the first time having only found out about them a few months before. I still can't get over it really. I never thought I would ever find out what had happened to my father. Maybe I didn't try hard enough because I felt that he had abandoned my mother, me and my sister.

“I felt a bit guilty that I perhaps hadn't had very strong feelings for him. This changed when we visited Ireland, and met the rest of the family and I felt very proud and honoured to receive his medal at the Seafarers Mass. I wonder what happened in those missing years?”

Betty met some of her new cousins, siblings Peggy Ramotar, Mary O’Reilly and Eric Giggins at the mass.

“My cousin Eric junior lives in Bunclody in Co. Wexford now and he and I collected our father’s medals. It was very emotional”.

Last year, former Lord Mayor of Wexford George Lawlor unveiled a memorial for the crew of the Kerlogue 72 years after the infamous rescue.

Born in Gravesend, London in 1908 to Evelyn Bruce and William Giggins, Eric Giggins who was the eldest of five left his family in the 1930’s before moving to Ireland with his younger brother Roy.

The missing brothers worked in Norway and Rotterdam before settling in Wexford after being offered jobs with the Stafford’s Steamship Company.

Betty said: "I believe that my father had it tough on the ships during the war along with his brother Eric and whatever the reason he could not face coming back to us in the UK which is really sad.

"I heard many good things about him when I was over in Ireland and whilst there visiting his grave, the local pub and even people that worked with him,

"I am so overwhelmed and happy to have found Roy Giggins and our new Giggins family in Ireland. Instead of a dead end when his name was mentioned, we can now say Roy Giggins a very smart, quiet man who was honoured and respected for the work he did during the war and who lays buried in the cemetery in Cork. I will never forget my trip to Ireland, it was emotional and wonderful at the same time. V

"Visiting the cemetery, where he lived, where he worked and where he sadly died. It's been a very interesting journey.

 "It helps that every single person I met spoke so highly of them."

Mary Hackett who runs the KLM bar in Tivoli, Co Cork said Roy Giggins was a regular customer back in the eighties.

"He was just the nicest man," she said. "He obviously suffered though because when you leave things too long it’s harder to go back to it. He probably thought 'I’ve ruined my daughter’s lives and I can’t go back and face it'.

"That’s what happens to a lot of people, they leave things too long and then it becomes bigger than it is. His brother must have done the same. The men just kept running away from life."

On October 18, 1981 Roy left the Port bar in Tivloi at around 9pm and said goodbye to the landlady Anne O’Connell.

She said: "He raised himself up on his toes over the crowd and said 'goodnight Anne' I always remember seeing his face.

"The next day the gardai came in and said Roy was found in the river. We were all in shock. I identified his body and I just couldn’t believe it.

"We went to his funeral the next day and he went into straight into a pauper’s grave, it all happened so fast he was being lowered into the ground before we even got to the grave. He was from London and I suppose the funeral directors thought no one would be coming to it.

"But it wasn’t like that, Roy was a gentleman."

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