Friday 19 July 2019

Rocky relations as Sturgeon grabs our squid

From an Irishman claiming Rockall for the British to songs of anger and ridicule, the age-old squabbling over the 31-metre high rock in the north-east Atlantic has agitated us for decades, writes Kim Bielenberg

Rock of rages: Mostly, the interest in the unprepossessing hunk of granite has been about fish, oil and keeping out prying Russian spies
Rock of rages: Mostly, the interest in the unprepossessing hunk of granite has been about fish, oil and keeping out prying Russian spies
TD Sean Loftus called on former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald to send in the Irish Navy to claim Rockall in 1985
Balladeers The Wolfe Tones produced the song ‘Rock on, Rockall’ in the mid-1970s

The Scottish Labour Peer Lord Kennet once described Rockall as "a dreadful place". The former seaman said, "There can be no place more desolate, more despairing, more awful to see in the world."

Even the sea birds that perch on the rocky outcrop find it inhospitable and, in truth, it is only a suitable dwelling place for the most hardy periwinkles and clumps of moss.

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Nobody has ever lived there for more than a couple of months, for fear of being washed away by the swell, and in the early 1970s a British politician declared that more men had landed on the Moon than had landed on Rockall.

It may only be 25 metres wide and 31 metres in height, but Britain and Ireland have enjoyed periodic outbursts of squabbling over Rockall for decades, and Denmark and Iceland have also occasionally become involved.

TD Sean Loftus called on former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald to send in the Irish Navy to claim Rockall in 1985
TD Sean Loftus called on former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald to send in the Irish Navy to claim Rockall in 1985

The Scottish clan the MacKays also lay territorial claim to the rock. When Britain occupied the stone outcrop in 1955, a Mr J Abrach MacKay indignantly claimed Rockall for his family. He said: "My old father claimed that island for the Clan MacKay in 1846 and I now demand that the Admiralty hand it back. It's no' theirs."

Mostly, the interest in the unprepossessing hunk of granite has been about fish, oil and keeping out prying Russian spies who might want to steal Britain's nuclear secrets.

In recent days, the Scottish and Irish governments have been at loggerheads over fishing rights in the area 400kms off the Donegal coast, and there have even been murmurings that we should send a task force of the Irish Navy to retake the rock.

It could be Leo Varadkar's Maggie Thatcher Falklands moment. Is it time to send the fleet, and tell the perfidious Haddock-grabbing Scots to stick it up their Junta?

Sombre Tones

Those veteran purveyors of rabble-rousing anthems, the Wolfe Tones, even declared this week: "We'd be prepared to go up there on a trawler and claim the rock back for Ireland."

Back in the mid-1970s, the balladeers produced their famous song, 'Rock on, Rockall' with the lyric:

Balladeers The Wolfe Tones produced the song ‘Rock on, Rockall’ in the mid-1970s
Balladeers The Wolfe Tones produced the song ‘Rock on, Rockall’ in the mid-1970s

"May the Seagulls rise and pluck your eyes, and the water crush your shell;

And the natural gas will burn your ass, and blow you all to hell."

Nobody could ever accuse the Wolfe Tones of being overly poetic.

In truth, Rockall would not be the most significant territory in any empire, and it might not attract any attention at all were it not for the haddock and squid swimming around it.

At various times, Rockall has been mistaken by seafarers for an iceberg, an enemy ship, a submarine, and some passers-by have even thought that it was a whale.

During the First World War, an armed cruiser spotted the hulk in the distance, and believing it was an enemy vessel, warned the uninhabited island and its unsuspecting seagulls to surrender.

When there was no response and no retreat, the cruiser opened fire with all guns blazing, leaving a trail of scattering birds and feathers.

Plenty of would-be adventurers have vowed to land on Rockall but only a few have succeeded in ascending to the summit of the rock, up the slimy sheer cliff face.

The first person to have lived on Rockall is believed to be the Dublin-born adventurer, Tom McClean.

But McClean, who stayed there in 1985, did not land bearing a tricolour and hoping to claim the outcrop for Ireland.

Born in a mother and baby home in Dublin to an Irish family and brought up in England, McClean had actually served in the British SAS, and was claiming Rockall for the UK.

Union flag

After clambering to the summit and raising the Union flag, McClean lived in a coffin-like wooden box for 40 days. He wrote a log during his sojourn and communicated with nearby fishermen by radio.

"I claimed Rockall for England when I was Irish", he said in a 2010 interview. "I'm an Irishman sounding like an Englishman, living in Scotland."

The landing caused consternation in Ireland, and the suitably named politician Sean Dublin Bay Rockall Loftus called on the Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald to send in the Irish Navy to sort out McClean. But mild-mannered Garret was not on for taking on the might of the British Navy and its bulky aircraft carriers.

Other politicians weighed into the controversy, and the Fianna Fáil TD Pat 'The Cope' Gallagher proudly claimed the rock was part of his constituency.

He said in the Dáil: "It is the wealthiest part of any constituency in the whole of Ireland , surrounded as it is by thousands of square miles of unpolluted waters and large on-tap reserves of oil and natural gas."

Gallagher called on Donegal County Council to prosecute Tom McClean for unauthorised development on the rock.

Irish territory

Over the years, a number of people have applied to Donegal County Council for permission to build on Rockall with little success.

Two of those who had planning permission refused were the brothers Philip and Fergus Gribbon. Seven years after McClean's occupation of the island, the brothers planned an invasion so that the island could be reclaimed as Irish territory.

But the Gribbons' attempt was abandoned after their boat had to turn back due to engine failure.

Over the centuries there have been many expeditions to the island. The monk St Brendan, celebrated for his Atlantic voyages, described Rockall and its dimensions as far back as the 7th Century.

In the early 19th Century a landing party from HMS Endymion led by Basil Hall were thought to be the first to land on the rock. Their ship then got lost in the fog for many hours before they were eventually picked up.

The forbidding islet covered in periwinkles and bird droppings only attracted occasional visitors over the decades, but in 1955, the British decided to seize it.

In September 1955 two Royal Marines landed the easy way when they were dropped onto the rock by helicopter where they planted a Union flag and cemented a plaque claiming British sovereignty.

The British government suggested it had invaded Rockall to stop the Soviet Union from using it as a base to spy on missile testing which was taking place in the Outer Hebrides.

Rockall is considered in the UK to be Britain's last imperial acquisition, even though its sovereignty is not recognised by the Irish government, and its overblown seizure in 1955 led to some lampooning.

In response to the occupation the songwriters Flanders and Swann came up with their own tribute to the guano-stained protrusion in the sea:

"We sped across the planet,

To find this lump of granite,

One rather startled Gannet,

In fact, we found Rockall."

One of the most successful invasions came in 1997, when three Greenpeace activists occupied the island in order to protest against oil exploration.

They lived for 42 days on the rock in a solar-powered capsule, and declared a new "Global State of Waveland". Rockall was declared the capital of a new country.

One of the activists said:"By seizing Rockall, Greenpeace claims these seas for the planet and all its peoples."

Citizenship of Waveland was offered to anyone prepared to take a pledge to defend nature and act peacefully, and more than 15,000 people applied.

Based on past form, the row over Rockall between Ireland and Scotland will quickly subside, the seagulls will be able to get on with their lives in peace and tranquillity, and Nicola Sturgeon will stop trying to grab our squid. But we can be sure that there will be more unneighbourly tiffs over Rockall, particularly after Brexit.

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