The best gift: heroes home for Christmas
LÉ Samuel Beckett returns after gruelling Med mission
'It's the best present from Santa ever - my Daddy is home safe for Christmas." Children, partners, parents and friends cheered the 58-strong crew of the Naval Service vessel LÉ Samuel Beckett as it berthed in Haulbowline, Cork, after a demanding three-month humanitarian mission in the Mediterranean.
The vessel, the second youngest in the Irish navy fleet, successfully rescued 1,088 migrants off the north African coast in five major operations undertaken in conjunction with the Italian Coastguard since September.
A total of 39 bodies were also recovered.
Three Irish navy vessels have now rescued 8,631 migrants off the north African coast since last May - with Defence Minister Simon Coveney confirming that Ireland will consider sending a fourth ship from next February.
But for Alex (8) and Hazel (5) McCann-Carroll, it was all about having their father, Martin, home safe in time for Christmas.
"I missed him so much. I just wanted him home for Christmas," Alex said.
For Hazel, it was an extra special day. "It's the best Christmas present ever," she said.
Martin, from Cobh, admitted the reception was very emotional.
"It's just great to be home - it's been a long three months," he said as he was greeted on the quayside by his children; wife Lindsay; parents Josephine and Martin Snr; and niece Ava.
Martin, a Leading Seaman on LÉ Samuel Beckett, is also keeping a proud family naval tradition alive, as his father is a retired Chief Petty Officer.
The navy families transformed the quayside with a plethora of home-made signs.
These included: "Get out of my way - my Daddy is home for Christmas" and "We have waited 85 days to hug our Daddy".
The latter sign was made by Nathan (6) and Isaac (16 months) alongside their mother, Nuala Motherway, at their Kildare home to welcome back their father, Air Corps medic Haydn Walsh.
It's been a challenging year for the medic, who bravely spent two months in Sierra Leone working as part of the international aid effort to help tackle the Ebola crisis.
There was also a special welcome home for crew- mates Charles O'Sullivan and Stephen Histon from Cobh.
The duo were hailed as heroes by their children, including Molly O'Sullivan (10) and Luke (12), Lily (8) and Kyle (4) Histon. Also present was Stephen's nephew Alex (8).
LÉ Samuel Beckett's captain, Lt Cmdr Tony Geraghty, said the crew worked hard to continue the mission started last May by the Naval Service.
"It was a challenging mission but we prepared very well and the crew did the Naval Service and Ireland proud out there," he said.
He added that everyone was excited about getting home for the festive season.
"We were playing Chris Rea's 'Driving Home for Christmas' as we sailed past Roche's Point and headed for the naval base," he said.
The timing of the ship's return was also apt, as, with the new 'Star Wars' film just released in Irish cinemas, the LÉ Samuel Beckett's cartoon mascot is a light-sabre- wielding Yoda.
The crew were formally welcomed back to Haulbowline Naval Base by Commodore Hugh Tully.
Mr Coveney has confirmed that Ireland will consider ordering a fourth Naval Service patrol ship to waters off Sicily and Libya in early 2016 if formally requested to do so by the EU.
"We will (now) reassess in full the whole mission," he said. "I would be expecting to send a ship out at the end of February or early March next year.
"That would be the expectation but obviously it will be a Government decision and, in all likelihood, it will be a new government at that stage. So we will have to wait and see."
Three navy ships - LÉ Eithne, LÉ Niamh and LÉ Samuel Beckett - have rescued almost 9,000 migrants since the first vessel was deployed in May.
The Naval Service's ability to undertake such missions has been enhanced by investment in the eight-strong fleet since 1999. Four new vessels have been delivered over the past 16 years and a fifth (LÉ William Butler Yeats) is due for delivery next year.