Thursday 22 August 2019

Scotch on the rocks

The islanders of Inis Oirr relive the dramatic rescue of the crewmen on board the MV Plassey... and the salvage of her precious cargo of whiskey.

The Plassey
The Plassey

Caomhan Keane

Fifty-four years ago this month, the residents of Inis Oirr awoke to find a stranger in their midst. The MV Plassey, a 20-year-old steam trawler-turned-cargo ship, had been thrown up on the Finnis Rock, about five miles off Gob na Curradh, the most southern point of the island.

The Galway Bay lifeboat was 11 hours away dealing with another rescue and the vicious south-easterly winds, blowing straight in off the Cliffs of Moher, meant rescue by helicopter was not an option. The lives of the 11 sailors on board were in the hands of a group of men known locally as the 'Rocket Crew'.

The only problem was, despite having been on the island since 1901 – and around the Western seaboard for much longer – a breeches buoy rescue had never been attempted in the 32 counties before.

It was five o' clock in the morning when Peadar Poil, the first islander to spot the MV Plassey, noticed she was at the mercy of the raging Atlantic Ocean. "She'd gone up on the Finnis at that stage," he remembers, "and the wind was blowing her towards land."

Peadar had been part of a group searching the shore for any timber that may have washed up to use as firewood. There were no cars, no electricity and no gas on the island at the time and the island's own cargo ship, the Naomh Eanna, only came with supplies once a week.

Such gatherings were a way of life, particularly when bad weather could keep the Naomh Eanna away for weeks on end. Further along the sea line, Peader the Pilot and his son Mikey were collecting slata mara (ropes of sea weed), the oils of which were used by clothing manufacturers to add colour to ladies' tights.

Despite being pitch-black, the trio could see the Plassey's crew make a desperate attempt to abandon ship, illuminated by the ship's lights.

"I saw them put down the life boat, and tie her alongside the ship," recalls Peader. "It was calm enough at the time. Some of them got in, but they got back out again and went back on board the Plassey."

The winds picked up, the lifeboat broke away and, as the ship lost power and her lights went out, there was a dreadful grinding of metal on rock. As the light of day broke through the ugly grey clouds, the oars of the submerged rescue vessel became the first parts of the Plassey to make it to land.

All 11 crewmen were now trapped aboard a ship that was taking water on fast and faced the very real threat of capsizing.

Mikey considered running to a nearby beach, Pol Na gCaorach, to fetch a currach, so as to attempt a rescue themselves. But the morning had turned violent, the black, mountainous waves often submerging the Plassey and racing towards them.

It was time to wake the Rocket Crew.

"I might as well tell the truth," says Michael Anthony, one of its few surviving members. "I was in that room there, asleep. I had heard the maroon go off, but I thought it was thunder and went back to bed."

The maroon, a mortar gunshot that fireworked into the air and exploded with a deafening clap, signaled to the 15-man Rocket Crew that they were to assemble at the rescue station.

"Minutes later there was a rapping on the window and it was Ruairi Sheain, the publican who lived up there above me. 'Get up' he says. 'There's a small ship gone aground over at the Finnis rock'."

"In those days there was no lamps, no tractor and no engines," explains Ruairi. "There was no machine whatsoever. It was all manpower that moved the rocket and all that heavy equipment from one end of the island to the next."

"Oh it was a bitch of a morning," adds Anthony. "There were no roads on the island, just dirt roads that were covered in sand. Four times from when we left the station at the west village to when we got to Gob na Curradh we got stuck and had to dig our way out."

Word of the Plassey's plight had broken and curious islanders made their way south to see what could be done. Blinded by the whirling sand, once they reached Tra Caorach, around 300 yards from the rocket's launch site, the crew ditched the cart and carried the apparatus by hand over rocks, which were deadly with slippery sea weed.

"We were hardly able to stand," says Ruairi.

Most of the Island had gathered on the shore and were unaware quite how much was at stake. The team had six rockets with them, but only enough fuel to launch three and as they struggled to get a foothold, the ship herself was being tossed about the waves, making it hard to get a clear shot.

To make matters worse there was no way of contacting the ship via radio. Second in command of the crew, Edward Flaherty, was using flags to communicate through Morse code. The wind was getting up all the time and trawlers had arrived from Inis Mor to lend support, though they couldn't get close without ending up on the Finnis themselves.

"It took a long time to get things going," says Peader. "There was an awful gale and high water."

When the rocket stand was finally erected, Martin O'Donnell, captain of the crew, took aim. "The wind was going 60 miles per hour, you could hardly see the apparatus, let alone the boat," adds Anthony.

After getting the fuse to spark, the men rushed back as with a vicious crack it gained the explosive propulsion needed to carry the rope out to the ship.

But the rocket missed, falling just short of the vessel. Steadying himself, O'Donnell, made a second attempt. At first it looked like it would hit the spot, but at the last minute the rocket veered sharply shoreward before plunging into the water off the ship's bow.

On the beach, the women began to pray and, against the paternoster and the howling Atlantic winds, the crew were deep in conversation. A sudden, if careful burst of activity saw the rocket moved to higher ground. Flaherty now stepped up and took aim. His successful attempt subsequently being immortalised in song:

They were as dismayed as they could be,

for two rockets they fired, went into the sea.

But a third stripped the mast, with her roll in the wind,

twas the lord calmed the ocean, says Brian o Lynn.

A song about the Plassey

With the rocket now secure in the Plassey's mast it was time to get the men ashore. The crew of the ship pulled the breeches buoy, similar to a pair of canvas trousers which came up to the armpits of whoever sat into them, out to the ship. The youngest crewman, Eddy Reidy – just 18 years old – volunteered to go first. Once he sat into the breeches they sank towards the freezing water as the rocket team tugged him towards land.

"We were up to our necks out in the sea to grab them," says Ruairi. "But once they were in the water they were thrown about and we were shouting at them to brace their legs so they wouldn't break them on the rocks."

Once on dry land the islanders nearly drowned them in whiskey, in an attempt to warm them up. Wrapping them in towels, the sailors were quickly brought to houses in the nearby village, Baile an Fhormna, where they stepped out of their wet clothes and into the fashion of another world, swapping modern clobber for traditional island dress – pampooties, heavy woollen socks, home spun trousers and bainin hats.

It took around three hours to get all the men off the vessel, with Captain Thomas Wilson coming ashore sometime before 4pm. Ireland's first ever breeches buoy rescue had resulted in the saving of all on board.

Now it was time to drink!

It was lent, at a time when the 40-day religious period was strictly observed. But in the words of Anthony Keane, who died earlier this year: "There was no talk of lent that night."

Trapped on the island by the same storm that ran their ship aground, the sailors drank the place dry, their damp pay packets drying above the fire in Ruairi's Pub. "Sure they were delighted to be alive," he recalls. "There was lots of singing, dancing and story telling."

The Rocket Crew were initially in charge of keeping an eye on the Plassey, to insure she wasn't leaking oil into the sea, while the contents of the ship were snapped up by a businessman called Sweeney from Achill.

When the sailors were eventually able to get off the island, some five days later, some islanders took it upon themselves to act as watchmen, while the parish priest forbade the islanders from touching the contents of Plassey.

"And sure, isn't that when the stealing started," said Anthony when I interviewed him before his death.

A fortnight after Sweeney had made off with his stash – about £15,000 worth of copper – the islanders made their way aboard to salvage what they could.

Refrigeration pipes that ran all the way around the ship were cut into sections to make gates. Couches, doors, clocks and mirrors adorned the new houses that were popping up at the time.

"There was no talk of toilets in those days," Paidraig Keane, my uncle – who was 12 when the Plassey came ashore – told me. And so the ship's supply of porcelain sinks were left lined up against the island's stone walls.

"Michael Ned bought a corner basin over and said 'won't this be lovely to give water to the ducks?'," laughs Peadar.

The islanders rowed out to the ship, sometimes at night, by torchlight, scaling a 20ft rope to get on board. It was treacherous work. Barrels of acid had burst and mixed with the water, burning those who came in contact with it, while some of the holds were still filled with water. You risked drowning should you open the wrong one.

And you risked a good clatter as well should your mother discover you were going against the priest. "We were told all sort of rumours," Paidraig says. "Kids were told to stay away from her as she could blow up, while the older lot were told they'd be arrested or hanged."

But with bottles and bottles of Black and White Scotch to be had is it any wonder the islanders were to be found hiding them in their potato patches?

Such an affront to piety did not go unpunished. When the customs officer finally made it, he brought with him a flu that knocked the whole island, leaving few residents untouched.

The wreckage of the Plassey can be seen woven into the landscape to this day, but, twisted by more than half a century of exposure to the ferocious elements, she is on her last legs. The next big wind could well be the straw that breaks her already battered back.

She is the first port of call for visitors to Inis Oirr, who recognise her from the credits of 'Father Ted'. Her value to the island is more memorial than monetary.

A fine place for courting and play and the odd party for the adventurous raver, she also stands as a testament to the bravery of the Rocket Crew who saved all 11 men that day: Martin O'Donnell, Edward Flaherty, Coleman Conneely, Andrew Conneely, Martin Conneely, Sean Sharry, Martin Sharry, Martin Flaherty, Patrick Conneely x2, Martin Folan, Thomas Costelloe, Patrick Griffin and Michael O'Donnell.

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