Friday 16 November 2018

The day 'Sharelga' was sunk by a sub!

Described at the time as 'the most extraordinary occurence in the history of the Irish fishing industry' the sinking of the Clogherhead trawler, The Sharelga, by a British submarine, exactly 30 years ago, sparked an international incident. Hubert Murphy l

IT WAS just after 1pm on a clear, calm day on the Irish Sea, 25 miles off Howth.

A number of trawlers were hunting for prawns. One of those boats was the 70ft Sharelga.

Raymond McEvoy from Chapel Road in Clogherhead had bought her just before Christmas 1981, a big investment at the time and she needed to deliver.

His brother Philip was on board with him, his uncle, Noel Kirwan, brother-in-law Mickey Kelly and Gabriel Hesnan from Kildalkey who had been in the fishing game since the previous summer.

Suddenly, the Sharelga began to stop in the water and within moments terror struck.

The boat lurched backwards and continued to speed across the sea. The crew made frantic efforts to hold on to whatever they could as the stricken vessel ripped through the water at speed.

At first it was a strange kind of experience, Hesnan would later say 'we were laughing and saying maybe it's a whale!'

But the seriousness of the situation soon began to descend on the men as the boat sunk lower in the water, still being dragged fiercely along.

After about two miles and 20 minutes of concern, the boat swung to its side and that was it.

As she succumbed to the water, the men scrambled onto the keel, before finally jumping overboard.

Mickey Kelly couldn't swim and he stayed on the last piece of the vessel until he too crashed into the water. Skipper McEvoy swam to him immediately and slung a lifebelt over his arm.

Within moments the boat disappeared.

It was a matter of luck that two other vessels saw what was happening and they raced to the scene. Paul Connolly, skippered The Supreme, also out of Clogherhead, while Noel Curran's Gypsy Rose from Dun Laoighre came up alongside her.

All the men were plucked from the sea, and transferred to The Supreme.

All were shaken, but somehow unharmed.

Paul Connolly had sent out a May Day call to Angelsea Radio when he saw what was unfolding. They told him to stay on an emergency line and he could talk directly to a helicopter crew at RAF Valley in North Wales. But no help came.

Nearly two hours later as he made his way back to Clogherhead with the crew of the Sharelga he contacted Angelsea again to ask what had happened and they said the helicopter had been cancelled.

Later, people would find it strange that a full naval response had not been launched as a week earlier an unidentified submarine was spotted nearby and a major search was ordered.

Raymond McEvoy's first action when he got ashore was to contact his wife Barbara, in hospital expecting their first child. The following day he would be marking his 29th birthday, the luckiest of his life.

What had happened to the Sharelga?

When McEvoy first declared that a submarine had caught his nets many discounted it. 'I lost everything. It must have been a sub. It wasn' t Jaws or the 1 .30pm bus!,' he exclaimed as he got back on dry land.

E v en one Irish government official said it may have been a snag with the propellor of the boat that caused it.

But McEvoy's verison of events was soon proving to be the correct one.

Bags of discarded rubbish were found by other search vessels close to the scene, a tell-tale sign of submarine activity.

Two Irish warships, including the LE Aisling, and four aircraft, were scrambled to find evidence of the sub but spotted nothing. The Aisling, under Lieut Commdt Peadar McElhenney, recovered the nets and brought them back to Dun Laoighre for inspection.

Taoiseach Charles J Haughey ordered an immediate investigation and officials went to Clogherhead to speak to the men.

If it was a submarine it certainly wasn't a British one the former head of British Naval Intelligence Capt Roger Viller told the BBC as a war of words erupted.

The British Ministry of Defence denied any involvement but within two weeks their ambassador to Ireland, Sir Leonard Figg issued an apology on behalf of his government, admitting that one of their submarines had indeed caused the sinking.

He promised 'fair compensation' as a result. It was claimed the sub didn't realise they had snagged anything, although dragging a boat with a 450 horsepower engine for two miles would conflict with such a statement. The Dail was in uproar. Minister for Transport John Wilson asked why the sub had not stopped to help the drowning crew and why had it taken so long for an admission of guilt.

Reports would state that the submarine responsible was HMS Porpoise. Built in 1956, it seems she was on a secret mission, towing sonar equipment, listening for any Soviet subs in the Irish Sea.

RAF Valley was the base for antisubmarine Sea King helicopters and just down the coast at Fishguard was RAF Brawdy, base for a US underwater listening post.

It was at the height of the Falklands conflict and many of the British naval services were on duty off Argentina. The Soviets were busy on spying missions, a constant silent underwater game of cat and mouse being played with the NATO vessels right along the Irish Sea.

HMS Porpoise had been scheduled to come in to Bootle Docks in Liverpool the day after the incident with the Sharelga but didn't. In a surprise move, HMS Superb returned to the area shortly afterwards, many feeling to come to the aid of the submarine that may have suffered damage.

Such was the atmosphere, Irish Fishermen's Organisation Secretary General Frank Doyle called for all submarines to be banned following ' the most extraordinary occurence in the history of the Irish fishing industry'.

But the wait for Raymond McEvoy and the crew was only beginning as they sought compensation for the incident.

McEvoy said he was ' down and out' waiting for assistance but in 1984 got an interim payment of £60,000 in a Northern Ireland court. It was still a struggle as he proclaimed ' they left five of us to drown'.

In 1988 at the High Court in Belfast, Philip McEvoy, then 29, from McCooey Terrace, Gabriel Hesnan (25), Athboy and later of England, Noel Kirwan (44), O'Donnell Park and Michael Kelly (37) from Chapel Road, Callystown, were awarded €20,000 damages for injuries and loss of earnings.

Raymond McEvoy had received an out of court settlement of more than €300,000 some time earlier, bringing to an end a saga that went down in the annals of Irish fishing history.