Saturday 24 February 2018

Drogheda Harbour Masters meet up for the very first time

Captain Bill Hanrahan saw out five wars during his 50-year career in the business

Hubert Murphy

When old sailors meet up and begin to chat about former days, one can paint a picture in a vivid mind.

Last week, the former Harbour Masters in Drogheda Port - and the present one - met - altogether - for the very first time. Suddenly, in one moment, a lifetime of experience was as one.

We had Captain Bill Hanrahan, now in his 90th year, a proud Limerick man who came to Drogheda in 1967 and spent 26 years at the port.

Bill has battled cancer in the past but came through it - remarking, 'I lived through five wars, they couldn't kill me and I'll be damned if cancer will.'

His adventures were action hero adventure stuff.

He worked as a cadet for Irish Shipping in the convoys during WWII when ships were likely to be sunk, so the Irish vessels were painted up with Irish flags, but a lot were still lost.

He then had a 'tangle' with Fidel Castro's Cuba and ran right into trouble when the Peron revolution swept Argentina.

'We arrived in Buenos Aires and there were road blocks everywhere. Each area had their own supporter, so you shouted their name and they let you through!.'

He saw more trouble in Indonesia, at a time when bombs were dropped on Singapore Harbour. His fifth experience was in the Vietnam War.

'I sailed on two ships that were built in the 1800s. I recall another one that was buried in mud in Lisbon harbour and brought back and renovated and on another occasion the plate of a ship sprung and you could see light through it!. Great old days.'

The seafaring blood has run richly through the veins of the Hanrahan family, Bill remarking that he has 3,690 names on his family tree, starting in 1780 and many river Shannon pilots. His Great grandfather and his brother crewed a famine ship in 1847.

On the day, he again shook hands with Capt Kevin Donnelly, for the first time in many years. They first encountered each other in 1947, Kevin doing a pre-sea course in St John Rogerson's Quay and Bill arriving in to do his 2nd Mate tests.

Kevin (87) was Drogheda Harbour Master for six years, 1960-66. A Bray man, he had been 'deep sea' before taking on the role in Drogheda - where three of his children were born. He would later move to a similar role in Limerick and the Shannon Estuary.

Both men saw incredible sights, the days in the big oil town of Caripito in Venezuela when the bow of the ship had to be stuck into the trees as it swung around in the mud. Kevin recalled a fire in the engine of a tanker he was on and later they had a murder on the same ship!

'Back then shipmates would die for each other,' Bill states. He recalled they were anchored off the main oil jetty in Trinidad and a lot of the lads were drunk. One fell in and the rest jumped in to save him!

At times, they didn't understand danger and had to put up with a lot.

'We had a steam pipe above the bed, wrapped in asbestos rope and I'd swing myself up with it,' Bill revealed, Kevin adding that there was asbestos everywhere in the engine room.

But they all shared the memories of 'The Channels' - something only sailors would know.

''It's known only to seamen,' Kevin revealed. 'You could be away for a year or two and all the lads would be gone mad, but when they'd see the Channel, the mood changed and everyone was happy, as if they were on the booze. It was a beautiful disease, you knew you were nearly home.'

Bill said his longest spell away was two years and four months and the only place in the world he hadn't been was the West Coast of the USA. He even made it around 'The Horn' - supposedly the worst seas in the world. 'They reckoned I had salt water in my veins,' he proudly adds.

Both men fondly recalled their days in Drogheda, working with the dockers and recalling that the Lowth and Dyas families were synonymous with the port.

Bill even found love on board a ship. He was a dashing young Merchant Navy Officer and was on board a ship in Canvey Island when his eyes met Norah Coughlan from Westport who was working there at the time.

He was later sent to Newcastle, but on arrival there, was told that his ship wouldn't be going anywhere for five or six days. He dashed back to London and five days after meeting her, asked 'Nono' to be his wife.

'Do you not have to ask my parents permission first,' she asked of him. 'why, I don't want to marry them, just you,' was his response. They went on to celebrate 60 great years together until her death in 2013.

The present day harbour master, Capt Martin Donnelly, said he was delighted to host the meeting and glad to see both men - with 177 years of life between them - looking so well.

'Looking at them, I hope I have a long life ahead of me,' he quipped.

Drogheda Independent

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