Monday 21 January 2019

Tom Harmon was throw back to past days...

The threat to Annagassan harbour and its route to the sea brings its great tradition into the spotlight and the many stories surrounding the characters that came from the seaside village.

A great writer called George Hussey met an Annagassan sailor at his front door 39 years ago this month and the story is as fresh and interesting now as it was then.

'IF ever you want to go globe-trotting for an hour or so, you don't have to take the Concorde, but just a trip to Annagassan. You are bound to bump into Tom Harmon who, despite his 80 years, is as nimble as a bee.

Tom, like all old sea-dawgs likes to swap yarns with other old (and not so old) sea-dawgs about his exploits abroad. And so it was that I met the old campaigner the other day as he was doing a bit of gardening behind his neatly-kept cottage at Farm Road.

Tom's sprightly figure, tatooed arms and bronzed face might indicate the healthy time he had on the high seas but belies the tough life he had especially during years of recession and unemployment in the course before the mast.

To meet a sailor from Annagassan is not exactly a phenomenon because at one time nearly everyone from Annagassan to Baltray had a hankering for the sea.

But Tom Harmon is perhaps the oldest living man today (bar one or two) on that strip of coastline who can reminisce on two World Wars as well as his involvement in the Spanish Civil War and the Abysinnian War in the mid- 1930"s.

Tom Harmon was a pupil in the now defunct Willistown national school and at the age of 14 he had a go at herring fishing in Dundalk Bay and his first week's pay was 5 bob. He then joined the crew of the locally-owned schooner called "The Lucey".

Annagassan was crammed with sailing boats in those days - "Lucey" was the last of them. - and it was during this period that the call of the sea beckoned him to more distant and exotic places.

It was during World War 1 that he went off with his bags and baggage. He did service on several coal-burning merchantmen that brought him round the world. Later he found himself as a Royal Naval Reserve and his jobs ranged from OS. (Ordinary Seaman) to cook, A.B. and Bosun.

He was a versatile seaman, Tom was, and he could darn socks and do his own dobying (washing his clothes in a bucket) on the swaying deck of his ship.

When the war ended times weren't so good and on occasions during the recession of the '20s and later in the mid-30's it was hard enough to get a ship.

Tom said he often plodded up and down the dockyards of Liverpool looking for a job while other colleagues, he said, actually walked from Liverpool to Cardiff in search of work. But he admitted that he was one of the lucky ones and was seldom out of a job.

He sailed up the Mississippi. "A magnificent experience", he said.

He also went on oil tankers to the hottest ports in the world - Abadan and Basra, deep into the Persian Gulf where it is often 130 degrees in the shade .

On the Elder Dempster Line he went to South Africa and up the infamous creeks of French Equatorial Africa. "The boughs of giant trees used to sweep the decks," he said, "and colourful, chattering Cockatoos were everywhere".

You are never a sailor, however, until you have rounded the "Horn" and this Tom also did in tempestuous seas and, indeed, like all seasoned seafarers he also spliced the main brace in the West Indies with the best Jamaican rum. Today, he is content with a pint in O'Neills.

He met Italian soldiers in the Suez Canal on their way to fight in Abysinnia and later, British soldiers in hot pursuit. In Bilbao, during the Spanish Civil War, stray bullets spluttered across the deck of his ship. "And then" said Tom. with a smile, "the Second World War broke out in 1939 and we were right because jobs and ships, were plentiful".

"Were you worned about torpedoes?" I asked. "The Uboats or their tin fish never worried us." said Tom as he puffed pensively at his pipe.

It was extraordinary that Tom should shrug off such a suggestion of danger because only a hen's race away from his modest home I had recently spoken to 94-year-old Rear Admiral H. T. England in his stately Dunsany House surrounded by great trees and a profusion of rhododendrons.

Said the Admiral, also a veteran of two World Wars and who commodored convoys in the last one. "I always had the greatest admiration for the Merchant Navy men, much more so than the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy had guns and could shoot back, but the Merchantmen were sitting ducks.'

At the height of the Battle of the Atlantic Tom's younger brother. John, was lost when his ship "The Samala" was torpedoed and later his sister, the late Miss Maggie Harmon, received a letter via the British Admiralty from the Commander of the German Uboat. The letter was a 'sympathetic" one and made mention of the 'Samala's' crew scrambling for the lifeboats in mountainous seas.

The following year, in 1941, Tom had the distinction of sailing in a convoy in the company of the subsequently ill-fated H.M.S . Hood which, at the time, was the pride , of the British Navy.

Also escorting that convoy was a destroyer whose Petty Officer was a next-door neighbour of Tom's - Patrick Stephens who is now living in Belfast.

At his garden gate on Farm Road he lit his pipe and waved a weather-beaten hand across the green surrounding countryside. "Look at that", he said, "peace and quiet - what more could anyone ask for?" A lovely sentiment, I thought, but still I fired the inevitable question at the old seaman: 'vould you like to go back again?" Tom removed his pipe and looked at me. His reply came like a shot from a gun: "Tomorrow", he said.

Drogheda Independent