This year marks the 80th anniversary of the sinking of two ships off the Saltee Islands - the steam ship 'Ardmore' which sank with the loss of 24 lives and the Lightship tender 'Isolda' which was bombed by German aircraft a month later, resulting in six deaths - but there is a danger of it being overlooked as the annual Memorial Service for those lost at sea in Kilmore Quay could not take place due to Covid-19.
'The loss of these two ships would have been remembered but the service was cancelled. It would be a terrible pity if no one remembered the anniversary, especially the 'Isolda' as Wexford town had so many lightship men as did Carne, Kilmore Quay, Fethard and the Hook,' said John Power, author of A Maritime History of County Wexford' which includes comprehensive coverage of the two disasters.
The 'Ardmore' was on passage from Cork to Fishguard in South Wales on November 12, 1940 but never reached her destination. She had a full cargo of livestock on board, mainly cattle and pigs.
The vessel was discovered 58 years later by a group of local divers, off the Great Saltee Island in 183 ft of water. The hull bore evidence of a massive explosion and it is believed that the ship may have hit a magnetic mine.
On December 19, 1940, the 'Isolda' was bombed by German plane and sunk three miles south of the Saltee Island.
Families of men from both ships have attended an annual maritime commemmoration service every year since it began in June 2001, including the late Sam Williams who was only 18 years of age when the 'Isolda' was sunk.
Sam, who was the last survivor, came down to Kilmore every year up to 2013, to lay a wreath for his six lost comrades. He passed away in 2014.
It was a stormy night with rough seas and overcast skies when the 'SS Ardmore' set sail at 8p.m. from Cork Harbour under the command of experienced seaman Captain Thomas Forde and would have been expected to reach an area south of the Saltees in the early hours of the morning but there were no sightings locally and no Mayday signal was received.
She did not reach Fishguard as scheduled on November 13 and a week later was declared lost.
The carcass of a pig was washed ashore near Carnesore Point on November 17 and a few days later, there was a report of wreckage and dead animals being seen off the Saltee Islands.
On November 25, the ship's lifeboat and debris were washed ashore on the Welsh coast of Pembrokeshire and on December 3, the body of Captain Ford was washed ashore near Aberystwyth, South Wales. The body of Frank O'Shea was discovered on December 13 and Michael Raymond was the third and final body recovered.
Around the time of the tragedy, a bottle washed ashore on Curracloe beach and was picked up by Wexford postman William Mythen. Inside, written on 'Gold Flake' and 'Woodbine' cigarette cartons were messages from some of the crew, saying goodbye to their loved ones, including: 'Send help quick ship sinking fast. SS. Ardmore, Cork'.
At the time,it was not established whether the sinking was a marine or a war disaster and the mystery remained for more than half a century afterwards.
In June 1998, the wreck was found on the seabed in 183 feet of water by local divers and the damage to her hull suggested that she had struck a magnetic mine rather than floundering in rough seas. Irish Intelligence records recorded that on August 8 in 1940, a German plane was sighted laying mines off the Keeragh and Saltee Islands.
A special memorial service was held in St. Peter's Church, Kilmore Quay following the discovery, with a wreath-laying ceremony over the site of the wreck.
Up to 100 family members travelled from Ireland and the UK to honour their loved ones. During the service relatives lit candles and rang a bell which was recovered from the wreck of the Ardmore while a painting of the ship by Wexford maritime artist Brian Cleere rested on the altar.
During the Offertory Procession, the wine was held in a glass decanter taken from the ship and the bread was presented in a ceramic bowl, also recovered from the wreck.
On the morning of the commemmoration, Eugene Kehoe dived to the wreck to attach a marker and gather whelk shells. The shells were blessed and presented as a symbolic keepsake to the relatives.
After the service, the families boarded the 'Saltees Princess' for a trip to the wreck. with one relative, Peter Power who lost his two brothers saying: 'I have been at sea since I was 18 but this is the most significant voyage of my life'.
The SS Ardmore is one of many ships lost in the treacherous seas around the coast and along with the 'Isolda', the tragedy provided an inspiration for the Memorial Garden in Kilmore Quay.
The 'Isolda' was carrying Christmas supplies and relief crews to the 'Barrels' and Coningbeg' lightships when the 1200 tonne vessel owned by the Commissioner of Irish Lights was bombed on December 19, 1940.
During the war, to avoid any confusion of misunderstanding, Irish Lights ships were distinctly marked 'Lighthouse Service' on both sides in large letters.
The vessel sailed from Rosslare at 8.50 a.m. with a crew of 29, including Captain Alan Bestic. They serviced the Barrels lightship, three miles south-west of Carnsore Point first and proceeded to the 'Coningbeg', a distance of eight miles away, passing within three miles of the Great Saltee Island.
Describing what happened, Captain Bestic said word was sent to his cabin by the Second Officer at 10.50 a.m, that a plane was in sight. He proceeded to the bridge and enquired if any markings had been observed. He was told it had a red cross on a white background.
'The plane entered the sun on the port beam and turned towards the ship, sweeping across the vessel from port to starboard and dropped a bomb or bombs.
'I knew that the ship had been severely damaged as she slackened speed. The plane swept around in a circle and I watched to see the angle of his approach. He came again from the sun and I ordered 'hard port'. He passed over us and dropped a second salvo before the ship answered to the helm.
'Realising there was no chance of escape, I put both engines full astern in order to take the way off the vessel before lowering the boats. At the same time, the boatswain came on the bridge deck and I told him to pass the word to abandon ship, as I knew the vessel was doomed and I thought the attacks were now finished.
'However, the plane approached for a third attack and I called out to the men to take cover. He bombed us again and registered hits. Immediately after he passed, the crew succeeded with admirable promptitude, in getting away the motorboard and the starboard cutter and thus got clear of the ship.
'The plane attacked again. He registered heavy hits on the afterside of the fore deck and the bridge was severely damaged. The ship also sagged in the middle, listed to starboard and escaping steam and smoke poured from the funnel.'
Captain Bestic said the water was searched for survivors before leaving the vicinity of the wreck but no more could be found. He estimated that the Isolda sank between 15 and 20 minutes after she was left and he felt that the loss of life would have been greater had it not been for the coolness of the officers and crew in carrying out their orders.
Survivor Sam Williams said there was a terrific explosion and the vessel completely shuddered and appeared to stop. The engineer opened the steam valve and there was a deafening noise through the funnels. This released pressure without which he was sure the ship would have blown up. He estimated that a total of seven bombs were dropped.
'We were told to abandon ship and I climbed over the side, down the emergency ropes into the cutter. I remember the plan returning again and swooping down on us and we all thought we were about to be machine-gunned but luckily that did not happen and the plane proceeded in a southerly direction. It was a hell of an experience.'
At 10.45 a.m. that day, the Kilmore Quay lifeboat was launched after information was received by the coxswain Jack Walsh that a ship was on fire southeast of the Saltee Islands.
The coxswain had heard the bombs exploding and also saw an aeroplane over the Saltees but the disaster was behind the small island and not visible from Kilmore.
In the meantime, the survivors of the 'Isolda' were heading to Kilmore Quay on a course that would take them west of the Saltees, thus missing the lifeboat.
The lifeboat crew continued and found wreckage in the area but no sign or life. On learning that the survivors had made their way to Kilmore Quay, they returned to the station.
The survivors were brought to the Wooden House Hotel where the badly-wounded were put to bed and attended by Dr. Patrick A. Doyle of Bridgetown before some were transferred to Wexford Hospital.
The crew members reported missing and believed to have been killed by the bombs were leading fireman William Rushby, fireman Jimmy Hayden, fireman Paddy Shortt, AB Paddy Farrell, Coxswain Paddy Dunne and steward William Holland.
The parish of Kilmore had a great tradition of lightship men but the only Kilmore man on the 'Isolda' that day was survivor Bill Rossiter, now deceased.
After the sinking of the 'Isolda', William Bates, a well-known Kilmore Quay fisherman was given the dangerous task for the rest of the war of relieving the 'Coningbeg' lightship with men and supplies, in his boat 'Saint Joseph', while James Bates, in his boat 'Pride of Helvic' tended the 'Barrels lightship.
The ship's motor launch which was used to bring the survivors to Kilmore Quay, lay at the lighthouse depot for many years. It was eventually presented to the Scouts Association of Ireland in 1983 for use as a ferryboat.