Muscle and Blood

Reproduced here with the kind permission of the Editor of An Cosantóir, this is my Article which will feature in the April 2018 edition. Delighted to have collaborated with my shipmate L/Sea Donnacha Curtin on this article.

Muscle and Blood

LÉ SAMUEL BECKETT is a fine ship. She represents the first of her class and already in her four short years of service she has travelled far and wide, and she has been involved in several substantial and difficult operations. Yet despite all her exceptional engineering, her advanced technology and her substantial firepower; she is but an inanimate collection of steel plates, electronic cables, and marine fuel oils; rendered redundant in all her marvellous sophistication without a crew.

A crew of sailors is needed to provide the ship with its muscle and blood; without them, this wondrous craft won’t ever weigh anchor or slip from a quayside. The metaphorical ink is still wet on this page, as the first responses to the swell rolling into Cork Harbour are felt onboard LÉ SAMUEL BECKETT as she proceeds past the twin forts of Meagher and Davis, towards Roches Point and the Atlantic beyond. This is home for her crew of forty-six, during this next Maritime Defence and Security Operations (MDSO) patrol. She will provide everything they need to sustain themselves during operations off the Irish coast and they in their turn will tend to their ship, while carrying out the duties assigned by Naval Operations Command (NOC).

LÉ SAMUEL BECKETT has the ability to adapt and change its mission focus almost instantly. This remarkable ability to respond so quickly, to any of the vast range of tasks which can be required by the Irish state, is one of the primary reasons for having a standing armed naval force, equipped with modern patrol vessels, crewed by highly trained and highly motived personnel of all ranks.

Irish Naval Service Colours ~ An tSeirbhís Chabhlaigh

A world of its own.

The Naval Service is divided into four major branches of specialisation; they are the Executive[1], Engineering, Logistical, and Communications Branches. There are commissioned and enlisted personnel in each branch and each branch has its own sub-specialisations. Onboard the ship, a distinct command structure exists, which is often confusing to those on the outside looking in; however, it has served the Navy well and provides robust mechanisms of problem-solving and getting things done. The general structure and key appointments within it have lasted over the seventy-one years of the service. Many of those ranks and appointments have existed on naval vessels since the days of sail, while some of the terminology and naval slang has been inherited or ‘borrowed’ from other navy’s down through the years; this can result in newcomers to a ship being communicated to in a language which would take a standalone article in itself to explain.

The command and control structure of the ship is vitally important, there is no room for confusion at sea. There is an ever-present danger to life and limb as soon as that first foot is laid upon the gangway, and as one gets underway, that danger only increases. The ships commanding officer bears the responsibility of command for the seventy-one million euro warship and for the welfare of his ship’s company at all times. Assigned to several appointments are the ships commissioned officers, who run the various branches in conjunction with the ships Senior NCOs. The main body of the crew are the enlisted personnel who will be the focus of this article and they are as we will see a diverse team.

Dress & Drill are cornerstones of Discipline.

The youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow.

Each crew member has a multitude of roles and it can be difficult to interview the younger sailors who work very long hours while at sea. A seaman can expect to be awake, in uniform and working for at least a hundred hours per week at sea. It is an arduous task, with physically demanding work and it certainly isn’t for the fainthearted.It is an arduous task and with physically demanding work it certainly isn’t for the fainthearted.

Leading Seaman Donnach Curtin hails from Mallow in North Cork. He has managed to fit a remarkable amount in his seven years of service. After his initial training, he chose to join the executive branch and he explains that ‘After completing my first two-year sea rotation onboard LÉ ORLA, I came ashore to serve in the Fishery Monitoring Centre (FMC) in the Naval Base, Haulbowline.’ While serving in the FMC, L/Sea Curtin kept advancing himself and completed a Swimmer of the Watch course, a Drivers course, a Landing Point Commanders Course and also his career courses, which were the Professional Seamanship and Seaman Gunner II (SGII) training courses which qualified him to advance onto his Potential Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO) course. He successfully completed this long twenty-six-week junior leadership course and was promoted shortly afterwards. He moved on to become an instructor in Seamanship Training which is based in the National Maritime College of Ireland (NMCI)

He shares his highlights as being ‘We deployed on Operation Pontus at the end of 2016 and I feel that this was the highlight of my career so far. I had been involved in ‘Tit Bonhomme’[2] search when that trawler sank while I was on LÉ Orla and I was present for the search for Rescue 116[3] in Co.Mayo. However, it is Op Pontus I feel has encompassed everything that we have trained for as a military. From gunnery to search and rescue, I feel that the mission sank in with the Navy, because of the fact we were dealing with people so closely. That experience of seeing the whole crew working…together to save lives and protect people; that for me is the reason I joined the military.’

Keeping it all moving.

Able Mechanician Robert Mulqueen, joined the service after completing his leaving certificate in 2016. Having completed the twenty weeks long basic military training which transforms civilians into Ordinary Seamen, his class was the first to undertake the new Ordinary to Able Ratings Advancement course which is six weeks long. This course, which was sought to be introduced by Senior NCOs for a number of years, has served to bring the Naval Service training structure closer in line with that of the Army and Air Corps. Prior to its introduction specialist branch training was conducted before advancement to Able rate, which resulted in long period spent at a lower rank and at a substantially lower rate of remuneration. ‘After that, I went on to the NCMI to complete my MI course (Mechanician I). You cover basic engineering, watchkeeping, marine engines, ships systems and safety was a huge part of it. We also took a more in-depth study to what we had learned on our basic marine firefighting course.’

Having been posted to LÉ SAMUEL BECKETT in 2017, A/Mech Mulqueen has now settled into the pattern of life on an operational warship on regular maritime defence and security patrols (MDSO), he says that ‘I am definitely enjoying it, it is the job I hoped it would be. Naturally, for the first few patrols you have to get used to your role on the ship, all ships are different and none more so that your first ship.’ I asked A/Mech Mulqueen does he have any plans with the service for the future. ‘I certainly do, I aim to progress into one of the more selective courses, such as the Naval Divers or possibly Medics. I am most certainly looking forward to deploying with my ship to Operation Sophia. I am sure it’s going to be tough, and that there will be good and bad times, but I am going to prepare myself well for it and I will be happy to play a role in it.’

A/Mech Mulqueen keeps an eye on all engineering spaces.

Learning the ropes.

Able Seaman Philip Cahill hopes that someday he will have the opportunity to become a Naval Diver. ‘After basic training, seamanship branch was my first choice, as I enjoy working outdoors and it seemed like the best branch for me.’  A/Sea Cahill describes what a typical working day for him would be ‘Well, the first thing we do each day is ships husbandry[4], which can take up to an hour and a half each morning, then we often move onto boarding stations. These are most often fisheries boarding’s and depending on what watch[5] is on, I would then either be on the bridge as a lookout or at the helm; or else I will be in the boats.’ A/Sea Cahill went on to briefly outline some of the other roles and responsibilities he has onboard ‘I am a RHIB coxswain, so it is my job to drive the RHIB and make sure that everyone gets onboard the fishing vessel safely. You still have to learn your trade, so you have to know your ropework and all the traditional seamanship skills. As I am nearly a year onboard now, I am starting to get more responsibilities and to learn the role of the leading hand in launching and recovering the small boats. And each seaman will do six months as Gunners Mate, I completed mine three months ago. You help out the Leading Gunner and it is an opportunity for you to learn in greater detail about all the different weapons onboard.’ A/Sea Cahill had barely set foot on the ship when on his first patrol he was involved in the search for Rescue 116, ‘we were there when the Naval divers recovered one of the missing crew. We helped return that loved one to their family and maybe help them in their loss in some way’

If in doubt, roll out the big guns. A/Sea Cahill with the 76mm Oto Melara

One of the great strengths of the Navy is the diverse range of people who come to join it and A/Sea Cahill has lots of experience he hopes to draw on to help him ‘I am looking forward to Op Sophia and I have some experience with working with people who are living in difficult circumstances in Africa. I have visited Zambia, with a secondary school project through Colaiste Eamonn Ris in Callan, Co. Killenny, I helped to raise €50,000 to help the people of the town of Kabwe. We got to live with the people, learn about their culture and we helped them to set up a sustainable business to assist in funding their school. Seeking to empower the local people and not just deliver cash which could end up being syphoned off as there is a lot of corruption in the country. We released funds in stages so that we could ensure the life of the project.’

Correct communication is such an important part of military operations.

Able Communications Operative (A/CommOp) Tristan Brennan says that what dragged him from his home in Donegal to join the Navy was ‘I guess you could say the recruitment adverts lead me to join, it looked exciting and it seemed like a career that I could give a shot.’ A/CommOp Brennan’s main place of work is in the Main Communications Office (MCO) or on the bridge and it takes a long time to train personnel to take on this critical role, he describes his training ‘The communications branch training is the longest course which people undertake after recruits, it is very mentally focused. A lot of study is required and a large amount of learning on all manner of military, tactical and civilian radios. We also need to know communication via flags for fleet work and we must know Morse code for visual signalling via the Aldiss lamps. I have almost a year now completed onboard LÉ SAMUEL BECKETT and I am enjoying it.’ Another important task assigned to the Communications Operatives onboard is that of Breathing Apparatus (BA) Controller during the emergency response to a Fire Fighting indecent onboard. A/CommOp Brennan will be in charge of ensuring a firefighting team has go ‘on air’ correctly and once they are fighting the fire, he will monitor their pressures and give regular updates as to their time remaining within the stricken compartment.

Far from the maddening crowd.

It would take a telephone directory to accurately detail all the role and responsibilities of the entire crew. This short article is only a snapshot of the young people who are the core of the Navy. They do their work, quietly and professionally in the roughest seas in the world. They leave families and the always-connected modern life behind and head out in the ocean, working on behalf of the state. Doing a job which not everyone can do, yet which is more important now that ever before. They follow generations who have gone before them and they can hold their heads high in the company of any of the sailors past and justifiably so.

They have been tested by sea and have never been found wanting.




[1] Executive Branch was and is still commonly referred to as Seamans branch.

[2] The ‘Tit Bonhomme’ sank in heavy seas after the trawler hit rocks and suffered a catastrophic grounding at Adam Island, 2km from the safety of Union Hall on 15 January 2012

[3] On 14 March 2017, a Sikorsky S-92A operated by CHC Helicopter under contract to the Irish Coast Guard (call sign Rescue 116) crashed into the Atlantic Ocean while providing top-cover (communications relay) support for the Sligo-based search and rescue helicopter, Rescue 118, during a rescue mission off County Mayo on Ireland′s west coast.

[4] Ships husbandry is vital to the health and safety of the ship’s company. The cleanliness of the entire ship has to be maintained and it takes hours each day. The ships communal areas, in particular, are kept spotless under the watchful eye of the ships Bosun, a Petty Officer Seaman.

[5] The crew is divided into watches: 8-12, 12-4 and 4-8. Often called Green, White or Orange watch. Dependant on which watch is manning the bridge, the other off watch crew will be working at their various tasks throughout the day and night.

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