Reproduced here with the kind permission of the Editor of An Cosantóir, this is my article which featured in Special Commemorative Edition on the occasion of the Naval Service 75th Anniversary.
The celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Naval Service is a milestone in the long and rich history of service. No celebration could be complete with a look back on past operations. Yet to squeeze a proper accounting of the sailors and ships which carried them out, into these few pages would be impossible.
Today the work of the NS is primarily carried out during what are termed Maritime Defence and Security Operations (MDSO) patrols. The range of work is vast, and the area of operations is astonishing. The sailors of each generation have faced many of the same operations as today; maritime interdiction of narcotics and arms, search and rescue, fisheries inspection, all conducted in the harsh environment of the North Atlantic. While today’s seas may be rougher, and the operational tempo higher, today’s ships are bigger and their technology is more advanced. Yet, our old sailors would recognise much of the daily life of today’s crews; for a ship is merely wires and steel without its crew.
“…Our own flag to the fore…”
In 1948, the NS completed its first overseas mission. They were given the task of repatriating the remains of William Butler Yeats, the Nobel prize-winning poet, who had died in France in 1939. LÉ CLIONA was dispatched to bring his remains home to rest “under bare Ben Bulbens head”. The sailors who carried out this solemn duty with such dignity and respect would never have imagined that an Irish warship would carry his name someday.
When the Northern Troubles were at their height, the Naval Service was at forefront of the interception of arms and munitions destined for the Provisional IRA. The death and destruction prevented by the foiling of these importations cannot be calculated.
The ‘MV Claudia’ in March 1973 was sailing from Cyprus to Helvick head, having embarked a cargo of arms supplied by the Libyan dictator Col Muammar Gadaffi, off the coast of Tunis. It was stopped before delivering its lethal load by the LÉ FOLA, LÉ DEIRDRE, and LÉ GRAINNE.
In September 1984 the LÉ EMER and the LÉ AISLING intercepted the fishing vessel ‘Marita Ann’. That faithful night they prevented seven tons of explosives, arms, and ammunition from reaching the horrendous conflict in Northern Ireland.
Air India Disaster.
Air India Flight 182, on the 23rd of June 1985 will long be remembered as a most terrible event. A bomb exploded within the Boeing 747-273B and it disintegrated at a height of 9,400 metres above the coast of Cork. A terrible act of mass murder which resulted in the death of all 329 passengers and crew.
The LÉ AISLING was tasked as on-scene commander, and over the course of the operation they toiled in shark-infested waters to recover the dead, and four of the ship’s company were awarded Distinguished Service Medals for their actions.
Nuestra Senora de Gardtoza.
On the night of the 30th of January 1990, LÉ DEIRDRE was sheltering from severe gales in Lawrence’s Cove, Bere Island. A Spanish fishing vessel, Nuestra Senora de Gardtoza, with 16 souls on board ran aground on rocks near Roancarrigmore Light, northeast of Bere Island in Bantry Bay.
LÉ DEIRDRE received the ‘MAYDAY’ at 2100hrs and as quickly as she could weighed anchor and headed out into the severe gale. With no helicopter support available and with no way to manoeuvre LÉ DEIRDRE in close, Leading Seaman Michael Quinn, from Drogheda, along with Able Seaman Paul Kellett from Dublin, volunteered to attempt a rescue, even in the face of the horrendous conditions.
Once the Gemini manoeuvred close enough to the ‘Gardtoza’ it quickly became apparent that boarding the stricken vessel or a rescue was impossible. They were making their return to LÉ DEIRDRE, when the small boat capsized in the extreme wind and waves, and cast both sailors into the sea.
The brave comrades were separated in the darkness and an exhausted A/Sea Kellett was washed ashore near Dereen cove. A passing Garda patrol picked him up and he passed the word that L/Sea Quinn was lost out there in the blackness. Sadly, the next morning an Air Corps Dauphin helicopter, at 0800hrs on the 31st, recovered the body of Leading Seaman Quinn, 3 miles east of the tragic scene.
In recognition of the unselfish bravery and devotion to duty of both sailors, they were both awarded the Distinguished Service Medal and the Spanish Cross of Naval Merit in recognition of their attempt to rescue the Spanish crew.
The Cocaine Trail.
Ireland’s position on the west coast of Europe has made her a key destination for international and domestic drug smugglers.
There have been huge successes again this horrendous trade, ‘Operation Seabight’ in 2008 when an estimated €675 million worth of Colombian cocaine was seized from a 60-foot sloop, ‘Dances With Waves’ off the Cork coast. This was an international operation where LÉ RÓISÍN and LÉ NIAMH were the tip of the sword.
Again, in September 2014 a huge inter-agency operation was conducted using the LÉ RÓISÍN and LÉ NIAMH. In challenging conditions at night, 250 miles west southwest of Mizen head, the yacht ‘The Makayabella’ was apprehended. The trial judge described the €350 million haul as “colossal” and “mind-boggling” when he sentenced the crew to 73 years in total for their part in the smuggling.
In just the last few months the NS was involved in the seizure of €250m worth of hashish was seized by Spanish authorities acting on information received from Ireland.
Information provided by the Irish Navy, An Garda Síochána, and Revenue Customs Service to the Portgual-based Maritime Analysis Operations Centre – Narcotics (MAOC-N) led to the find. The drugs found aboard the fishing vessel the Odyssey 227 represent one of the largest hashish seizures ever made in European waters.
It could be argued that the pinnacle of Naval Service operations has been those carried out in the Mediterranean since 2015.
In 2015, Italy was dealing with a migration crisis nearly alone, and fatalities were mounting as desperate people displaced by wars or conflicts, and vast numbers of people displaced by poor economic conditions attempted the perilous journey across the Southern Mediterranean in unseaworthy craft.
The LÉ EITHNE was the first to depart in May 2015, and she forged the trail that LÉ NIAMH and LÉ SAMUEL BECKETT followed over the course of the year, pausing as the winter weather closed in. Each year thereafter Ireland continued to answer that call, with three ships dispatched annually to conduct missions which were complex and dangerous, not just recovery panicking persons from sinking craft; but the traumatic task of recovering deceased persons from dark & cramped bilges, and the sea.
The NS transitioned to EUNAVFOR Operation SOPHIA in 2017 and committed vessels to this UN-mandated mission until 2019. Op SOPHIA’s mission was primarily a security operation, designed to disrupt the trafficker’s business model and to counter oil and weapons smuggling. Irish sailors continue to serve in EUNAVFOR HQ in Rome as part of Operation IRINI, the successor mission to SOPHIA.
Over 18,000 individuals were rescued over the course of the deployments and tragically many deceased were also recovered. Working in harsh environmental conditions, and bearing witness to human suffering normally only associated with violent conflict, the sailors of the NS completed all tasks assigned to them, and the manner in which they performed their harrowing duties, has been in keeping with the finest traditions of the service and of Óglaigh na hÉireann.
On 26th February 2020, the first confirmed case of COVID-19 was detected in Ireland. The entire country braced for the impact of what was declared a global pandemic a few days later in March. The Defence Forces launched Operation Fortitude to support the nation throughout this crisis. NS ships deployed in Cork, Galway, and Dublin. Operating as test centres and logistics hubs, six different vessels rotated through these duties while still continuing delivery of MDSO taskings around the coast. LÉ EITHNE, LÉ SAMUEL BECKETT, LÉ JAMES JOYCE, LÉ WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS, LÉ GEORGE BERNARD SHAW and LÉ NIAMH all played their part to strengthen the nation. NS Reserve personnel supported the ships throughout these unique deployments.
The last seventy-five years have seen the NS prove itself capable, adaptable, resilient, and responsive. The next thirty years are being charted by a Commission on the Defence Forces, which is examining every facet of its structure and its work. With a firm commitment to the fleet replacement programme by Government, including the purchase of a new large Multirole Vessel to replace our flagship, LÉ EITHNE, there will certainly be no lack of challenges to come.
It will be for the youngest of today’s sailors to navigate what lies ahead. They have proven themselves equal to any challenge, proudly continuing a legacy forged by those who have gone before.