The island of Haulbowline is filled with history. Each stone and step, every nook and cranny, from the lowest ebb of the tide on now silent slips, to the lofty reaches of the visual signaling tower. This rich history can fade into the background, drowned out by the hustle and bustle of the modern age.
The building in which I have the privilege to be working at the moment is titled Block 6. This great storehouse, with its distinctive clock tower, faces across Cobh roads and was originally part of the victualling yard which was constructed on Haulbowline between 1806-22, this also included the creation of fine new wharves on the north and east shores. The most prominent buildings were the six great storehouses built alongside the new wharves – three facing North (Blocks 4, 6, & 8) and three aligned north-south and facing east (Blocks 9, 10, & 11).
The interior walls of Block 6 are scattered with pictures, paintings, and photographs that tell the story of many Naval Service operations and missions; courtesy calls and foreign visits; and they also capture the lives and memories of those who have worked on this island, and on the ships which departed from here, across the decades. Here and there, there are also physical mementos and artifacts.
One such artifact is the ship’s wheel of LÉ Maev. It is a handsome object; in its symmetry, and solid functionality. Its varnish is smart, and its brass remains bright, an echo of the many hours of care it would have seen aboard the LÉ Maev throughout her long life of service at sea. Any passer-by can appreciate its design and its pleasing artifice. A sailor might pause in their passing to remember the many rough hands which gripped it as the crews of LÉ Maev and those of HMS Oxlip, as she was in her previous life, manned the helm, and felt the power of the sea reverberate through its spokes as the wild waves rushed beneath her hull. The wheel was kindly returned to the Naval Service by Mr. Frank Daly on 01 February 2013.
Under it on an accompanying plaque is also a remarkable poem by the then Lt Cdr Patrick ‘Paddy’ Kavanagh, which was written in 1971.
We sailed Corvettes for twenty years,
and withstood the public’s jokes and jeers,
we disregarded their laughs and sneers,
because we are the Irish Navy.
On this rocky coast we sail around,
from Malin Head to Blasket Sounds,
where ere a Dutchman may be found,
you will find the Irish Navy.
But now we sail a smaller ship,
and soon one Dutchman made a slip,
and there was the Bamba on a trip,
on patrol for the Irish Navy.
So come all ye men like Ronnie Drew,
we are doing a job you could not do,
is you had sailed on 02,
you would not slag the Irish Navy.
(The words of the poem are described by the plaque as been supplied by Mr. Liam O’Sullivan (CPO/MECH Rtd))
It is telling that the poem was written in 1971. You can hear the pride and pain in the words. These were loyal servants of the state who had just come through what could be argued as having been the most difficult year for the Naval Service, which was 1970. The last of the Flower-class corvettes remaining in Irish service, LÉ Maev had spent several months non-operational in early 1970, effectively leaving the Republic without any operational vessel capable of undertaking the duties assigned to the Naval Service by Government.
The decision taken to order the Coniston class coastal minesweepers in late 1970, would breathe life back into a service that was at its lowest. LÉ Maev would be alone no longer, with the commissioning of LÉ Grainne on 30 January 1971, one can imagine that these proud sailors may have felt that the service was been saved from ‘probable extinction’¹, and you can feel the push back at mocking thrown at these hard-working sailors by The Dubliners in their song ‘The Irish Navy’, which featured on the B side of their 1968 album ‘At it Again.’
I have often seen that particular song described as satirical; personally, while its undeniably a catchy tune, I have always smarted at it, and found it an example of punching down at the sailors of the time, who were primarily working-class men who undertook a tough job to provide for their families by serving their nation in the unforgiving environment off our coasts. I suppose my family’s long connection with the Defence Forces, and in particular, our connection with the Naval Service which has been present for nearly my entire life and coupled with my own nearly 25 years of service, has made me biased to the humour, and lends me to bristle at the verses. Silly I suppose, as sailors tend to have what could be politely called a ‘robust’ sense of humour between each other; however, that comradery which allows shipmates to take verbal liberties, isn’t normally extended to those who haven’t worn the uniform, sailed the miles, and shared the hardships and deprivations of harsh weather, difficult operations, and separation from home and family.
Todays sailors are not that much different from the generations who have gone before them; yes the technology might be more advanced, but they are still doing a job most others could not and would not do. A life in service at sea, is not for the faint of heart. To maintain the dignity of that legacy, and to maintain the discipline inherent to the service, the sailors of 1971 were unable to give a public retort. Today these necessary restrictions remain, made more difficult in the era of social media, where the transmit time between brain and thumb is near instantaneous. The desire to push back at unwarranted comments or perceived injustice, which can be very great indeed, present the spectre of costly disciplinary action for a moment of public anger. Worse still the prospect of an uncontrolled engagement with a goading troll lurking in the safety of anonymity, which would certainly spell disaster for the sailor and perhaps the service, and utter delight for the troll. Taking to poetry may very well be the better outlet indeed to call out ‘ye men like Ronnie Drew…’.
Another interesting plaque accompanies LÉ Maev’s wheel, it is a brief listing of the battle honors of this venerable warship when she proudly bore the name HMS Oxlip.
What service she gave. Her future could not have been know when HMS Oxslip was laid down in 1940, and when she was launched into the boatyard of A & J Inglis of Glasgow in August of 1941. Under her pennant number K123, she served smartly at sea and helped hold back the tide of fascism which brought such destruction to Europe and the World. This Flower Class Corvette may not have been one of the terror inspiring battleships of the great Atlantic or Pacific naval battles, but each act of defiance, each patrol, each attack, and each defence, was a blow struck against the Nazi war machine. No brave deed, however small, should ever be forgotten.
¹ McIvor, Aidan, ‘A History of the Irish Naval Service’, Irish Academic Press, 1994.
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