Ireland’s hospitality towards unexpected visitors has always leaned towards the sweet side of the scale. For troubled expeditions of foreign marine fleets, this hospitality has been upheld proudly by Irish citizens, with and without the current ruling powers Veto.
I visited the West of Ireland for the August bank holiday weekend, planning to take in some surfing in Lahinch and live music in The Scariff Harbour Festival, but found myself sucked into penning yet another article for Irishgathering2013.com. The need to impart the tale I had learnt came about after I happened upon a quaint church in the village of Quilty, Co. Clare. Constantly on the quest to discover yet another great untold story from our jewel encrusted past, I called upon all my faculties to sew together the fabled fabric rarely told about the rescue of the ship’s crew from The French vessel, The Leon XIII. I would like to thank the sales assistant at Next Door off licence in Kilrush and The Quilty National School for their contribution to this article. Also praise to The O’Dwyer family for their part in the conservation of this story contained in the bricks and mortar of the Star of the Sea church in Quilty.
One dismal morning, on the 1st of October in the year of our lord – 1907, a three-masted ship was sighted off the coast of Quilty, dangerously close to the reef offshore. The ship was scheduled to enter the Shannon Estuary laden with a full load of wheat from America. Due to hampered weather conditions, she kept her distance off the coast, trying to bide time until the storm passed. But the storm only grew in size and unmercifully threw The Leon XIII and her crew around like milk in a churn. The local fishermen of Quilty had been monitoring the ship and despaired when her rudder was destroyed by rocks on the rugged coastline of Mutton Island, not one mile off the beach from Quilty, leaving her without means to navigate. They feverishly pushed their currachs through the unyielding waves, only to be thrown out by the tempest and almost drowned themselves. The families of Quilty kept candles burning in the windows of their houses in an effort to send a signal to the sailors that they had not been abandoned. There were twenty two crew onboard.
As the grey light of day fell over the sorrowful scene, the fishermen silently carried their currachs made of wooden frame and animal hide back towards the shoreline. They were determined to get to the ship which was now taking on water. Again and again they were battered by the sea, continually having to rescue their own men and place them back into their currachs. Eventually, through sheer brute will and with exhausted arms from rowing, the currachs rallied together in a fleet and managed to reach The Leon. They took as many sailors as they could hold in the light sea crafts. The captain was injured with a broken leg and chose to stay with any other sailors who could not be accommodated on the rescue currachs. A second trip could not be made that day and so it was that the local Irish men and women of Quilty and the neighbouring towns of Miltown Malbay and Spanish Point, kept vigil over The Leon from the shore. They prayed through the night for the storm to break and on the morning of the 2nd of October, the waves eased and the sky opened in patches of blue through the grey cloud. As the sunlight hit the drenched wood of The Leon for the first time in days, a naval ship had arrived from Cobh, Co. Cork and was able to get close enough to pull the remaining sailors and injured captain to safety.
A round towered church stands close to the site of the rescue to this day. The Star of the Sea church was finished in 1911 as a dedication to the bravery of the Irish fishermen and it is testament to what can be achieved through human will and overcoming seemingly impossible tasks.
Here are the names of those brave Irish fishermen, who risked their lives against the might of the ferocious Atlantic to bring the French sailors to safety:
Martin and Austin O Boyle, Patrick Kelleher, Denis Kelly, Patrick Cunneen, John Mc Inerney, James Falsey, Michael Stack, Michael O Dowd, Patrick O Boyle, Michael and John Kenny, John Kelleher, Patrick Kelly, Michael Mc Inerney, John Scully, John O Connor, Peter O Boyle, Martin Murrihy, Francis Healy, Patrick Mangan, Martin Moloney and John Stack.
In a separate turn of events, The Spanish Armada fleets, which stalked the coast of Ireland and Britain in the late early 1600’s, were a considerable thorn in the side of Queen Elizabeth I and a constant threat to her empire. The edict was sent out across Ireland through the powers that reigned, (the occupying English authorities acting in her majesties effort) that if any person aided the prosperity of any member of the Spanish Armada, certain death would soon follow. Although this law had encouraged Irish men and women never to allow a marine man of Spanish blood to darken their doorstep, it cannot be denied that the women of the west of Ireland possess a certain “dark exotic quality” lending to the Róisín Dubh appearance of so many of our countries celebrated beauties. One need look no further than the internationally revered Galway Girl to estimate our fulfilment of this order to the British monarch. Beguiling Irish eyes are still smiling. When they’re not winking at you!
This Diary entry is dedicated to the memory of two Quilty fisher men, Michael Galvin and Noel Dickinson, who were tragically lost to the sea on Monday, August 13th from their vessel Lady Eileen. Our hearts and prayers go to Quilty, to their family and friends.
Is féidir dia choimeád sábháilte a n-éadrom – May God keep safe their light.
*Photograph by Yellabelly*