Maritime Cork: Remembering the five men killed in the Irish Poplar tragedy

Maritime Cork: Remembering the five men killed in the Irish Poplar tragedy
A painting from the collection of the Irish Naval Service of the 'Irish Poplar' vessel by Kenneth King.

It was emotional as the trumpeter sounded the Last Post and the attendance sang ‘Abide With Me’ as the names of five men who died in Cork Harbour just before Christmas in 1942 were recalled – John Higgins, Patrick Wilshaw, Frank Powell, William Duggan and Frank Lloyd.

“These men were the only people that lost their lives on active service to the country during the Second World War. They lost their lives on service to the nation in Cork Harbour,” said Fred Crudge, Chairman of the Cobh Branch of the Organisation of National Ex-Servicemen and Women.

While Christmas is a time of celebration and enjoyment, it is also a time of remembrance of tragedy in two Cork coastal communities – at Cobh and in Castletownbere.

In Cobh on Saturday morning, what is known as the Irish Poplar tragedy was recalled.

The ship, which had been Greek-owned under the name Vassilios Destounis, had been bought in March 1931 for £142,000 by Irish Shipping in the port of Aviles in Northern Spain. The Second World War raged in Europe. Local fishermen had brought her there and successfully claimed salvage after finding the vessel abandoned off Spain.

Apparently, it had been attacked by German aircraft and the crew had to abandon. It was the first vessel in the Irish Shipping fleet that had been hastily formed to maintain a supply line to Ireland when the Government of the time realised that this island nation and could not get vital supplies without its own shipping fleet.

Ireland was neutral and any ship entering Cork Harbour had to be inspected under Emergency wartime regulations. On the stormy night of December 12, 1942, the Irish Poplar arrived in Cork Harbour en route to drydock at Rushbrooke. 

A Marine Service launch and one from the Cork Harbour Commissioners put a Pilot and Marine Service Inspection Officer aboard. As the ship moved up the harbour the launches pulled away from it. Reports about what happened differed, but it appears that they collided and were pulled under the ship’s propeller, sank and the five men were killed. Four were from the Marine Service, the forerunner of today’s Navy and one from the Harbour Commissioners.

They are remembered by a monument recalling the tragedy which stands outside the Old Town Hall of Cobh on East Beach. On Saturday the weather was so bad that the ceremony had to be moved into Rushbrooke National School. 

“Just the third time in 76 years that weather has been so bad for the ceremony, the weather today being as bad as on the night when the tragedy happened,” said Fred Crudge.

There was a big attendance, with representatives from the Naval Service, the O.N.E. organisers of the ceremony, the Royal Naval Association, the British Legion, the Gardai, Cork Port, the National Maritime College and others. Tributes were paid to Con Lynch who had led the commemoration ceremonies for many years.

Why continue a commemoration for 76 years I asked Fred Crudge: “We should remember what happened in wars and pass on the memories to future generations how men served and died for their country. Unfortunately, some of those who died in this tragedy were never found but we will go on remembering them for as long as we can and pass on that memory to others,” he replied.

After the indoor ceremony wreaths were later laid at the memorial in Cobh.

In the fishing port of Castletownbere the Seaflower trawler tragedy which happened on December 22, 1968, will be remembered this Christmastime. There is a monument in the harbour to those lost at sea. The Seaflower was lost, with all five fishermen aboard in a storm near Ardgroom in Kenmare Bay. 

They were the owner/Skipper Michael Crowley from Bere Island and his four crew - Bernie Lynch of Castletownbere; John Michael Sheehan, Dursey Sound; Noel Sheehan, Dursey Island who were first cousins and Niall Crilly, a native of Cork City.

Christmas can be a tragic time in bad weather at sea.

Email: tommacsweeneymarine@gmail TOMORROW: Echo Sport Sailing

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