Maritime Cork: The Morsecock tug's long history in Cork Harbour

Maritime Cork: The Morsecock tug's long history in Cork Harbour
The Morsecock leaving Cork's city quays on a Sunday excursion.

Tugs are an essential, integral part of Cork Harbour’s shipping operations.

One of the most well-known of these in the port’s maritime history was a Naval tug whose name was changed when she became a civilian operation under a famous Ringaskiddy marine company.

The Stormcock changed her name to the Morsecock when the British Admiralty closed the Naval Dockyard on Haulbowline Island in 1921, following Irish independence and sold her.

The British Navy’s twin-screw steam tug was bought by the Palmer Bros. who operated from Ringaskiddy where they had a shipyard. 

There had been controversy over Stormcock when the Admiralty at first refused to send her to the rescue of the Lusitania, torpedoed off the Old Head of Kinsale on May 7, 1915, because of fears that she would be targeted by the German submarine, believed to be still in the area. 

She was later involved in the recovery of bodies which she brought to Cobh for burial. But argument raged over whether more liner passengers could have been saved had she been sent to the sinking scene immediately.

The British Admiralty insisted on a name change for the sale. Palmers gave the choice to their workers. The name Stormcock was on the vessel’s bow, attached by individual heavy brass letters. 

The workers made new letters in straight cuts, rather than curves, thus substituting an ‘E’ for ’T’ and rearranging the remaining letters into the name ‘Morsecock’ by which she became known. 

The tug was described as “very versatile” for handling large sailing ships and the developing steam vessels which were the harbour shipping traffic of the time.

Morsecock was involved in numerous salvage operations carried out by Palmers. She also served transatlantic liners as a tender when Palmers won the contract for this work.

They had other vessels as well as Morsecock, but her name pops up more regularly in harbour records, particularly for unusual tasks.

In 1931 she towed an American submarine, The Nautilus, into Cork Harbour. This World War One vessel had been acquired for a Polar expedition to go under the North Pole ice cap for meteorological research but its engines failed in the Atlantic. 

An American Naval ship towed it towards Ireland and Morsecock was sent out to as it neared Cork, to complete the tow. When towed in, “the submarine crew were presented with blackthorn sticks by city dignitaries,” according to reports.

Morsecock was one of the Palmer vessels which ran passenger excursions from Cork to Ballycotton, Crosshaven, East Ferry and Kinsale. Palmers had arrangements with Wallace Express, then Cork transport company, that operated a booking office for the popular trips.

On a June Sunday in 1923 during one of these excursions, Morsecock rescued a steam launch, Swan, which had lost engine power and was being blown onto rocks at White Bay. 

The passengers and crew were screaming for help when the crew of Morsecock spotted them. In a difficult and dangerous operation, because of the depth of water in the area and with her own excursionists aboard, the tug pulled Swan to safety and towed it to Cork.

One of the major salvage operations in which Morsecock was involved was to the White Star liner Celtic which ran aground at Roche’s Point in December 1928. Declared a total loss, Celtic was cut up for scrap. Palmers gave the ship’s bell to the Oratory at Ringaskiddy.

Morsecock was also involved in transferring British troops from the forts and Spike Island, as they withdrew in 1938, moving them in the harbour to the Innisfallen and a ship called, Ancasta, which returned the soldiers and their equipment to England.

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