Such bravery and gallantry on a storm-tossed night long ago

In his weekly column Trevor Laffan reflect on lifeboat, The Mary Standford, which was involved in a famous rescue operation that saved the lives of eight men
Such bravery and gallantry on a storm-tossed night long ago

The Mary Stanford lifeboat crew after their heroic rescue in 1936. Picture Irish Examiner archive, supplied by Brendan O’Driscoll

BACK in February, Storm Dennis lashed our coastline and shoved a ghost ship onto the rocks at Ballycotton.

The MV Alta appeared out of the blue and found itself the centre of attention while grounded in East Cork.

I was in the area and decided to have a look at it. After all, it’s not every day you get to see a real ghost ship — so I parked the car and walked along the cliff top. Many others had obviously been just as curious because the pathway was wet and muddy from all the other feet.

I wasn’t expecting that, and it was a cold and windy morning as I battled my way along the path in my sensible shoes.

I didn’t realise how far I had to go either. After walking for what seemed like an eternity, and with my shoes covered in mud, I decided to follow Homer Simpson’s advice: “If at first you don’t succeed, give up.”

I trundled back to the car park and then I noticed an old lifeboat sitting on a plinth. A final resting place after a long working life dedicated to saving lives.

The lifeboat, The Mary Stanford, was involved in a famous rescue operation in 1936, saving the lives of eight men on board The Daunt Rock Lightship.

The Daunt Rock sits off the Cork coast, near Roberts Cove. It was deemed to be a marine hazard in 1864 after a ship crashed into it. The ship, City of New York, was wrecked and as a result, the first lightship was placed there to alert other mariners to the danger.

In February, 1936, there was a massive storm which morphed into a hurricane and the lightship, Comet, broke its moorings and was drifting towards the rocks and certain disaster. Time and again, huge waves crashed over it and tossed it about like a cork in the water.

The crew thought they were destined to be lost at sea but in the early hours of the morning, after several attempts, they managed to get out another mooring line. But when that also broke, they were in serious trouble.

The wind increased to gale force and the crew of the lightship decided to leave their vessel. One of the crew tapped out an S.O.S. and that message got to the pilot master on duty in Cork Harbour just before the wheelhouse was damaged and the wireless was knocked out of commission.

Despite their situation, the crew of the lightship were conscious of the potential danger to other seamen, so they continued to carry out their duty.

They fired flares at regular intervals as a reminder of the hidden dangers of Daunt’s Rock to oncoming ships approaching the entrance to Cork Harbour.

In the early hours, the Ballycotton lifeboat was alerted that the Daunt’s Rock Lightship was drifting towards the rocks. The phone lines were down but a message was sent to the local policeman in Ballycotton and he alerted Patsy Sliney.

Patsy Sliney was the coxswain of the Ballycotton Lifeboat and he contacted the rest of the crew without setting off the alarm, because he didn’t want to worry the rest of the families in the area at that hour of the night.

This account of the incident by Patsy Sliney is taken from the Irish Examiner archives;

“The Lifeboat, with its crew, comprising Messrs Patsy Sliney, coxswain, John Lane Walsh, second coxswain, Tom Sliney, permanent mechanic, Willie Sliney, second permanent mechanic, Tom Flavin Walsh, John Sliney and Michael Walsh, immediately set off.

The roughest seas were running, and it was a night of terror. When we got to the position where the lightship should be, we could not find it. Visibility was very poor, although we were within a half-mile of it at the time.

We got to the lightship and remained standing by for twenty-five hours until we went to Cove for food and petrol after our supplies ran out.

‘Tremendous seas were running at the time and with great difficulty the Ballycotton lifeboat was manoeuvred alongside the distressed vessel. The lifeboat was on the crest of a wave one minite, the next moment sunk deep in the trough of another.’

The conditions were described as horrendous and some of the crew said they had never experienced anything like it before.

They managed to get a line on the stricken vessel to tow it to safety, but the line snapped. The large waves and wind kept pushing them apart.

With the lightship heading for the rocks, they concentrated their efforts on getting the men off the Comet instead. It took six attempts in all before all eight men were rescued.

The lifeboat crew had been on duty for close on seventy hours at that stage and had eaten little apart from biscuits. The Cork Examiner reported: “The men were soaked to the skin and almost asleep as they walked ashore in Cove. Considering the heavy seas, the removal of the crew required the highest degree of seamanship and its performance reflects the highest credit not alone to the gallant crew from Ballycotton, but to the boats and men that have made the name, of the Ballycotton Lifeboat Institution a revered one to sailors who sail the seven seas.”

At a subsequent meeting of Cork County Council, it was proposed that the Council extend its congratulations to the crew of the Ballycotton lifeboat on their bravery during the rescue of the crew of the Daunt’s Rock lightship.

Their feat was described as one of the most daring and courageous that had ever taken place and the Chief inspector of the Irish Lights described it as one of the most marvellous rescues that had been affected in his experience.

It was an amazing feat by a bunch of incredibly brave men.

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