Dealing with whatever the ocean sends

It is not surprising that any child with imagination, and an interest in the sea, would spend time at the city’s harbour watching the ships come and go, and the men who worked there as they talked and unloaded fish or cargo. As a child Kathleen Curran, once the home chores were done, would run down the back paths from her home on College Road and along Lough Atalia to the docks. ‘There she would stand and gaze in wonder at the ships, boats and trawlers, hookers and gleoteóigs tied up or coming and going about their business.’

Her books at home were all about seafaring. She devoured everything she could get her hands on by her cousin Peter B Kyne, who lived in San Francisco. He had a very successful writing career. More than 100 films were made from his books. With her brothers and sisters, Kathleen enjoyed a strong Irish cultural background (solid Fianna Fáil! ), endowed by her Headford parents.

As soon as she left the Mercy, in 1938, she worked on the docks. She volunteered for lifeboat services, and worked first as an assistant, and then as pilot guiding ships into harbour.* Eventually she was appointed secretary to the Harbour Board, and for two glorious years, 1951-1952, fulfilled the demanding positions as both harbour master and Port Authority secretary; the only woman in Ireland to have done so. The appointment, alas because of the times that were in it, was only until men were appointed in her place.

She never complained, although she must have felt the slight. Her work was so valued and her experience so wide, however, that no harbour master would dare make an important decision without ‘a word with Kathleen’.

Potential of the ocean

Galway, facing the sea as it does, has probably not made the most of its unique position. So many buildings turn away from it. Some people have suggested that no one wanted to see the emigrant ships sailing out of the bay. But recently with the development of marine sciences at NUIG, studying climate change, and the management and conservation of our oceans, we are beginning to see the enormous potential of our location. The proposed development of the docks will bring a new generation of tourists to our city and county, putting Galway to the forepoint of liner destinations, and bringing employment to thousands.

In Kathleen’s day, they dealt with whatever the ocean brought them with whatever reserves they had. One day she was unlikely ever to forget was August 15 1958 when a Dutch KLM Super-Constellation airliner, named Hugo de Groot, crashed into the Atlantic 100 miles off the Connemara coast with the loss of 99 lives.

No survivors

The ill-fated plane left Shannon Airport at 4.05am in fairly calm conditions. Suddenly radio contact with the plane was lost. Shannon contacted Gander Airport in Newfoundland. Gander initially thought there had been radio contact with the plane, but soon realised this was not true, and so a full-scale alert was launched. A Pan-American World Airways cargo plane en route westward across the Atlantic said it had intercepted an SOS, about 450 miles east of Gander at the time. At 3pm that afternoon an RAF search plane sighted some wreckage about 90 miles off Slyne Head, and immediately 14 vessels of different nationalities abandoned their normal duties and headed for the scene of the crash. The first vessel to arrive was a trawler from Lorient named General Leclerc.

The Naomh Éanna was about to leave for Aran with a few hundred passengers when the mayday call came through. They disembarked the passengers and headed for the crash sight. It was dark when they got there but the sky was lit up by RAF flares. Because the boat was high up in the water some of the personnel climbed down rope ladders to recover bits of wreckage. They kept picking up lumps of human flesh.

The Aran lifeboat made several attempts to come alongside to transfer nine bodies they had on board, but the seas were too rough, and in fact the rail of the lifeboat was smashed.The search went on for 48 hours after which “there was nothing left to search for”. Only 34 bodies were recovered, nine of them male and 25 female, all of them passengers. None of the crew was found. Only 12 of those recovered were positively identified prior to the funeral. The remains of 11 of those were flown back to their native countries and families either in Holland or America.

Tragic scene at Galway

The following day a French trawler, the Jules Verne, was the first of the mercy ships to sail into the docks watched by an enormous crowd who were saddened and silenced by the scale of the tragedy. Soon another trawler, The Bisson, sailed in followed by the General Leclerc. A Canadian destroyer, the Crusader, transferred two bodies and some wreckage to a smaller boat out in the bay. The boats all sailed in with flags at half mast. The bodies were taken ashore by the Order of Malta and the Red Cross, helped by the Civil Defence Corps and the fire brigade. A fleet of ambulances brought the remains to the Regional Hospital and post mortems were carried out through the night by Irish and Dutch doctors.

A number of KLM and Dutch government officials arrived to investigate what might have caused the crash, but they had very little to work with... a few bits and pieces of wreckage and some personal effects, including a gent’s wristwatch which had stopped at 4.48am. No evidence to show the cause of impact was found. A verdict of death from multiple injuries, fractures, and haemorrhages was returned at the inquest, which was reported throughout the world by various news agencies and radio stations.

The remains of the 22 unidentified victims were interred in the new cemetery on August 19. There was a service outside the mortuary at the Regional Hospital with prayers said by clergy from the Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant faiths. Then the soldiers from An Céad Cath in Renmore placed the coffins in the hearses and army vehicles and led contingents from the Civil Defence, the Red Cross, and the Knights of Malta followed by the cortege though the city. Then came the next of kin, church dignitaries, members of the Diplomatic Corps, nurses, the city council and those present in an official capacity. All of the church bells in the city tolled, shops were closed, and business suspended. Ten thousand people lined the streets, kneeling and praying as the funeral passed. Many wept openly. The interment took place without any further rites in St Mary’s Cemetery.

After 45 years of exceptional service to Galway, Kathleen retired but still she was seen practically every day walking by the docks. It was a habit since her childhood.

Next week: The Catholic priests who became Protestants on Achill!

NOTES: Two weeks ago I made reference to the wreck of the Moyalla about half a mile off Salthill in 1946. She steamed into Galway Bay, but her captain, E O’Sullivan, did not call out the pilot. I mentioned that the pilot, Colie Flaherty, was watching her come into the bay from Barna, and was surprised he was not summoned. Thanks to local historian Padhraic Faherty who tells me that Colie was ‘a strong, wiry and hardy man’. From his bothareen in the village, he’d watch the boats come and go. If they summoned a pilot he would row out in his currach, no matter what the weather was like. His currach would be hauled on board as he guided the ship safely ashore. He probably rowed back to Barna later.

Dick Byrne tells me that as a boy, he and his class from the Jes were also at the docks when the LE Macha arrived carrying the remains of WB Yeats. However, the French had generously supplied an enormous coffin that would not fit into the hearse that was waiting. After much fussing and several attempts the coffin was lowered on to the back of an army tender, and taken to Sligo that way.

Kathleen’s sister, Maureen, who had lost a leg when she was a child, worked with auctioneers Joyce, Mackie, and Lougheed, and was the co-founder of the Old Galway Society. She was a well known personality in the town.

I am leaning on Mary J Murphy’s article on her aunt Kathleen in the 2017 edition of the Journal of the Old Tuam Society.

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