Poems from the Coast | A Maritime Poetry Series
This poem recalls the tragedy that saw nine crewmen of the Fethard on Sea Helen Blake Lifeboat lose their lives while trying to rescue the crew of the Mexico that had gone aground at the treacherous Keeragh Islands near Fethard on February 1914.
- The Celtic Sea, February 20th, 1914
NAME OF VESSEL: The Helen Blake
TYPE OF VESSEL: Self-righting lifeboat.
BUILDER: Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company Ltd, Blackwall,
YEAR OF COMPLETION: 1905.
OWNER: Royal National Lifeboat Institution (R.N.LI.), Ireland Division.
PORT OF DUTY: Fethard Lifeboat Station, Fethard Quay, Co. Wexford.
52.1950° N, 6.8330’ W.
LENGTH: 35 ft.
BREADTH: 8 ft., 6 inches.
DISPLACEMENT: 5.8 tons.
DRAUGHT: 6 inches.
CONSTRUCTION: Mahogany, elm, oak and iron.
MEANS OF PROPULSION: Oar-based, as well as yoke and tiller.
GENERAL FITTINGS: Oak bows, skin planking ranging 260 square
feet, 5 thwarts, 2 ballast tanks and pump, 8 6-inch relieving tubes,
37 wooden air cases, bilge keels, solid gunwale, anchor weighing 60
to 70 lbs, 1 drogue, 60 fthms of cable.
ACCOMMODATION: 28 crew.
PREVIOUS LAUNCHES OF SERVICE: rescue of the crew of the ketch
PM Wilcox out of Aberystwith, October 18th 1907; attempted
assistance to the barquentine Skok in heavy seas, February 17th,
1912, which ultimately proved needless due to improved weather
conditions. Her crew are reported to have acted professionally and
capably in both incidents.
COXWAIN: Christopher Bird.
2nd COXWAIN: John MacNamara.
BOWMAN: Thomas Handrick.
CREW: 14 volunteers, incl. aforementioned coxwains and officers.
Low-key, almost uncaring,
were the reports of their rescue.
There is no vocation more
solemn or necessary than
that of the lifeboatman.
How many storms go unrecorded
by the families of men lost to them?
Who here has been promised
a hurricane when they sleep?
Try explaining that
to novices and your words
hit only ears of flint
with each devilish detail,
but let it be known
the estuary’s inner jaw
is a fathomless trial for anyone,
official or volunteer, to face down.
The blood of stricken crewmen
now lick the shores at Cullenstown.
A year later their names are spoken
during a Mass of Remembrance,
the solemn, impersonal liturgy
hanging anvil-heavy in the ears
of neighbour, wife, and widow.
Nine drowned names will be chiselled
into cenotaphs of alabaster,
white as the waves that stove them,
stitched into garlands placed on soil,
onto All Ireland Medals conferred
by the GAA, and a diploma
of courage from the King of Norway.
All the mangled lifejackets,
the cable’s slack alpine, the ashen rocket,
the lodged helm, the adrift buoy:
none were tendered as keepsakes.
Banville and Bird,
Cullen and Kelly
Crumpton and MacNamara
Roche and Morrissey
Stafford and Handrick:
Grant them all mercy.
The dawn sky hissed redder
than a portside lantern
and now, after the sun’s decay,
clouds rolled too heavy for hope
as the old schooner Mexico
staggered in from Laguna Port
to sink off Fethard Bay
at the Keeragh’s barren feet.
There are nights when the tide
is a grey mirror, ripples throbbing
wider and wider like wings.
But the night of rescue
was a raven-black freeze,
the Celtic Sea dancing too
wildly and too harsh, a sleety dream,
curtains of rain drawn over the Saltees
where trawlers gather to worship.
The alt juts out into the waves, burying
the grassier stem of land with its bloated
pedestal. Men’s hearts shrivel
to pulsing voids, rowing the lifeboat
from Fethard through salt-dimmed air
to the unaided ship and the rocks,
each man a spray-blind apostle
of rescue, the entrails of the ocean
ripped out by their whetted skeg.
February’s grindstone scalps the moon
to a jagged sliver. Every wind-twisted face
scowls, all oars out and dipping
to windward, but all this time, she’s taking on
more water. If the keel’s spine is to break,
then it is to break completely,
felled like the tree it was carved from.
Then, an unholy trinity of waves crumble
heavily amidships, heaving her
against the reef and smashing her to flotsam,
her gunwale salted by white geysers
of surf. No radar, no map, no compass’s
whirling needle. Nine men are lost. The rest
hunker on the reef with the ship’s crew,
shivering down to the cold planetary zone.
By then, nothing – a lantern’s swaying glow,
a voice calling out familiar names,
even the rain’s allaying ebb – could have
gladdened them. Nightlong and daylong, all along
that horned coast, waves hurtle and regroup
in curved aggression until a working passage
is made to deliver them or light finally spills
over the black islet. What to do, then,
with a body snuffed by hypothermia, but wrap
it in sailcloth, and anchor it with turf-sods?
Terns gloat over the charms of wreckage.
The sky is taut as a membrane, the ocean
still starved for wrecks. What to say of that night
now? On your dockside damp, disembarkation point,
merely grant their souls mercy, keep their names
afloat and their memory moored in the bare
acropolis of dead-eye. Offer, if you can,
a common requiem for so many drowned.
What you need to know about the Celtic Sea,
Hemmed in on both sides by Hibernia and Albany,
Is that it’s fit to burst. Drownings are expected
And certain out there as the dawn. Rejected,
Dim, clouds unravel to sky-smoke in a cool breeze,
Mortar-heavy. Swells blacker than death pace
And coil, rain throbs on bulwark and tiller, shingling
The sand. To see the horizon withering and mingling
Would daunt both chief inspector and harbourmaster,
However numbed by such reports of disaster.
About Daniel Wade
Daniel Wade is a poet and playwright from Dublin, Ireland. He is a graduate of Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology where he studied English and Journalism.
Check out his website danielwadeauthor.com for more.