1968 wreck of Beara vessel ‘Seaflower’ in Kenmare Bay storm

Thirty-eight years ago, on the night of the 22nd December, 1968, the Castletownbere fishing vessel Seaflower was wrecked in a storm at Carrigavaunaheen, near Ardgroom, Kenmare Bay, and the owner, skipper Michael Crowley from Bere Island, and four of the vessel’s crew were drowned.
They were Bernie Lynch, Derrymihan, Castletownbere, a member of a well known local fishing family, John Michael Sheehan, Dursey Sound, Noel Sheehan, Dursey Island, who were first cousins and Niall Crilly, a native of Cork City.

People still talk how another local fishing vessel – the Ard Beara-owned and skippered by the late Paddy Harrington, together with another well-known local fisherman the late Denis O’Driscoll with a crew of locals – left Castletownbere in a raging storm to go around to Kenmare Bay in an attempt to rescue the marooned men. Because of the weather the attempt was unsuccessful. The following discussion took place the next year at a Session of Dail Eireann on the 13t March, 1969.
Mr. S.D. Barrett asked the Minister for Transport and Power if he was aware that a number of people, including Captain Timothy O’Malley, the officer in charge of Waterville unit of the coast lifesaving service, and others who believe they could have given vital evidence on the loss of the vessel Seaflower in Kenmare Bay, were not informed that an inquiry was to be held into the circumstances; and if, in view of the absence of such vital evidence, he is prepared to send an inspector to take statements from these people so that their evidence can be considered with the report of the preliminary inquiry.
Mr Barrett asked the Minister for Transport and Power if his attention had been drawn to the statement by Captain Timothy O’Malley, the officer in charge of Waterville unit of the coast life-saving service, that he believed that the time between the alerting of the unit and the time they could fire a rocket to aid the vessel Seaflower in Kenmare Bay, would have been between one and a quarter and one and a half hours; and if this aspect was considered at the preliminary inquiry held following the tragedy.
He also asked the Minister for Transport and Power if he was aware that there had been widespread criticism of the manner in which the inquiry into the loss of the vessel Seaflower in Kenmare Bay was convened and held; and that notwithstanding the results of the preliminary inquiry, there was great concern over the insufficiency of the rescue efforts made on this occasion; if discussions had yet been held between the various agencies concerned to consider whether any improvements were called for and, if so, with what result.

In his reply, the Minister, Mr Childers, said: ‘A preliminary inquiry under section 465 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, normally takes the form of an investigation by a qualified inspector appointed by me and formal evidence is not taken in public. The main object of such a preliminary investigation is to determine whether a formal investigation by a court under section 466 of the Act should be held in public.

‘In the course of his inquiry, the inspector examined in particular whether the coast life-saving unit at Waterville could have rendered assistance. He was satisfied that they could not. In view of the various statements on this subject referred to in the Deputy’s questions, I had this aspect of the matter specially re-examined by the inspector of the coast life-saving service, who is a highly experienced master mariner and who has executive responsibility for the operation and training of the service.
‘He has reported to me that the distance between the Waterville coast life-saving station and the nearest point on land to wreck at Ardgroom was 63 miles, of which 2 miles was narrow coast road, quarter mile a boggy boreen and, finally, 400 yards on foot across bog and rock. Allowing for the necessary time to assemble the company and its gear, to locate the nearest suitable point to the wreck and to manhandle the gear to that point, he concludes that in the conditions prevailing the company would have done extremely well to be in a position to fire their first rocket within 4 hours of being alerted. I think the correctness of his conclusions will be as obvious to the Deputy as it is to me. It will be seen, therefore, that the statement attributed to the No.1 man of Waterville unit of the coast life-saving station is inaccurate and irresponsible.

‘Moreover, as I have already indicated, the vessel foundered at a point out of rocket range from the shore and the unit could have rendered no service, irrespective of the time of their arrival. The foregoing facts support the rightness of the decision of the duty officer of the marine Rescue Coordination Centre not to call out the Waterville unit of the coast life-saving service.

‘The adequacy and efficiency of the rescue services are kept under constant review. They have again been specially reviewed jointly by all the agencies concerned, who are satisfied that the services neglected no possible course of action which might have led to the rescue of the crew of the Seaflower and that no radical changes in existing arrangements are called for.

‘Among other findings of the review was that even if a helicopter had been standing by, it could not have given effective service because of the conditions of high wind and darkness.
‘May I end by stressing that safety at sea depends primarily on the care and prudence of sea-farers themselves and that no preventive measures or rescue services can be effective without their full cooperation? I am jointly considering with the Minister for Agriculture an Fisheries what further action we can take by educational measures and otherwise to bring home to all concerned in the fishing industry the importance of strict compliance with all safety regulations and procedures and the exercise of unremitting care.’

Mr S. D. Barrett: ‘Is the Minister aware that notwithstanding everything he has said to me, there is a feeling both in the County of Cork and the County of Kerry that the lives of the people on this vessel could have been saved, and the Minister’s refusal to hold a public inquiry is strengthening that impression? Having regard to those circumstances would the minister reconsider his decision not to hold a public inquiry and publicly to invite witnesses to come to that inquiry?’
Mr Childers: ‘This is not a borderline case at all where I might consider holding a public inquiry. The main fact is, as the Deputy should know, that a number of tragedies occur on our coast because our fishermen have not taken full advantage of advice available to them in regard to gale warnings or in some circumstances may not have lifebelts affixed or may not employ the use of rockets or their radios may have been out of order.

‘Now we have no knowledge about the circumstances that took place immediately prior to the sinking of this vessel, but I can say, without fear of contradiction, that the major factor in this is that this fishing vessel should never have gone to sea. If vessels go to sea under these circumstances there is no method by which we could ensure the safety of life at sea; there are no measures we could take. The major responsibility lies, in this case, on the fishermen who went to sea against advice and gale warnings given to them. I am absolutely certain about this and this joint committee of all the services – the naval service, the service of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, the coast life-saving service and all the other services – examined various possibilities for improving the life-saving service and none of the possible changes that might take place would have affected, as far as I can see, materially, the result in the case of this particular tragedy.’

Mr S.D. Barrett: ‘Is it not a fact that irrespective of the advisability or otherwise of this ship taking to sea, it was sitting on the rocks for hours and hours and hours and the crew literally died by inches? Would the Minister not consider if something could not have been done over that long period to rescue them from the predicament into which they possibly put themselves?’
Mr Childers: ‘I have already indicated to the Deputy that the coast life-saving service, even if there had been a unit at the site, could not have reached the vessel in the prevailing conditions. They could not have fired the rocket. A rocket does not travel that distance.’

Some time after the disaster the following poem was written by the late John O’Dwyer (Senior), Cailroe, Ardgroom, whose own older brother Robert, with four others, was drowned returning from seine fishing on the night of November 12th, 1918..

The Wreck of the Seaflower
The Eve was dark
When a fishing bark
Sailed out from Bunaw’s Quay
To venture west, o’er the ocean crest
To her home in Bantry Bay.
But the wild winds blew,
And the hapless crew
Soon met a tragic doom
For their vessel broke
On the white head rock
By the wild shores of Ardgroom

The fitful gale
Like thunder wailed
Above the swirling tide
And the fleecy brine
On the shores did shine
Like snow on a mountain side.
Like canons roar
From shore to shore
The dismal echoes rang
And through the night
The breakers white
Their death song loudly sang.

The vessel braved
The stormy waves
Like a seagull gliding o’er
And the youthful crew
No danger knew
As she swept by Pulleens shore
But she struck that rock
With a dreadful shock
That battered board and beam
And her hull and deck
Were a broken wreck
Ere the dawn o’er the ocean gleamed
In vain they signalled to the shore
In vain for help they sued
For the storm raged
That help forbade
With furious might pursued.
And they were left
With hope bereft
To the storm’s mercy there
And they thought of home
Where no more they’d roam –
By the grey green hills of Bere.

On the deck she swayed
While wind and wave
Swept o’er her drooping mast
And the waters roared
On the cabin floor
And her prow the wild waves lashed.
They grimly clung
To her battered side
Till not a board remained
And with life belts donned
They braved the tide
But they died on the stormy main.

O many a weary sigh was heard
And many a tear was shed
For those youthful souls
That now repose
In the regions of the dead.
And oft in days
Far far away
When time shall grief abate
Shall future men, relate again
The Seaflower’s lonely fate.

Courtesy of the Southern Star