Fort Berehaven taken over by Irish Army 1938

This article looks at the Second World War Years in Beara and the arrival of the Irish Army Base in Bere Island as told by an old friend and neighbour, the late John O’Donoghue who was one of the first sections of the Army to take over from the British on the Island. John was a native of Cork City retired from the army with the rank of Sergeant.

He met and married his late wife Mary (O'Neill) who was a local girl and the family lived at Foildarrig, Castletownbere for a long number of years. John became well known in Beara as a keen angler on river, lake or sea. He was also secretary of the Beara Angling Club.

The following is John's story:
In 1938 the people of Ireland were delighted and proud to see the Irish flag flying over our Forts in Cork Harbour, Lough Swilly and Fort Berehaven in Bere Island. War clouds were gathering over Europe, Hitler had built a mighty army, air force and navy, and one year later on September 1st, 1939 the second World War broke out, England declared war on Germany and so began six terrible years of suffering and killing in Europe. The older generation in Ireland, will, like me, remember the hard times such as the rationing of all food stuffs and petrol, no coal, the blackouts and the censorship of foreign mail. Unemployment was rampant and there were very few hand-outs then. It was a wonderful achievement and great statesmanship on the part of our then Taoiseach that the State had regained control of the ports and his declaration of Ireland's neutrality. In 1940 things looked very serious for the country and a national emergency was declared. England wanted to get back possession of the Forts as refuelling bases for its navy. Churchill threatened to take them back, by force if necessary. And so the call to arms came, and thousands of our young men joined the defence forces. The result of this-two divisions - fully armed and trained - all in the space of one year - a wonderful achievement indeed.
The Forts were referred to in army terms as - Coast Defence Artillery (CDA) and in Bere Island many young lads joined the army and served there for the duration of the war; it was a great honour for me to get to know them and to serve as a comrade in arms.

It was a big challenge at that time for us army personnel to take over and learn the skills of firing and maintaining the big 6" guns, this we did with great results, because in 1945 we won the coveted Dunboy trophy. This was a trophy presented to the best CDA unit in Southern Command with the highest marks in gunnery competition and other skills, and it is now located in the officers mess in the 1st Field Artillery Regiment, Ballincollig Barracks. I had the pleasure of holding it in my hand once again on the 25th August this year, 45 years later.

The men who served in Bere Island came from all counties in Ireland, as the song so aptly puts it "north men, south men, comrades all" and a wonderful esprit-de-corps existed among all ranks with a great sense of loyalty and discipline at all times. When Beara won the County Football Championship in 1940, the army was there to help with such great players as Donal O'Sullivan, Louis O'Sullivan, John McCaffery, Gene Brannigan and Paddy Mullen. Bere Island too had a great football team which included several players from the army, many of whom went on to represent Cork in Munster finals. At local levels, what thrilling matches were played in the old football pitch at Droum against such teams as Urhan, Garnish, Castletownbere and Adrigole. I can well remember all those great players and the wonderful enjoyment they gave to their loyal supporters.

Entertainment on the island was very limited, and to pass the long dreary winter nights we formed our own drama group - all produced, directed and performed by army personnel under the expert coaching of Captain Fitzgerald from Cobh. The "Down Express", and "the Golden Priest" were among some of the plays we performed in and they were played in halls in Ardigole, Castletownbere and Glengarriff, where they were well received. Boxing was another of our special interests and some exciting tournaments were staged in the recreation hall in the barracks. Two very good boxers came to mind, namely. Peter Carleton from Cork City and Dr Dennehy, from Listowel who put on an exhibition fight which was top class.

The army, like everyone else at that time, had to provide their own fuel, so it was decided by the powers that be, to cut its own turf. A bog was rented from Eugene Dunne in Finaha, Castletownbere and in June 1941, thirty of us arrived there fully equipped with spades and cleans to cut 300 tons of turf, but oh at what a cost. One night, towards the end of August, a severe thunderstorm came, tearing and leveling our bell tents, leaving us wet, cold and miserable. The next day was fine and sunny, so we dried our belongings as best we could. We moved into a cattle shed at the back of Dunne's house, where conditions were, to say the least, a bit primitive. The turf was finally dry and it was taken by army lorries to Furious Pier where it was reeked prior to shipping to Rerrin Pier on Bere Island.
The first load of twelve tons arrived on the island in PJ Murphy's barge, which was an open boat, easy to load and unload. That night a sentry at Lonehart reported a huge fire at Furious Pier, and by the time the firefighting service arrived there, the most of the turf was in ashes and the remainder had fallen into the sea. That ended the cutting of turf by the army in Beara. Turf was purchased from the Cork County Council in the following years also timber was purchased from Dunboy Estate. The port of Castletownbere was closed to all shipping during those war years, but should an emergency arise, such as a sick person aboard a ship who required medical attention, or of a ship needing urgent repairs, then entry and a twenty four hour stay was allowed. The observance and entry of vessels was carried out by a detachment of soldiers stationed at the Lighthouse and in the West End of Bere Island. They also were on the look out for air craft and floating magnetic mines, and when such were seen they were reported to the Fort Commander in the East End of the Island where the big guns were located.

Many magnetic mines were laid around the south west coast of Ireland on the moan shipping lines. Sometimes due to gales and rough seas many of them broke away and drifted into Bantry Bay where they were a great danger because if they came within a certain range of a ship the magnetism would draw the mine causing it to explode. Likewise if the mine touched a rock or shore land it would also go off causing considerable destruction. Army marksmen with rifles and armour piercing bullets fired at and destroyed many such mines. I, myself, while on a tour of duty at the Lighthouse, saw one such mine drifting in the harbour towards us, but as the tide turned it changed course and moved in under the Piper Rocks where it exploded sending tons of water and rock inland for hundreds of yard, the noise was absolutely deafening and it brought home to us the horror of war and all its consequences.
The Taoiseach Mr De Valer, came to visit the Fort in 1943 and a big military show was laid on for him, such as guard of honour and target practice out at sea with a great degree of accuracy. He inspected all our positions of the scheme of defence in the event of an attack and complimented us on our achievements. In the same year during the month of August, at about sunset a heavy mist came rolling in from the sea covering the whole peninsula in a thick blanket of fog, and the noise of a large aircraft was heard as it passed low over the Fort in an easterly direction, however, it changed course to the North West and soon afterwards news came via the Gardai in Castletownbere that a plane had crashed in the mountains above Goulane, and immediate assistance was requested.

Twenty men from the Fort left within the hour and brought medical supplies, stretchers etc to the scene of the crash where they remained all night. The following morning the full horror was revealed as the bodies of the eight member crew were recovered from the mountain side, and brought by stretchers down the steep incline to the nearest road. The ill fated plane was a British Air Force Liberator which had left Ballykelly Airfield on a reconnaissance mission off of the South West coast of Ireland and on its return flew too low in the dense fog and tore into the side of the mountain. The bodies of the dead airmen were conveyed by road to the LDF Hall in Castletownbere. They were later taken from there to the Border accompanied by a party of army personnel from Collins Barracks, Cork.
I visited the crash site in 1983, forty years later - where a very impressive ceremony took place. A plaque was erected at the site and a detailed talk about the tragedy was given by Mr Victor Sullivan. The Last Post and the Reveille were sounded by one of the relatives of the deceased airmen and prayers were said for the repose of their souls.

To conclude my memories of the "Emergency" as those years 1939 to 1945 were called, thousands of men were demobbed from the defence forces. Fort Berehaven closed at the end of 1945 and the remaining officers; NCO's and men were transferred to Fort Mitchell (Spike Island). I look back now and remember the wonderful comrades of those eventful bygone years and feel proud to have served my country with such loyal and wonderful companions
Courtesy of the Southern Star