The Plassey Shipwreck
April 23, 2010
Fifty years ago this year, on March 8th 1960, an event occurred which forever changed the path of history for the residents of Inis Oirr, the smallest Aran Island. The Plassey, a cargo ship sailing between Fenit, Co. Kerry and Galway Harbor with a shipload of general cargo got into trouble of the islands southern tip, known locally as Gob Na Curradh. After half an hour struggling against viscous southeasterly winds the crewmen lost control of the vessel, which was thrown up on The Finnish Rock. Moves were taken to abandon ship but the small lifeboat got away from the 11 men aboard and they were now stranded on the rocks off of the tiny island.
The Inis Oirr of that day was a world apart, not only the Aran of now but also the Ireland of the time with no cars, no electricity and, in the words of Michael Anthony O Donnell (72), one of the few surviving members of the team that rescued the crewmen; “There was no talk of toilets in that day.”
The alarm was raised on the island and residents of the most isolated village, An Formna, began to gather by the shore. “There was talk of going out in a currach and go along side her but the weather had started to get worse,” said Peader Poil the first man to spot the ship in trouble. The Galway Bay lifeboat was 11 hours away at Clegin dealing with another rescue so it was left to the island’s cliff & coast rescue team to save the men.
Known as the rocket team they were raised from their beds by the launching of a mortar gun known as the maroon, which was shot up into the air like a firework and released a thunderous clap. The fifteen men rushed in the pitch black to the rescue station and had to carry, by cart, the rocket apparatus used in the rescue the mile and a half distance to where the ship had come a ground.
“It was a bitch of a morning” say’s O’Donnell.“There were no roads on the island at the time, just dirt roads that were covered in sand. And four times, from when we left the station at the west village to when we got to Gub na Corradh, we got stuck in it.”
Blinded by the whirling sand, once they reached Tra Caorach, around 300 yards from the rocket’s launch site, they had to ditch the cart and carry the apparatus by hand over the boulder like terrain.
The conditions were treacherous with slippy rocks, covered in seaweed. In this appalling weather the men were now to attempt the first breeches buoy rescue in the history of the state. To save the men of the Plassey the rocket team had to fire a rocket over the ship, attached to which was a very light line which pulled a heavier rope out. Tied to it was the breaches buoy, similar to a pair of canvas trousers, which came up to the armpits of whoever sat into it. They would then be pulled ashore by the rocket team through the freezing cold Atlantic.
With winds howling at 60mph the rescue team were half blinded making it difficult to set the apparatus up or even see the ship. The first two shots launched fell short at the last moment, veering sharply shoreward before plunging into the water off of the ship’s bow. With limited rockets the crew were aware if they didn’t make contact with the Plassey within the first few attempts the crewmen could die. They moved the rocket to a more advantageous position, aimed & fired and the third time really did prove lucky as the arrow went straight through the mast.
A Plassey crewman hiked up and secured the rope to which the breaches buoy was attached and signaling to shore that they were ready the Plassey crewman sat one by one into to the breaches before being hauled a shore by the rocket team.
Antony Keane, a resident of the Formna, was there that morning. “ Ah the creatures, they ended up under two feet of water coming in. The water lifted them and threw them this way and that and weren’t the lads shouting at them to brace their legs so they wouldn’t break them on the rocks.”
Members of the rocket team braved giant, icy grey waves wading out to their waist to grab the men of the Plassey, pulling them to where the villagers would warm them up with whiskey before taking them to food and warmth. There own clothes soaked through, the men were given local garb-pampooties, heavy woolen socks and home spun trousers- which would have been very different from the fashion of the day.
It took 20 minutes per crew member to drag each man in and four and a half hours after she had left it, the apparatus was returned safely to the rocket house without loss of life or injury. There was only one thing left to be done.
“We drank the island dry,” says Antony Keane. “It was lent at the time but there was no talk of lent that night. We went over the first night from the house, lord save us, it was blowing like mad but we made our way over to the shop which was where the pub was then.”
Many of the Plassey crewmen had gotten paid the night before and warmed their drenched paychecks above the fire before drinking them down.
It was about a fortnight before the weather settled and the islanders could get close enough to the ship to salvage what they could. When the spring tides came in and the Plassey dried out, the Islanders boarded her, at low tide and then again at night brandishing flash lamps, taking what they needed from the hold. Poodle wool in large wicker baskets, timber & doors for the new houses being built at the time and bottles of Black & White scotch (which were hidden in the potato patches for fear they be taken by customs) were just some of the bounty found.
Refrigeration pipes that ran all the way around the whole ship were cut into sections to make gates, while the shoes which were scattered all over the hold were taken, with neighbors having to trade right feet for left, trying to find a pair that matched.
A sermon was delivered from the altar warning the islanders to not take anything from the ship, “and sure wasn’t that when the stealing started” says Keane whose watch mate went missing for two hours only to be found in a local field with three big bags of Black & White.
Perhaps a comeuppance then for the islanders when the customs officer finally made it, bringing with him a flue which knocked the whole island leaving only one or two residents untouched.
In the intervening years the ship wreck has become a tourist attraction and a jungle gym for the younger islanders who climbed the mast at the centre, egging each other on to put their hand on the top, or sit on it, or stand. There is a feeling that she should be pulled down but Peader Ward, Vice President of the Maritime Institute of Ireland thinks the cost of such an operation makes it unlikely. “The reality is that any ship that’s wrecked in that manner is rarely worth salvaging. And isn’t she part of the landscape and the scenery now. A monument to the achievement of what those men did that morning.”
The Breaches Buoy and the photos of the rescue can be viewed at the National Maritime Museum of Ireland when it re-opens in Dun Laoighre in September 2010.
WORD COUNT: 1,167