For every Naval Officer, Captain, Mate or other ships officer for whom official records are discoverable in repositories in the UK and Ireland, there were significantly more boatswains, able seamen, ordinary seamen, cooks, stewards, firemen and trimmers, donkeymen, greasers, lamp trimmers and cabin boys, whose life histories were rarely fully recorded and thus fade into oblivion the further generations become distanced from the sea
Add to that those that worked and lived in the vicinity of harbours like Dún Laoghaire, such as boat builders, hobblers, sail makers, riggers, harbour constables, Customs Officers, dock workers, office staff, Irish Lights personnel, ferry crews, Coast Guards, RNLI volunteers, Royal Navy and Merchant Navy sailors, fisherman and the professional crews of racing yachts a century ago, all generating an incredible array of personal experiences worth rediscovering to breathe life into harbour walls that cannot speak.
Few such personnel committed their extraordinary exploits to paper and the memorabilia to reconstruct their lives often lies hidden in drawers and attics only surfacing after the demise of a senior family member and donated to museums where space is at a premium resulting in storage rather than display, somewhat frustrating the donors intent.
However, the National Maritime Museum’s digital imaging equipment, grant aided by Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council, offers an innovative approach to celebrating personal stories. A single advertisement in the Dun Laoghaire Gazette featuring the 56 foot trawler Ard Gillen in the 1960’s yielded a treasure trove of historic material, resulting in individual story boards with digitised images and minimal text to tell the tale. The story of John Furlong illustrates the remarkable fortunes of one extremely lucky young local seaman in the first four months of 1917.
Nineteen year old John Furlong discharged from SS Bray Head on 23rd January 1917 which was subsequently sunk by gunfire from U-44 on 14th March 1917 with the loss of 21 crewmembers. Family lore has him aboard SS Inishowen Head on 14th February 1917 when she struck a mine off the Welsh coast with one casualty. He then joined the SS Torr Head which was sunk by U-60 on 20th April 1917, on a voyage from St. John, New Brunswick in Canada to Dublin, with no casualties. The cryptic card to his parents on arrival in Canada betrays little of his traumatic experiences but speaks volumes.
Many similar extraordinary stories reflecting the personal contributions of local mariners to the social and economic fabric of their communities, which have never seen the light of day, deserve retelling for posterity and, in John Furlong’s case, where better than in the National Maritime Museum in his home town of Dún Laoghaire.
For more details of the National Maritime Museum’s events and exhibitions go to www.mariner.ie
Author : Richard Mc Cormick, President, Maritime Institute of Ireland