The shadow of a gunboat
An Irishman’s Diary about Ireland’s first naval patrol vessel
“Maybe the decade of centenaries will shed new light on the process by which the gunboat Helga was handed over to a young Free State to become the Muirchú, or “Sea Dog”, and henceforth defend the integrity of the territorial waters. It was surely a dark joke by our departing overlords.”
I can understand writers being upset at the new policy of naming naval patrol ships after Samuel Beckett and James Joyce. No doubt some naval patrollers aren’t happy either. Yet in terms of inapt symbolism, it pales in comparison to the choice of what was the first and for many years only patrol vessel of independent Ireland.
Maybe the decade of centenaries will shed new light on the process by which the gunboat Helga was handed over to a young Free State to become the Muirchú, or “Sea Dog”, and henceforth defend the integrity of the territorial waters. It was surely a dark joke by our departing overlords.
The Helga had started out in fishery patrol, yes. But its defining role in Irish history was to shell rebel Dublin during Easter Week. And had it at least performed that task with surgical precision, it might have been spared some subsequent infamy. Instead, required to target the insurgents in Liberty Hall (who were gone by then anyway), it destroyed much of the surrounding city centre, and beyond.
Somewhere in the National Museum is a shell from the Helga that went through the roof of a storehouse in Mountjoy jail. So George Bernard Shaw wasn’t exaggerating too much when, touring France some time later, to witness the effects of two years of artillery bombardment, he joked that mainland Europe had escaped lightly compared with Dublin under the Helga.
A partial excuse for the gunboat’s inaccuracy was that it needed to fire over the Loop Line railway bridge. But that only makes things worse. The devastation to Dublin’s architecture was arguably compounded by the fact that the ugly bridge survived.
After other adventures including the sinking of a U-boat, the Helga became the Muirchú and spent the rest of its life defending Irish sovereignty, a role for which it was never quite adequate.
The ship was probably not as incompetent as Jimmy O’Dea, some opposition politicians, and other comedians of the 1920s and 30s liked to pretend. It could do about 15 knots, for one thing – enough, contrary to public opinion, to outrun continental fishing trawlers.
But adding to the lingering ignominy of Easter Week was the embarrassing fact that from the foundation of the State until the mid-1930s, it didn’t have a gun. Instead, whenever ordering an invasive vessel to heel, its officers had to bluff – sometimes rigging up the ship’s boiler to make it look like a weapon.
That indignity at least was ended under the de Valera administration, although even with its fangs restored, the “Sea Dog” would have had its work cut out to police Dev’s 1937 Constitution, with its claim to all of Ireland, its islands, and territorial waters.
In any case, the Muirchú was eventually replaced, in 1947, by a number of corvettes. And it was headed for the scrapyard – Dublin’s Hammond Lane foundry – before fate intervened, spectacularly.
The ship’s tragicomic demise is well described in the memoirs of Brian Inglis (who wrote the Irishman’s Diary for a period after the war before the notorious pressures of that job got to him and he retired to an easier life in England, editing the Spectator and presenting television programmes).
Inglis was supposed to accompany the boat on its last voyage, from dry dock in Cobh to Dublin. In the event, they didn’t make it past Waterford. The Muirchú lost rivets during the relaunch and, a few hours out to sea, was taking in water at the bow (the front end) and listing heavily. Someone suggested turning the boat and reversing it into retirement. But that only exacerbated the problem.
Soon it was sinking. So they launched the lifeboat. Which, after a series of bad decisions by a makeshift crew, ended up vertical, suspended by a davit, with its passengers hanging onto to the seats, in Inglis’s description, “as if to the rungs of a ladder”.
Somehow they finally made it to the safety of a waiting fishing trawler, while the old “Sea Dog” went to a salty grave (or even a Saltee one, if we’re being geographical). And so doing, it made one last small piece of history.
Like most journalists of his generation, Inglis had always gone by a pseudonym, or complete anonymity, in the newspaper. Such was the drama of the Muirchú’s end, however, his editor decreed a change of policy. The story should appear with a “byline”, it was decided. And so, via the old Helga, Inglis saw his named launched for the first time into the main paper, a surgical strike on page one.