The sea has shaped my life from Galway to Massachusetts
In 1953 my Navy boat got caught in the Great North Sea flood, which claimed the lives of 18,000 people. We were lucky to survive.
Patrick J Conneely: ‘One of the most memorable and scarier experiences I had in the Navy was in 1953 when on passage to Hamburg we ran into the Great North Sea flood, which became known as “the storm of the century”.’
Galway Civic Trust (Dúchas na Gaillimhe) is one of a number local bodies and agencies undertaking new initiatives to connect with the Irish diaspora. The Galway Tribal Diaspora Project is gathering and presenting the stories and life experiences of first-generation Galway emigrants at galwaytribaldiaspora.ie.
While each story has its own fascination and nuance, the account of Patrick J Conneely from Galway’s Claddagh area is particularly captivating. Patrick was born with salt water running through his veins. Hailing from a family who were steeped in a maritime tradition, the sea has shaped his life from his Galway roots through to his present home in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
I was born at New Docks at the harbour end of Long Walk on May 18th 1932. Our home which was built of wood and therefore known locally as ‘The Yankee House’ burnt to the ground in 1936 when I unintentionally set fire to it by lighting a newspaper while looking for a ball underneath my bed.
Our family then moved to the Claddagh where life was quite tough and I felt we were treated as outsiders. School also could be harsh and to my dying day I will never forget or forgive the brutal treatment of my fellow pupils at the Patrician School on Lombard Street. I myself was on the end of terrible beating when having been asked to bless myself in the Irish language, a classmate made me laugh by pulling faces behind the teacher’s back. So bad was the beating that I staggered home and spent a week lying on my stomach.
Happier times were spent on the ocean, however, and my sea time started a deck-boy or ‘Bucko’ on Galway trawlers working alongside my father who was a skipper and marine engineer. My job was to sort fish for market and by 10 years of age I was able to box a mariner’s compass. As I got a bit older my fond memories of Galway were of learning advanced navigation and piloting in the Sea Scouts from Captain Woolley on Galway Bay.
In 1950 I met my wife to be, Winnie Monaghan (from Water Lane, Bohermore) at Tofts Amusements in Eyre Square during race week. We were married in the US in 1954 where we settled and went on to have five children, four girls and one boy.
In 1951, I joined the Merchant Navy having received my official papers at Galway’s Custom House from the Ministry of Transport. This began a long career with the Navy which took me around the world and opened up many new experiences to me.
One of the most memorable and scarier experiences I had in the Navy was in 1953 when on passage to Hamburg we ran into the Great North Sea flood, which became known as “the storm of the century”. The storm claimed the lives of 18,000 people in Holland and left seaweed hanging from trees five miles inshore. Our ship lost power for three days and nights, and we were posted as missing. Luckily we came through, but my abiding memory is of waves like mountains and the sound of the wind which would make your skin crawl.
Winnie sadly died in 1996 after a battle with cancer. In her final days I wrote a poem for her entitled ‘The Sailor Boy’ which I recorded to music and which she would sing from her bed.
While visiting her grave a few years later I met a lady named Evelyn Crowe who was visiting her own husband’s grave and we struck up conversation. I agreed to write her a poem to help her deal with a grief and from this encounter we formed a relationship and were married some 16 years ago in St Peter’s Fisherman’s church in Plymouth, Massachusetts where we live. I took Evelyn on honeymoon to Galway, which I still visit. I always look forward to keeping in touch with my good friend Jimmy Duggan in College Road.
My days are now spent working with a labour of love of on my wonderful daughter’s sports fishing vessel, getting it ready for the season to come, writing more poems and enjoying recitations for various groups. I hope in a couple of years to visit my hometown of Galway agaub – even the salmon return to their place of birth.
Galway’s diaspora and their families can contribute to the project by emailing Galway Civic Trust’s development officer Michael Quinn at diaspora@galwaycivictrust. For more stories, see galwaytribaldiaspora.ie.