A priceless vessel sails into history

 

Just over a year after delivery, it was to make the first of many contributions to recent history. On November 24th, 1973, all leave was cancelled for its crew, and it began taking on extra arms and ammunition. The following day, with Garda personnel, it patrolled the south coast, in tandem with the LE Grainne and LE Fola - two former patrol ships.

It has been a rock 'n roller, with emphasis on the long, slow roll. The Naval Service ship, LE Deirdre, buried its bow in the swell around Mizen Head on many an occasion during its 30-year-life. That life comes to an official end next Friday, when the ship is formally decommissioned by the Minister for Defence, Michael Smith, in Cork harbour. With 449,631 nautical miles on its "clock", it has steamed the equivalent of 20 circumnavigations of the world.

By rights, it should have had another few months at sea before its "sell-by" date of 2002. However, it is being tied up early to make room, and provide crew, for a new Naval Service ship due for delivery shortly, LE Niamh. The Department of Defence is expected to advertise the sale of LE Deirdre shortly by tender; no value has, as yet, been put on the hull.

For many who served on it, the Deirdre is a priceless vessel - cursed for its high centre of gravity which has tested the toughest stomachs, and praised for its contribution to the security of the State since it was handed over to the Naval Service in May,1972. It was, the service says, "leagues ahead" of any ship that came before it, because it was the first custombuilt vessel for the fleet.

"As if aware of her special status, LE Deirdre was seen to perform a deep curtsey as she entered the water for the first time from Verolme Cork Dockyard," a brochure prepared for its decommissioning states. (Here it should be pointed out that Irish Times house style precludes me from classifying it by gender!)

For once, senior non-commissioned officers and officers were given single-berth cabins, and there was a move away from the cramped conditions of many earlier craft. It has been refitted at various stages over the past three decades - to reduce noise levels, to allow for female crew, and to cope with drainage problems. On one "memorable occasion", the Naval Service says with some understatement, the seas poured into accommodation alleyways on the lower decks. Presumably, the crew responded with measured calm and good humour. Other "idiosyncracies" were of a "minor nature", it says, and "added to our fondness for her". Some crew have developed more affection than others - its chef, Able Cook Paddy Kinsella, has been in the galley for almost 30 years and will have the distinction of cooking the last meal on board, while the radio officer, Petty Officer George O'Driscoll, has been with it for almost 18 years. The ship's last executive officer, Lieut Martin Brett, is son of its first captain, former Flag Officer, Commodore Liam Brett (retired).

Just over a year after delivery, it was to make the first of many contributions to recent history. On November 24th, 1973, all leave was cancelled for its crew, and it began taking on extra arms and ammunition. The following day, with Garda personnel, it patrolled the south coast, in tandem with the LE Grainne and LE Fola - two former patrol ships.

Then came the report from a Nimrod aircraft, using the reference, Dandoline. This was code-name for a vessel under surveillance, which was sighted on the 12mile limit. At 21.20 hours on Tuesday, November 27th, 1973, Dandoline approached Dungarvan Bay and was met by a smaller craft.

LE Deirdre sent a boarding party to the ship just over half an hour later. The vessel's name was Claudia, and it had one of the largest arms' hauls on board, bound for the IRA - five tons of arms and explosive on board, including 250 rifles, 244 revolvers, 250 sub-machine guns, 100 antitank mines, 100 cases of anti-personnel mines, 5,000 lbs of explosive and cortex fuse, and 500 hand-grenades.

In 1977, the ship made its mark again, when it made an unusual fisheries arrest. By this stage, Ireland was in the European Economic Community, fishermen had been pushing for a 50-mile limit, and the small Naval Service was coming to grips with patrolling one of the community's largest and most fish-rich sea areas. the Dutch decided to test the reality of this Irish limit, which was subsequently abandoned under pressure from the EU.

The LE Deirdre came across nine Dutch trawlers and a hospital ship off the Old Head of Kinsale, 45 miles inside the limit, and boarded one - the FV Monica. The Dutch captain refused to haul gear and leave Irish waters, and told the LE Deirdre the hospital ship, De Hoop was in charge of the fleet. So the patrol ship captain, Lieut-Cdr Michael Murphy, arrested the lot - 10 vessels in all.

The LE Deirdre has its links with tragedy. In 1979, it was involved in the Fastnet yacht race rescue, after gale-force south-westerly winds struck the fleet of over 302 competing craft on August 13th. The LE Deirdre located and stood by 17 yachts in distress. It gave direct assistance to six vessels. Some 15 lives were lost, and 23 yachts abandoned, in one of the worst accidents in offshore yacht racing history.

A plaque mounted on the ship's bridge also marks another sad event. On January 30th, 1990, a Spanish fishing vessel which had been previously detained on fisheries offences in these waters ignored a storm warning, put to sea and ran aground on the rocks of Roancarrigbeg in Bantry Bay. In response to the distress call, the LE Deirdre despatched Leading Seaman Michael Quinn and Able Seaman Paul Kellett in the ship's inflatable Gemini to see if a rescue was feasible. Conditions were too rough, the Gemini turned back and capsized in a large wave. Able Seaman Kellett made it to the rocks and scrambled ashore, but Leading Seaman Quinn drowned. The Spanish crew were subsequently rescued by helicopter, and Leading Seaman Quinn's body was found the next day.

The King of Spain awarded a Spanish Cross of Naval Merit to Seaman Kellett and it was given posthumously to Leading Seaman Quinn. It was the first fatality of a Naval Service crew member on duty.