LÉ Eithne prepares to return to Mediterranean

Mission to save migrants having an emotional impact, says Lieutenant


The Naval Service vessel the LE Eithne is preparing to return to the southern Mediterranean. The ship has been in the Sicilian port of Palermo being resupplied after successfully rescuing at sea 637 would-be migrants from north Africa to Europe.

“We just want to get back out there,” Lieutenant Shane Mulcahy, the Eithne’s Search and Rescue Co-ordinating Officer, told The Irish Times in a telephone interview from the ship this morning.

He said the mission to save migrants, most of whom take to the sea from Libya in unseaworthy craft of varying sizes and are trying to reach Europe, was uplifting and rewarding and was having an emotional impact of all involved.

“It’s uplifting after you’ve had a chance to think about what we’ve done. When you’re in the moment, it’s quite difficult to see [the scale of events],” he said.

Lt Mulcahy (28), who is married and lives in Watergrasshill in Cork, is a member of the Eithne’s 67-strong crew, to which has been added two Army medics.

Prior to returning to port last weekend, the ship rescued, in quick succession over several hours, 201 people pulled from rubber dinghies, then over 300 people who were crammed into a wooden barge, followed by a further 100 plus people.

He said the deck of the LÉ Eithne – the largest deck of any Naval Service vessel – was covered, inch by inch, with rescued migrants as the ship ferried them to land where the Italian authorities take over.

He described the migrants as coming from all walks of life and what appears to be a variety of socio-economic backgrounds.

“Some people come on board with no shoes and are so weak from dehydration that they have to be lifted on board. Then there are others who, once on board, whip out mobile phones and start taking pictures. It’s amazing the differences,” said Lt Mulcahy.

Lt Mulcahy was on board one of the LÉ Eithne’s ribs (rigid inflatable boats) that helped rescue migrants from the sea last Thursday and Friday.

“They are really quite scared,” he says of the migrants in general. “They are not sea-going people, they don’t really understand the peril they put themselves in.”

He said communication was difficult because of the language barrier between the rescuing Naval Service personnel and the migrants, most of whom do not speak English.

“(But) it’s in the Irish nature to try to communicate and put people at ease and we try to do that,” he said.

Ireland is participating in what is a European Union, Italian co-ordinated, effort to rescue migrants from the sea. The mission includes Italian, British and German ships and, separately, there are also more militarily robust efforts to stymie the traffickers who are believed to be fuelling the flow of migrants. Ireland is not involved in the later operation.

The reaction of the Eithne’s crew to the challenge had been “phenomenal” said Lt Mulcahy, citing examples of crew members bringing to the ship blankets from their own homes prior to leaving Ireland, and the enthusiasm, care and energy with which they were approaching the task of rescuing and then looking after the migrants.

“It’s really impressive,” he said.

Prior to deployment in the Area of Operation, which is some 45 to 60 kilometres off the Libyan coast, the crew practiced already well-honed search and rescue skills en route, especially skills involving pulling distressed people from small craft or directly from the water.

“The other nations [on the mission] are really impressed with the level of efficiency of our small boat operations which we do a lot of in Irish waters,” said Lt Mulcahy, adding that both the Italian Navy and Britain’s Royal Navy had both been particularly helpful.

The LÉ Eithne has been equipped with deck awnings to protect rescued migrants from the sun, large tanks of drinking water for them, the seconded Army medics plus medical supplies and enough food to feed everyone rescued.

Expecting to sail later this afternoon, Lt Mulcahy said their four days in port had been taken up by a day to disembark all the rescued migrants, a day to clean the ship, a day to resupply and a day’s leave.

“That’s enough time to recuperate,” he said.