Minister praises merchant seamen's courage and presents valour awards

Mr Ossie Bennet was on the ship's galley making a cup of tea when the first shell landed behind the propeller

Mr Ossie Bennet was on the ship's galley making a cup of tea when the first shell landed behind the propeller. "The second came down on the deck about two feet from me," he said. "But luckily it didn't explode."

Lucky for Kilkenny hurling as well. The former seaman, whose 10 years in the merchant navy took in the second World War, went on to train six all-Ireland winning teams for the Leinster county.

Now 84, the veteran sportsman, who once held county titles in boxing, cycling and athletics, yesterday received another award to add to his trophy cabinet - a medal of valour for serving on Irish vessels during "the Emergency".

"They were tough times," recalled the Cork man, "especially working in the engine room where you'd be roasted alive. I remember one time running down to the West Indies for sugar and it must have been well over 100 degrees inside. If you put your hand on a side railing you'd have it burnt off."


But there was also adventure and excitement, he said. "When we stopped in Montreal one time, they were looking for a contender to fight the heavyweight champion of Canada. I fought him and beat him in eight rounds."

Twenty other merchant seamen were honoured at yesterday's ceremony, five of whom were present to receive their awards from the Minister of State for Marine and Natural Resources, Mr Hugh Byrne. They were Mr Roger Bolger from Wexford, and four Dubliners: Mr Patrick Byrne, Mr James Stuart, Mr Joseph Carr, and Mr Thomas McEnneff, who collected his own award and an award for his father, John McEnneff.

The two had served together during the war on vessels such as the Irish Plane, Irish Beach and Irish Poplar.

The remainder included five seamen who gave their lives in wartime service. Their awards, and those of seamen who had died since the war, were presented to next of kin.

Mr Byrne praised the "courage, dedication and supreme sacrifices" of the recipients. "Their remarkable deeds, in the face of the gravest danger, kept crucial supply lines to Ireland open to ensure we had food, clothing, fuels and other essentials during those years. These men have secured their place among our finest patriots."

"My heart aches when I see the people who I served with and when I see the names of those who died. It brings it all back," said Mr McEnneff.

"You'd be 16, 18 days from port sometimes. It was a lot of hard work and sweat but there was great camaraderie. I sailed with many men and I can safely say that not one gave any trouble."

Among the other recipients were three brothers, Michael, Thomas and William Murphy from Passage West, Co Cork, who served on a range of vessels including the Irish Willow, Irish Rose, Irish Alder, Irish Fir, Irish Elm, Irish Cedar and Irish Ash. Their awards were collected by family members.

Posthumous awards were also bestowed on: Thomas Foley from Cork; Francis O'Sullivan from Dublin; James McLean from Dublin; Patrick Farrell and Patrick Shortt, both Dubliners, who were lost at sea from the Isolda; William Byrne from Dublin; James Crosbie from Wexford, lost at sea from the Cymric; John Murray from Wexford; Stephen Smith from Wexford, lost at sea from the Irish Pine; Patrick Sweeney from Meath; and Tony Pill, a UK national who was lost at sea from the Leukos.

Yesterday's was the fifth such ceremony at which wartime seamen were honoured. Survivors or relatives of seamen who served during the war are invited to contact the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources to participate in future ceremonies.

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times and writer of the Unthinkable philosophy column