Ruling the waves – An Irishwoman’s Diary about the LÉ ‘Aisling’

Nicknamed “the last of the Mohicans”, as the final ship in its class built in Verolme, the LÉ “Aisling” set the bar under its first captain, the “Sheriff”, Lieut Cdr Peadar McElhinney. Photograph Joe O’Shaughnessy

Nicknamed “the last of the Mohicans”, as the final ship in its class built in Verolme, the LÉ “Aisling” set the bar under its first captain, the “Sheriff”, Lieut Cdr Peadar McElhinney. Photograph Joe O’Shaughnessy

 

Rosary beads. Tears. Crumpled photos of his brown-eyed young children. As performances go, the pleadings of a Spanish skipper on a heaving deck over the Porcupine Bank might have inspired Conrad or Melville or Patrick O’Brian.

Or Miguel de Cervantes, creator of Don Quixote, himself. Hand on his big, bold beating heart, Jose Fernandez Baston even brought up his own health record as he tried to convince a Naval Service boarding party from the LÉ Aisling that he had not broken the law.

He loved “Irlanda”, Baston insisted in staccato English on board the fishing vessel Dolupa, for this was where he had been treated for a suspected cardiac arrest just eight months before. “Rockall, Rockall”, he gesticulated, pointing north to explain the source for his full hold of hake, megrim and cod.

Unfortunately, his current location was several hundred miles south. And his net was wet, and several fish still in the mesh were mysteriously fresh. And so there was an air of Raging Bull about his reluctant surrender as he and his crew prepared for an unscheduled escort to the nearest garda on duty – in this case, west Cork’s Castletownbere.

Those were the days of the “Irish Box”, when the hungry fleets from Spain and Portugal had restricted access off the west coast to the biologically rich Irish waters for the first 10 years of their EU membership. Navy ships despatched from Cork harbour could endure those three-week fishery patrols, knowing the lucky breaks in port would be provided by those frequent detentions.

Nicknamed “the last of the Mohicans”, as the final ship in its class built in Verolme, the LÉ Aisling set the bar under its first captain, the “Sheriff”, Lieut Cdr Peadar McElhinney. So when the Defence Forces press office received a request from the Irish Skipper magazine to send this reporter to sea, there was only one ship for that particular berth.

The nonchalance of officers and crew as dinner plates regularly skidded off the table en route to the Porcupine is one abiding memory, as was the swimming feeling of wearing a survival suit three times my size.

There were few health and safety restrictions, and no time to train for that jump from rigid inflatable to boarding ladder in an Atlantic swell.

Capt McElhinney had, and still has, a passion for his calling, and a healthy disrespect for those dictating policy back on land. “That should be an Irish vessel out there,” he would mutter, binoculars pressed to his furrowed brow surveying the many Spanish on the grounds.

The Tyrone native had joined as a cadet when the fleet comprised three corvettes, and one of his early highlights was a dramatic encounter with a Russian vessel while commanding the LÉ Fola. He had also retrieved the gear after the Clogherhead prawn trawler Sharelga was sunk by a British submarine in the Irish Sea in 1981; and he had broken a fishermen’s blockade of Dublin port in 1982 without a single arrest.

The LÉ Aisling, known as a “happy ship”, would participate in much significant action, including the the capture of the IRA gun-runner Marita Ann in 1984, and the pursuit of the fishing vessel Sonia that same year after it tried to ram the ship during an attempted inspection. It assisted in the harrowing recovery of bodies from Air India Flight 182 when it exploded over Irish airspace in 1985.

Several weeks ago, the Aisling lost its “Long Éireannach” title as it was officially decommissioned in Galway docks.

Capt McElhinney was among former crew who attended the event, and was presented with a photo of the ship. There were not a few lumps in throats. The ship has been twinned with the city for 20 years, and successive crews have raised funds for the regional hospital’s children’s ward. Galway city councillor Pearce Flannery has called on the Government to keep it in the western port as a floating museum.

If that happens, though hardly likely in a country that has chronic amnesia about its coastal heritage, I might have to surrender a piece of booty. It is a brass case for a 20 mm shell, inscribed with my name and that of the Aisling, and once presented as a reward for surviving a week at sea. That trip took place some years before the admission of women to the Naval Service. It was a bit of a first, and a bit of a trial run.

And one with mixed results, perhaps, as it took another couple of decades before women were enlisted for duty at sea. But there was a touch of serendipity about the ship selected for the Naval Service’s first female commander, Lieut Cdr Roberta O’Brien. One bright morning in Galway, back in 2008, she took the helm of the LÉ Aisling.