Family's farewell to John who died in U-boat attack

VISIT TO ORKNEYS IS FIRST SINCE 1939 TRAGEDY

MARIA PEPPER

A BLACK-AND-WHITE photograph cherished by the Furlong family of Wexford shows a smiling, handsome 20-year-old man in a navy uniform.

The photo, right, of British Navy telegraphist John Joseph Furlong of St Magdalen's Terrace in Wexford was taken in the early summer of 1939 on board the HMS Royal Oak battleship stationed off the Orkney Islands in northern Scotland.

His face is alight with the happiness and excitement of a young man embarking on an adventurous career.

Six months after the picture was taken, he would be dead, along with hundreds of his combrades on the battleship which is now a designated war grave lying under the sea at Scapa Flow.

On October 14, 1939, a German U-boat under Commander Gunther Prien torpedoed the Royal Oak, killing 833 of the 1,234 crew on board.

The battleship was anchored in the strategically important area of Pentland Firth and up to Black Saturday, as the day of the attack became know, it was considered impossible for a submarine to break through.

John's death was a heartbreaking blow to his parents William and Margaret Furlong and his six siblings back in Wexford.

They had last seen their youngest son in June of that year when he came home on leave. He joined the British Navy a year before the Second World War broke out.

The family never got over the tragedy and the sense of sadness it engendered was passed down through the generations.

His sister Mabel Malone (née Furlong) of Maudlintown and Tuskar View often spoke about him to her children.

Mabel, who died five years ago at the age of 92, always regretted that her brother wasn't buried in Wexford soil or that no member of the family managed to make the trip to his watery grave in the Orkneys.

When she was on her deathbed, Mabel's daughter Marian Kelly promised her mother that she would make the journey.

Marian and her husband Noel, who live in Dublin, fulfilled the pledge recently when they went to Scapa Flow and laid a wreath on the water.

Marian also brought with her some Wexford soil which she scattered in the sea where the Royal Oak wreck has lain for 73 years.

On the anniversary of the Royal Oak sinking yesterday (Monday), Marian said the family now has a feeling that John is at peace.

'We never knew him but growing up we all had a great sense of love for this young man. That is true for all my cousins,' said Marian of her uncle.

'Members of Mabel's family laid poppies on her grave in Crosstown cemetery to mark the anniversary.

'He was the youngest in the family and they were devastated by his death at the age of 20,' said Marian.

'None of the family ever got to Orkney and before my mother died, I promised her that some day I would make the trip.'

'I remember visiting the family grave with my mother and her saying how she wished that John could have been buried under Wexford soil.'

'I took some with me and cast it on the water over the wreck along with the wreath in order to fulfill her wishes,' said Marian.

Her pilgrimage to the Orkneys has brought a sense of consolation for the entire Furlong family.

' Throughout the trip we were in constant contact with the extended family who were with us in spirit every step of the way. All his brothers and sisters have passed away but his nieces and nephews all shared in that wish to honour him and give him love,' said Marian.

The welcome she and her husband received in Orkney was heartwarming.

'We grew up with a sense of him lying far from home, forgotten by all but his family.'

'Nothing could have prepared us for what we experienced when we arrived.'

' The warmth and generosity of spirit we encountered was overwhelming.'

The couple were shown around Orkney by Agnes McBarron, co-ordinator of the Royal Oak Survivors' Association, and her husband Jimmy.

' They couldn't do enough for us. They took us to all the places associated with HMS royal Oak and the pieces of the jigsaw finally fitted together,' said Marian.

They saw John's name on the official monument at St Magnus Cathedral and left his photograph in a memorial garden.

His name is also inscribed on the memorial in Kilmore Quay comemmorating Wexford people who have lost

their lives at sea.

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