independent

Monday 25 March 2019

A terrible loss... and incredible story of survival

Named after a mysterious benefactor, the Helen Blake lifeboat sank during a rescue attempt off the Wexford coast with the loss of nine locals. David Looby reports on a new book which tells of the tragedy and the bravery

Wreck of the Mexico painting by Brian Cleare
Wreck of the Mexico painting by Brian Cleare
Survivors of the Helen Blake
Heroes of the Helen Blake

One hundred and five years ago tomorrow (Wednesday) the Fethard on Sea lifeboat, Helen Blake, sank with the loss of nine local men while going to the aid of the crew of a ship which had been wrecked on the Keeragh Islands.

Now, for the first time, in a new book by Fethard-on-Sea resident Brendan Power, the definitive story has been told.

It is a story that has been handed down through the generations; a story that always started on February 20, 1914, when the boat sank, and ended three days later when the 15 survivors were rescued from the Keeraghs.

The book, Heroes of the Helen Blake, starts over a hundred years earlier when a young girl, Helen Sheridan, from Claremorris in County Mayo met and eloped with British army officer Lieutenant-General Robert Dudley Blake. They married in Scotland and then set up home in the grandiose Handcross Hall in Sussex.

The book details their life as socialites in Georgian and Victorian London, where they maintained a townhouse, and asks the question of where their huge wealth came from.

When Helen died in 1876 she left an estate valued in today's terms at around €17,000,000, an unsigned will, and a mystery that has never been solved - who was she?

Despite diligent searches by genealogists and treasure hunters over the years, no birth certificate has ever been found and no blood relatives have ever been traced. She has been described as an enigma wrapped in a mystery.

Claimants to her fortune - known as the Blake Millions - emerged from around the world, all asserting their relationship, but none of them provided any evidence to back up their claims. Every one of them was unsuccessful and the bulk of Helen's money remains with the British Treasury. The government did, however, honour some of the bequests in the unsigned will, including money to provide two lifeboats for Ireland, one of which went to Fethard on Sea.

Mexico, the Norwegian schooner which was shipwrecked on the Keeraghs, had left South America in November the previous year.

The book recalls the crews' perilous fifteen week crossing of the Atlantic during which it twice lost its rudder and came close to capsizing on numerous occasions.

On February 20, 1914 the lives of the people of the small fishing village of Fethard thousands of miles away were changed irrevocably. Five young men from the short road to Fethard dock perished after they were flung from the Helen Blake in wild seas that evening. William Bird (36), his uncle Christopher (54); Michael Hanrick (45), Tom Hanrick (39) and Patrick Stafford (54) all perished along with William Banville (33), James Morrissey (38) and Patrick Roche (age unknown).

Father of nine Patrick Cullen (37) from Fethard village also died.

The book recalls how the Mexico left the port of Laguna, Mexico, with 481 tonnes of mahogany and cedar logs for Liverpool on November 4, 1913. The schooner's captain Ole Edwin Eriksen of Fredriskland, Norway, described mountain high waves as they reached the Keeragh Islands on the afternoon of February 20, 1914. Power relates how the experience of her skipper and the bravery of the crew managed to keep her afloat, allowing her to limp through storms and a hurricane to dock in the Azores for repairs.

Less than twenty-four hours after leaving port she was in trouble again and once more the crew fought to save their lives and stop her capsizing. After enduring two more weeks of storms, they went aground on the rocks surrounding the Keeraghs, within sight of the Co Wexford coastline.

The Helen Blake crew launched their thirty-five feet rowing boat into the teeth of the worst storm for fifty years and battled through three miles of violent seas.

Arriving at the wreck, they were hit by three freak waves in succession, which smashed their boat to pieces.

Only five of the fourteen man crew made it on to the island, where they continued their rescue mission and brought the crew of the Mexico safely ashore in one of the most dramatic rescues ever witnessed off the Irish coast.

One of the men who lost their lives was only on the boat by chance. James Morrissey was a carpenter who worked in Loftus Hall but on that fateful day had remained at home because of the weather. Had he been at work, it would have been too far for him to get back in time for the launching.

Bill Banville arrived when the boat was already in the water and ran through the surf to clamber aboard. The shore crew shouted to him that he did not have a life jacket and he responded with the, sadly, prophetic comment, 'If I am to be drowned without it, I'll be drowned with it'.

Less than sixty minutes later he had lost his life.

From Friday evening through to Monday morning the rescued and rescuers alike endured gales, rain, sleet and snow with no shelter, food or fresh water in one of the most incredible stories of survival ever to come out of Ireland.

Three lifeboats - from Wexford (Rosslare), Kilmore and Dunmore - were mobilised and, with the assistance of the Wexford tug, brought the survivors to safety on Monday morning.

Power said: 'The story of that rescue is one of pure heroism with two members of the Rosslare crew volunteering to carry out an exercise despite knowing that, at best, they only had a fifty-fifty chance of surviving. It was described by a member of the Dunmore crew as "… the bravest act I ever saw".'

The aftermath saw huge generosity by the public from all over the world. Relief funds were set up to help the families of those who lost their lives and attracted donations exceeding a million euro in today's terms. Fethard was renamed Fethard on Sea to avoid confusion with Fethard in Co Tipperary, ensuring post got to the right addresses.

It also saw some shameful behaviour from Wexford County Council and the Wexford Harbour Commissioners, which Power highlights in his book.

John McNamara and John Kelly from the Helen Blake had been brought off the island by the Dunmore crew who pulled them though the churning sea using a lifebuoy they had brought from Fethard dock.

Ten weeks later, whilst publicly praising the bravery of the lifeboatmen and basking in their reflected glory, the councillors supported a recommendation to recoup the cost of the lifebuoy from the RNLI. Not one member present at the meeting, on May 6, dissented, or queried the recommendation.

Just one week after the rescue the RNLI asked the Wexford Harbour Commissioners to send their account for the services of the tug. At a meeting on March 3 the commissioners agreed, after a long discussion, that the charge should be £200. Twenty-four hours later they held another special meeting and made an arbitrary decision to increase the charge to £300 without any justifiable reason - in today's terms that was an extra €11,300.

The survivors were also let down by the RNLI who, when detailing the cost of the rescue in their ledgers, recorded that no lives were saved by the Helen Blake. It is a statement that was at odds with Captain Eriksen of the Mexico, who was most emphatic that had it not been for the sacrifice of the Fethard lifeboatmen he and his crew would also have perished.

Even today the rescue of the 15 surviving crew members of Helen Blake and the Mexico reads like something from a 19th century adventure novel of heroism and tragedy on the seas.

Published by Hibernia Heritage, the book, which is complete with some fantastic photographs of the protagonists of this real-life drama, will be available in shops from next Saturday, the 105th anniversary of the rescue, for 18, and a book signing will take place in Fethard on Sea throughout that morning.

The book can also be bought online at www.heroesofthehelenblake.com.

Wexford People

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