Eye on the past
An impressive new book from photographer Steve Meyler recalls the Helen Blake Fethard lifeboat tragedy, one of the worst maritime disasters the RNLI has suffered in Irish waters. Words: Maria Pepper
A former forensic photographer with the Metropolitan Police in London, has published a book of beautiful photography inspired by the Helen Blake lifeboat disaster off the coast of County Wexford in February 1914.
'66 Hours' is the second book by Steve Meyler who lives on the windswept Hook Peninsula and previously co-produced 'Loftus: The Hall of Dreams' about his near neighour Loftus Hall, in collaboration with the writer Helena B. Scott.
The impressive new coffee table book is comprised mainly of photographs interspersed with direct transcriptions of statements from the men involved in the maritime disaster and the subsequent rescue as well as journalistic reports from editions of 'The People' newspaper at the time, and extracts from poems and song lyrics.
The lifeboat Helen Blake with a crew of fourteen put to sea from Fethard in a howling gale and torrential rain with only the strength of ten oarsmen and some sail to propel the boat three miles to the Keeragh Islands where the cargo vessel Mexico had run aground.
The lifeboat was smashed to pieces by mountainous seas and freak waves as its crew attempted to rescue those aboard the stricken schooner.
The survivors, nine men from the Mexico and five from the Helen Blake, made it ashore to the smaller of the two Keeragh Islands about a mile off the south Wexford coast.
Before being rescued, the traumatised men had to wait 66 hours in bitterly cold conditions with virtually no food, water or shelter on an island which rose just thirteen feet above sea level and was being pounded by high waves and a huge rolling swell.
Tragically, the youngest of the men who made it onto the island died from exposure on the tiny inhospitable outcrop of land measuring 0.4 hectare.
In one of the worst maritime disasters the RNLI has suffered in Irish waters, a total of 10 men lost their lives - one from the Mexico and nine from the Helen Blake.
'The families of the lifeboat crew knew that something had gone terribly wrong, but had no way of knowing which families were now without husbands, fathers, brothers or sons', wrote Steve.
'It is hard to imagine what the men on the Little Keeragh endured, and just as difficult to contemplate what their families and friends went through during those 66 desperate hours'.
The photographs in the book are divided into two distinct types - the first group are geographic and follow the coastline of the routes taken by the lifeboats which were involved in the rescue and the second represent a selection of more emotive photography, as a poetic reflection on the experience of the bereaved and those about to be bereaved on land in Fethard as the tragedy unfolded.
'This is essentially a book intended to elicit an emotional response from the reader', he said.
Steve whose paternal grandfather Thomas Meyler was an Enniscorthy man, began his career as an architectural photographer at Laing Construction (now Laing O' Rourke) in Mill Hill, London in 1987, also doing public relations and event work.
In February 1992, he started his service with the Metropolitan Police as a forensic photographer and during 24 years with the Met, his varied work included attendance at murder scenes, suspicious deaths and terrorism incidents.
He also felt privileged to provide Disaster Victim Identification following the Paddington rail crash, Thailand Tsunami and the London bombings of July 2005.
In addition to a wide range of crime scene assignments, he was deployed as a photographer with Forward Intelligence and Evidence Gathering teams at numerous public order events.
He was one of the first Met photographers to train in the retrieval of images at nuclear, biological and chemical scenes.
His last decade of service with the police force was spent as Head of Photographic Training at New Scotland Yard's Crime Academy.
Steve's grandfather moved from Enniscorthy to Dublin where he lived for the rest of his life but every year he brought his children to Wexford for their summer holidays.
Steve's dad, also Thomas, emig=grated to the UK in the late 1960's when his son was six years old, and when he retired, he returned to Wexford and made Fethard his home. The photographer spent his working life in and around London.
'While my parents were living in Fethard I would visit them three to four times a year and when an opportunity for early retirement presented itself I came over here and bought a house on the Hook Peninsula adjacent to Loftus Hall and re-located here', said Steve.
He met the owner of Loftus Hall, Aidan Quigley at a dinner party and after a continuing discussion which lasted several months, he gave him persmission to photograph the world-famous mansion, the famed site of psychic disturbances. The resulting photographs were exhibited in the Hall.
The author and translator Helena B. Scott who has an interest in the paranormal, saw the images and this led to a collaboration between the pair on 'The Hall of Dreams' which was published by Maison Noir Press, with Steve providing the photos and Helena the words.
Helena and Steve discovered they had career experience in common as Helena had studied criminology in law school and worked for the duty magistrates court in the UK, assisting legally in the removal of corpses for forensic inspections of homicide scenes. Now living in Ireland, she holds a diploma in Psychic Development and is a member of the London College of Psychic Studies and International Gothic Association.
Steve said that when he finished the Loftus project, he started reading Liam Ryan's book 'The Awful Tragedy of the Helen Blake Lifeboat, Fethard, County Wexford' and it inspired him to shoot the photography for '66 hours'.
'My take is a little less factual than Liam's wonderful book and as well as the incredible rescue narrative, about half the content explores the turmoil experienced ashore in Fethard.'
'Without Liam's generosity in sharing his research, '66 Hours' would have taken years. I'm seriously indebted to him', he said.
Stressing that he is but one of the many creatives and artists who have been inspired over the years by the magnitude of the Fethard tragedy, Steve also gave credit to the influence and information of two other books, 'Heroes of the Helen Blake' by Brendan Power, published in 2019 and 'The Helen Blake, the last Fethard Lifeboat' by John Doyle.
The photo book is a hardcover publication with 233 pages in four-colour ink on silk paper. The shipping weight is 1.8kgs. It retails at €66 with free shipping but if purchasers can meet Steve in person, he can offer a discount on the price.