Islands of Ireland: Inishbeg Island begs the question

Islands of Ireland: Inishbeg Island begs the question
Inishbeg, Co Donegal with Inishdooey in the foreground and Tory Island in the background. Picture: Dan MacCarthy

The recent rescue of a trawler 20km north of Fanad Head in Co Donegal gave us a glimpse of the enormous seas that occasionally strike that part of the coast. The phenomenal bravery of Lough Swilly, Portrush and Arranmore RNLI volunteer crews saw all hands on the trawler saved.

Inishbeg, lying 5km off shore, is one of a trio of islands overshadowed by the mighty Tory Island. Inishbofin is popular with holidaymakers and Inishdooey has the ruins of a monastery.

Inishbeg is the most northerly of the three and is pretty inhospitable and uninhabited. Its neighbour Inishdooey had a small population of monks but no one could ever have lived on Inishbeg.

It has no shelter and no fresh water. In a gale force wind it is not a good place to be. Inishdooey by comparison has low-lying areas that afford a modicum of shelter. Inishbeg is the proverbial cork in the sea.

In addition to those conditions it has no obvious landing spot. No beach to pull your boat up on. And no pier to dock at. It is a pretty difficult island to land on by kayak but a few narrow channels afford an opportunity to the experienced paddler. Its rocky girdle is capped be a very pleasant carpet of grass and Michaelmas daisies with a sizeable pond.

Inishbeg was the scene of an audacious rescue in December 1940 of a Dutch steamship, the Stolwijk, by the crew of the Arranmore lifeboat. The Stolwijk had been at sea when the Netherlands fell under Nazi occupation in July of that year and so stayed at sea as part of the contingent of the Dutch merchant fleet which was assisting the war effort.

Sailing into a storm gale, at the head of a convoy of ships en route from Newfoundland to Liverpool, four of which were sunk by German U-boats, the Stolwijk was driven onto the rocks of Inishdooey when its rudder snapped sending it drifting fast towards the rocks. One if its escort ships, HMS Sabre, immediately came to its aid but itself nearly foundered. At 11.30pm the radio officer was washed overboard.

The captain immediately put out a mayday signal. Fearing the worst, nine of the crew put to sea in a lifeboat but were unable to escape the mountainous seas and drowned. Six of these bodies were never recovered.

The Arranmore lifeboat, the KTJS, put to sea in a hurricane at dawn 40km to the southeast and powered through 50m visibility to the rescue. It took the lifeboat five-and-half hours to reach the stricken vessel which was in the process of being dismembered by the indifferent sea.

They anchored upwind of the Stolwijk and found 18 men huddled at the stern of the ship with waves breaking over them. They first retrieved four of the sailors by means of a breeches buoy fired onto the vessel which allowed the men cross on a rope chair to the lifeboat. That rope was then shredded on a metal plate of the ship and eventually replaced.

Buffeted by strengthening winds and more exhausted by the minute, they fought the sea for another four hours and succeeded in rescuing the remaining 14 sailors and returned safely to Burtonport.

For their astonishing bravery the crew were honoured by the RNLI and by Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands with coxswain John Boyle receiving the gold medal.

The Stolwijk which sank beside the island in 1940.
The Stolwijk which sank beside the island in 1940.

On a Facebook page dedicated to researching the whereabouts of relatives of the Stolwiijk’s crew a nephew of the second engineer Willem Castel wrote: “He told that, when the ship was on the rocks, he did stay on the ship and did not jump into the sea because he could not swim. Luckily he was saved by the brave Irish sailors. Thank you so much that you saved my favourite uncle.”

A song by Arranmore publican Jerry Early entitled ‘I’ll Go’ was released on the 75th anniversary of the tragedy with the proceeds going towards the erection of a monument on Arranmore.

How to to get there:

Experienced kayakers can access Inishbeg from Magheroarty Beach, near Falcarragh, Co Donegal. Or the island can be seen from the Tory Island ferry.

Other:

alchetron.com/SS-Stolwijk; www.facebook.com/groups/440806279447957; www.youtube.com/watch?v=9jObv6QmpgU; rnli.org

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