'When they're gone, they're gone' - tragedy in the Irish fishing industry

'When they're gone, they're gone' - tragedy in the Irish fishing industry
Kelly and Carmel Coady with their mother Rose in the memorial garden at Kilmore Quay, Co Wexford. Rose lost her son Pat on the Pere Charles in 2007. Picture: Dan Linehan

The fishing community in a Co Wexford village has had a tragic relationship with the sea, writes Neil Michael.

Every time a fisherman dies, it brings families right back to the day they lost their own loved ones to the sea.

Rosaleen Coady was one of those when the Alize sank, taking the lives of Joe Sinnott and Willie Whelan.

Her husband Stephen died almost exactly a year before her son Pat died in the Pere Charles tragedy in 2007, and her father-in-law Paddy died in 1985.

Stephen had also been a close friend of Joe.

“Joe and Willie’s deaths brought a lot back to me,” she said.

“Joe and Stephen were such good friends and they used to go round together years ago.”

Like so many others, she went down to the Hook Head to offer the families help and support as the search continued for Willie’s body.

At one point she saw two women alone together as they looked out to sea.

They were, or so she thinks, Willie Whelan's step-mother Margaret and Willie’s wife Mandy.

“I wouldn't have known them or seen them before but I could tell they had lost someone,” Rosaleen recalled.

“I went up to Mrs Whelan and I introduced myself. I said who I was and I gave her a hug and I said ‘please God, he'll . . .”.

Her voice trails off and she stops talking.

After a pause, she continued: “‘Please God, he’ll be found’, I told them.”

He was eventually found but for those like Rosaleen who have no grave to visit, the closest they have to one is the sea itself.

Like the Whelans and the Sinnotts who had all stared out to sea in the days after the Alize sank, she too faced out there when the Pere Charles sank on January 10, 2007.

Pere Charles: The trawler sank in January 2007. The boat’s crew of five were fishing for herrings south of Hook Head with another trawler. Picture: PA
Pere Charles: The trawler sank in January 2007. The boat’s crew of five were fishing for herrings south of Hook Head with another trawler. Picture: PA

The boat’s crew of five were fishing for herrings south of Hook Head with another trawler, the Suzanne G.

The Pere Charles had landed two catches, while the other boat had landed one.

They were both heading back about a mile apart to Dunmore East when disaster struck.

At around 6pm, the Suzanna G received a VHF call from Pere Charles’ skipper Thomas Hennessy.

He said: “She has breached on me. Stand by” moments before the boat disappeared from view.

As well as the 30-year-old skipper, crewmen Andrei Dyrin, 32, Pat Coady, 27, Billy O’Connor, 52, and Pat Hennessy, 48, all died.

Although the wreck was located on the seabed two days later, no bodies were ever found.

It is one of the worst fishing tragedies in living memory and happened just hours before, at about 3am on January 11, the Honeydew II, sank with the loss of two lives about three miles South of Ram Head.

Although the wreck of the vessel was discovered on the seabed about a year later, the bodies of 39-year-old owner-skipper Ger Bohan and crew hand Tomasz Jagla, 31, were also never found.

Now when Rosaleen looks out, she imagines her son looking back at her, smiling up at her.

“I smile back at him,” she said.

I see him out there. This is strange for somebody to say but my peaceful place is beside the water.

“I will sit down there for ages just looking out."

Asked if it was always like that, she replies: “At the beginning, I could hear a melody in the distance.

“There were times when I would paddle out towards the spot. I would walk out too far but at the time I felt I was being drawn into the sea.

“There was another time when I used to go down to the harbour, down to the quay and I would look down at the water and I would have often seen his face.

“He’d be looking up at me, struggling. That is gone now.”

It was while she was in the middle of arranging a mass for the first anniversary of her late husband Stephen’s death that she found out about Pat’s death.

A veteran fisherman, Stephen had been an engineer in one of the UK’s biggest fishing fleets based in Newlyn, Penzance, Cornwall when he was killed in a quay-side accident on Friday, January 13, 2006.

And at the time she got the call about the Pere Charles, her son was - as far as she knew - no longer a fisherman.

Although he had been fishing since he was 16, and had been a skipper, he had effectively quit and not fished for four years.

And when he did quit, he told his mother he didn’t want to miss out on his newborn daughter Toiréasa’s upbringing.

And, other than the birth of his daughter, he had had good reason to quit, having twice before cheated death.

Pat had skippered a boat out of Kilmore Quay that had taken on too much water and he had been forced to send a Mayday.

The boat was about to sink when he and his crew were rescued by the RNLI.

In the second incident, he had slipped overboard while helping bring a haul of fish on board the boat he was on.

After more than 30 minutes of struggling in the sea trying to reach a lifebuoy thrown to him, Patrick was brought on board and then rushed to hospital after the boat landed.

“And what did he do when he was discharged?” Rosaleen asks.“He went back down the next morning and went out to sea.”

Rose Coady at Kilmore Quay, Co Wexford. She lost her son Pat on the Pere Charles in 2007. Picture: Dan Linehan
Rose Coady at Kilmore Quay, Co Wexford. She lost her son Pat on the Pere Charles in 2007. Picture: Dan Linehan

However, he eventually quit and he got a job driving a digger but work dried up and he asked a skipper he knew to let him know if there was any work available.

He was called the next day and off her went, aboard the Pere Charles.

Of the moment her phone rang, she recalled: “I got a phone call. 'What's wrong', I asked. Has it happened again?

“I asked ‘It’s happened again, hasn't it'?

“(The caller) said ‘I am sorry, Rose. It’s Patrick.

“And I said ‘No, it can’t be Patrick’.

“And he said ‘No, I'm really sorry. He got offered a trip out on the Pere Charles and he went’.”

When asked how she felt when she got that call, she pauses.

There is a brief silence, during which there is a sharp intake of breath and then she sobs quietly as if she has just taken that call all over again.

“I felt empty,” she begins.

“I felt drained. I felt numb, for days. I had to stay in England for a few days before I got home because I literally couldn't move.

“I couldn't do anything. I said to myself ‘come on Rose, you have gone through this twice before, come on, you can do this’, but I couldn't.” \A philosophical woman, her life has taught her the importance of just taking life as it comes and making the most of it.

Hold your loved ones as tight as you can and no bickering, and no squabbling and all the things that families do,

“When they're gone, they’re gone, and there's no way you're going to get them back”, she says

And for those finding physical distancing hard, she has this to say: “I have lost my son, my husband and my father in law.

“I’m going to be physically distant from them forever. But after all this is over and done with, people will be able to hold their loved ones again.

“So until the restrictions are lifted, just deal with it and get on with it - because it will all end.”

It is very difficult. You don’t really cope’

The wreck of the trawler Tit Bonhomme, as seen at low tide at Adam’s Island near Union Hall, Co Cork, in 2012. Picture: Dan Linehan
The wreck of the trawler Tit Bonhomme, as seen at low tide at Adam’s Island near Union Hall, Co Cork, in 2012. Picture: Dan Linehan

Caitlin Uí Aodh barely remembers what exactly happened in the 26 days it took to retrieve the bodies of those who died in the Tit Bonhomme tragedy.

She remembers being in a daze, and looking back, she still doesn’t know how she managed to cope.

Her husband Michael Hayes, the boat’s skipper and owner, was one of five to perish.

The boat left Union Hall, Co. Cork on Friday, January 13, 2012 with a crew of six to go fishing.

But after experiencing technical difficulties during the trip, it returned to Union Hall in the early hours of January 25..

The sea was very rough at the time and the boat broke up after getting stranded on Adam’s Island on the way into Glandore Harbour. As well as her husband, crew members Kevin Kershaw, Wael Mohamed, Attaia Shaban and Saied Ali Eldin also perished.

Although the Marine Casualty Investigation Board investigation into the tragedy suggested crew fatigue played a part, evidence at the May 2013 inquest from the sole survivor disputed this.

Abdelbaky Mohamed, whose brother died in the tragedy, said there was no particular pattern to their work aboard the 21-metre boat.

But he said: “When there was fish, we worked, when there wasn’t, we had time to rest.”

Caitlin is still very active in the fishing industry despite the painful memories it holds.

She owns a trawler, The Dearbhla and has turned the Iasc Seafood Bar in Dungarvan she opened just days before Covid-19 restrictions were suddenly announced into a takeaway.

It’s so popular that people are prepared to wait up to an hour for their order to be ready.

Fishing has been in her family for as long as she can remember. Her grandfather fished, as did her father and her brothers and cousins.

But while she knows only too well how hard the work is, it’s something she feels many forget when they buy fresh.

“It is a long shift and it's a lot of hard work,” she said.

“It is a huge amount of hard work. I remember being in a shop recently to buy some fish because my own boat was at sea. There was a woman there looking to buy some fish and when she was told the price, she exclaimed ‘My God, that’s expensive’.

“I turned to her and told her that if she was at sea for 10 days in the cold and the wet, she wouldn't think that was expensive.

“I wonder how many times people give a second thought to how much work goes into producing that carton of milk, that tub of yoghurt, that bit of beef or bit of fish.

Maybe we need to think more, understand more and ask more and become a little bit more in tune with what life is about.

“A lot of people probably wouldn’t even know that the Irish fishing industry goes to sea, that there are young lads out there all year round, fishing.”

She is one of the many people in the community who know what it is like to lose a loved one to the sea.

And it is this experience she has brought to her role as chairperson of the charity, Lost At Sea Tragedies.

Founded by retired Dunmore East fisherman Noel McDonagh, it was set up to help families emotionally and financially in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy.

The charity was also set up in 2013 to promote safety at sea and raising awareness in the fishing community.

On coping with a fishing tragedy, she said: “It is very difficult. You don't really cope.

“There was a drawn out process involved in our case.

“We were very very very lucky because a huge amount of support from the local people from fishermen all over the coast. We got support from people locally in Union Hall.”

She said she was in a "frozen state" during the 26 days it took to retrieve everybody.

A prayer service by the Egyptian community held on the pier at Union Hall, Cork, during the 26 days it took the find the remains of the missing fishermen from the Tit Bonhomme. Picture: Dan Linehan
A prayer service by the Egyptian community held on the pier at Union Hall, Cork, during the 26 days it took the find the remains of the missing fishermen from the Tit Bonhomme. Picture: Dan Linehan

“It is very hard to explain what goes through your mind. I don't think anything goes through your mind.

“I think you go into survival mode. You are in a sort of frozen state and you remain like that.

“It is a coping thing. When shock hits you, you go into that shock and you remain in that shock, for a long, long time afterwards, in that place that you go to. It helps you, it surrounds you and it helps you cope.

“You don't feel and you don't hear the same as normal people. It is just a coping thing.

“It is something you look back on. I look back on it now and think how did I do that?

“How did we as a family actually do that for so long over so many days, for so many nights. You don't do it until you're there and then you just get on with it.”

She said even though a long time has passed, it still feels like yesterday.

“You can still find yourself back there especially if you hear of something or somebody else or another accident and myself and the kids get drawn back to it.”

She knows the tragedies change the people they leave behind, and her own tragedy changed her.

You wake up and realise life is just very, very precious. And that this is something you need to appreciate, no matter what is happening around you.

“You only have one chance at life. Being here wasn't something you asked to happen and when you go, you won't pick that date.

“It'll just come when it is time to go. So I feel no matter how bad things are, I really do appreciate every day.

“It is part of what I am now. I look at life as very, very precious and everything we do and learn is important.”

Joe and his son chatted by phone. An hour later, the Alize was gone

Willie Whelan’s grieving parents, Maggie and Joe Whelan, and one of Willie’s brothers, Joe Whelan Jr, in Saltmills, Co Wexford. At 9.45pm on January 4, Joe Sr could see three trawlers out at sea. Less than an hour later, there were only two. Pictures: Patrick Browne
Willie Whelan’s grieving parents, Maggie and Joe Whelan, and one of Willie’s brothers, Joe Whelan Jr, in Saltmills, Co Wexford. At 9.45pm on January 4, Joe Sr could see three trawlers out at sea. Less than an hour later, there were only two. Pictures: Patrick Browne

Despite nearly drowning when he was 16, Willie Whelan had a lifelong love of the sea.

And as well as being ‘fearless’, his heartbroken father Joe also remembers an upbeat, jovial man who lived every day as it came and who didn't worry about anything.

The son he remembers is the 41-year-old fisherman who was one of two to die when the Alize trawler sank off Hook Head, Co Wexford on the night of January 4.

Also to die was Joe Sinnott, the 65-year-old father-of-four who had trained Willie and was like a father to him.

They had been fishing for scallops along with two other trawlers in the same area.

To this day, nobody knows why the 12-metre boat, which had been completely rebuilt five years ago at a cost of around €500,000 and was in ‘pristine’ condition, sank.

Some believe it was hit by a freak wave.

Others - like Joe Whelan - believe nobody will ever know what happened to the boat, which had been due back into nearby Duncannon Harbour to unload its catch around 11.30pm.

The tragedy is the latest in a long line of harrowing reminders about the perils of being a fisherman in an industry some fear is slowly dying out.

With more and more fishing families quitting the industry as the national fleet has deteriorated over the past ten years or so, it had become much harder to earn a living from it before Covid-19 came along.

But since then, it has become almost impossible for many fishermen to survive.

The price of fish has plummeted as European markets for fish have collapsed with the closure of restaurants all over Europe.

Such is the impact of Covid-19 on the industry and the rest of the country that it is sometimes easy to forget the lives lost while getting fish from the sea to the supermarket.

All around the coast, there are areas associated with more than 50 fishing tragedies in recent decades.

But the area between Hook Head and the Saltees Islands is as notorious as any of them - so much so that part of this small stretch of Co Wexford coastline is known as the Graveyard of a Thousand Ships.

At least 18 souls have perished in the past 18 years alone, but the record of wrecks goes back to the 1600s.

Few ever see the light of day again, and as the Alize now too lies in its place in the dark surrounded by the debris that spilled out from during its nighttime descent to the sea bed, few ever want to see her again.

Meanwhile, back on dry land, both men are sorely missed by their grieving families and friends.

“We are struggling at the moment, with losing a son,” Mr Whelan said.

"Every time you get out of bed, you are thinking about him. I just can't get it out of my mind at the moment.

Everybody is very depressed and we are finding it very hard to keep going every day. We miss him. We miss him a lot.

He says his son knew nothing else other than fishing and he had had a lot of experience.

Mr Whelan thinks the pair had 65 years experience between the two of them.

“Joe was a gentleman,” Mr Whelan said.

“He'd been fishing with Willie on the boat for about four years and they had fished together for about six years on another vessel. They were like father and son.”

January’s tragedy was not the first time Willie had been in an accident.

He was just 16 when he was forced to abandon ship on a trawler and had to be rescued from his life raft by a UK coast guard helicopter.

“It was frightening at the time,” Mr Whelan recalled. “He was two hours on a life raft.

“But a week later, he went straight back fishing. He had no fear on him. He loved the water and that was it.”

He last spoke to his son at 8.45pm on the night he died.

Mr Whelan had missed a call from him while he was at mass and he returned it when he left the church.

“He was in great form,” he recalled.

“I remember joking with him about him not realising I would be at mass when he called. We had a great conversation about how good the fishing was.

“There was no hint of anything wrong.”

While on a drive around the coast line with a friend of his that night, Mr Whelan rang his son again at 9.45pm but there was no reply.

He didn’t think anything of it.

From the Hook Peninsula where he had made that call, Mr Whelan could see three sets of lights of three trawlers in the distance.

Around the time he was leaving “the Hook” to go home, his other boat - the 24-metre Willie Joe was on her way back inland and would pass by the Alize fishing at around 10pm.

“Everything was normal,” Mr Whelan said.

“The Willie Joe was passing by the Alize and they were going to unload first and then the Alize was going to follow.

“The weather wasn't flat calm but it was reasonable and there was nothing to get excited about.”

Mr Whelan arrived home at around 10.15pm but just 20 minutes later, he was called by the Irish Coast Guard.

Maggie and Joe remember their son Willie as a jovial, positive man, and Joe says the whole family is struggling with his loss.
Maggie and Joe remember their son Willie as a jovial, positive man, and Joe says the whole family is struggling with his loss.

“They said the Alize was in trouble,” he recalled.

He called a friend of his who lives about 4km from the Hook Head lighthouse and asked him to quickly drive down and see how many lights were out at sea.

As he did, he was hoping against hope that there would be the three lights of the three trawlers he had seen just 45 minutes earlier.

“He drove out to see if the lights were there,” he said.

“I was on the way to The Hook myself when he rang me back and he said ‘I am sorry Joe, there are only two lights out there’.

“In the space of 40 or so minutes, the boat’s lights were gone.”

About an hour after the boat’s Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) was activated, the Irish Coast Guard helicopter based at Waterford took off to go to the Alize’s help.

The reason for the length of time it took before taking off is that Irish Coast Guard helicopters are on a 45-minute notice to respond every evening from 9pm.

As it approached the area where the boat went down, the first light the crew of the R117 saw in the dark from their cockpit was from the EPIRB.

And then they spotted Joe Sinnott from the light on his lifejacket.

He was winched out of the water but pronounced dead at around 2.30am on Sunday morning.

He is believed to have died of hyperthermia.

It would take a further 20 days for Willie to be found.

“Waiting those 20 days to find him was torture,” Mr Whelan said.

“Two of his brothers were out searching for him in the sea and another one was going along the coastline with hundreds of people.

“Everybody was so good to us, you couldn't thank people enough.”

To this day, he has no idea what happened.

“The boat was 120%,” Mr Whelan said.

“She was absolutely fantastic. Everything was up to scratch. If anything broke down, he would replace it straight away.

The boat is still at the bottom of the sea, she is not in anybody's way and we don't really want to see her anymore either.

“I would like to know what happened but we never will know, I don't think.”

About a week after he was buried, his brothers returned to the sea.

“You have to go back,” Mr Whelan said.

“We have to carry on - for the bank, and to make a living.”

Of that living, he says he and his sons were doing well before Covid-19.

“The weather was bad for a long time,” he said.

“That was the only thing that I could see wrong with fishing before Covid-19 but despite that, we were making a living and paying our way.

“Covid-19 has struck us badly and we will get through it all right.

“But it is going to be a struggle for a while.”

Echoing widespread dissatisfaction with the government among the fishing community, he said not enough is being done.

We are an industry that is left behind all the time. If you take the farmers, they only have to whistle and they will have a subsidy.

“I don’t mean any disrespect to the farmers because they are right when they can get it.”

Of the son he fondly remembers but misses deeply, he recalls him as “always a jolly man” who would never worry about anything.

“He wasn't a worrier,” he said.

He took every day as it came.

“If there was a bad week’s fishing, he would always be the one to say that next week would be better.

“He always had a positive outlook.”

Among his happiest memories of his son was his marriage a year ago to Mandy.

“He was so happy getting married, but he was always a jolly fella and we always have good memories of William.

“He was never a fella to be in bad humour. He was always very obliging. You wouldn't have to ask him a second time to do a thing, he was that type of fella.

“It is always the good ones that go, isn't it?”

‘It just goes to show, you can never depend on the sea’

Fisherman Jimmy Devlin - one of the few still fishing at the moment.
Fisherman Jimmy Devlin - one of the few still fishing at the moment.

One of Jimmy Devlin’s claims to fame is finding a human skull in his nets.

But nowadays, the Wexford fisherman - who “caught” the skull when skippering the Willie B in April 2010 - would happily settle for a less headline-grabbing catch any day.

Speaking over his satellite phone while out fishing recently, he was despairing at catching enough to make the fishing trip he was on worth his while.

The interview with the veteran skipper was a brief snapshot of what the industry is like for many of the few fishermen still fishing at the moment.

“It is a pretty nerve-wracking time right now,” Jimmy, whose uncle Joe Sinnott died when the trawler Alize sank in January, told the Irish Examiner.

“The vessel I am running is burning 2,000 litres of fuel a day and this trip is going to be a total waste.

“The weather is not fine enough for us to go out to the deepwater and there is no guarantee of what you are going to get even if you get out there.

“We have had a lot of north-east winds which are killing the fishing.”

At the time of the interview, he was despairing at only catching two half boxes of fish as he fished about 40 nautical miles south-east off Kilmore Quay.

“That’s not good,” the 53-year-old said.

I need at least four boxes of fish every three hours at the best of times and at the best of prices to keep the vessel going and for everybody on board to make a wage.

As things stood at the time, neither he or any of his crew stood to make any money at all after food, other expenses like insurance and fuel were paid for.

In a number of cases recently, the most a crew ended up taking home was a fish supper.

And whatever other crews eventually make, they won’t know for around two weeks how much they will get.

This is because for most fishermen, they have to wait until all a boat’s costs are covered and the fish they caught sold before they get paid.

Away from the mechanics of trying to earn a living is the heartache the Wexford/Waterford fishing community still feel over the Alize sinking in January.

Few are untouched by the tragedy.

“I was only working 30 miles away when the Mayday call went out that night,” Jimmy recalls. Joe was a real lover of the sea.

“It's like a drug for the person who has got the feel of the sea.

It is devastating. We all had a great belief that night that Joe and Willie would have been found because it was like their religion that they wore their lifejackets.

“There are both well-seasoned men, they had fished all their lives, they were well seasoned. And that vessel was top-class. Inside there wouldn't even be a bit of dust.

“You couldn't believe the condition of that boat and that's why we just don't understand what happened.

“It will go down as a mystery.”

He added: “It just goes to show you can never depend on the sea, you can never trust water.

"You can never trust it.”

Losses at sea

Leonora Jacinta
Leonora Jacinta

Alize, Off Hook Head, January 4, 2020.

Died: Joe Sinnott, Willie Whelan.

Jillian, Off Saltee Islands, August 29, 2015

Died: Francis Smith.

Leonora Jacinta, near Saltee Islands, November 25, 2013

Died: Patrick (Paddy) Joseph Barry.

Harbour Pride, off Hook Head, September 17, 2009.

Died: Patrick ‘Paddy’ Mason

Pere Charles, off Hook Head, January 10, 2007.

Died: Thomas Hennessy, Patrick Hennessy, Patrick Coady, William O'Connor, Andrea Dyrin.

Rising Sun, Saltee Islands area, November 29, 2005

Died: Patrick Colfer, Jimmy Myler, Billy O'Connor.

Pisces, Fethard-on-Sea, July 28, 2002.

Died: James Cooney, Séamus Doyle, Mark Doyle, John Cullen, Martin Roche.

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