Sean O’Riordan.


Final voyage for the LÉ Aisling as the iconic ship is being decommissioned

The LÉ Aisling, which intercepted the IRA gun-running ship Marita Ann in 1984 and recovered bodies from Air India flight 182 in 1985, is being decommissioned, writes Sean O’Riordan.

Final voyage for the LÉ Aisling as the iconic ship is being decommissioned

The Naval Service’s most famous vessel, LÉ Aisling, is to be decommissioned on Wednesday, following 36 years of distinguished service.

It was involved in the capture of the IRA gun-running ship Marita Ann, in 1984, and was also one of the first ships on the scene after the Air India jumbo jet disaster, in 1985.

The LÉ Aisling was the last of its type to be built at Verolme Dockyard, in Cork Harbour, and, to signify this, she was affectionately known as the ‘Last of the Mohicans’ (an emblem of which is emblazoned on her funnel).

She became operational in 1980, with a 48-strong crew, under the command of Lieutenant Commander Peadar McElhinney.

The decommissioning, which will take place in Galway because the ship is twinned with that city, will be emotional for three of her former crew who are still serving in the navy. They are the service’s second-most senior officer, Captain David Barry, Chief Petty Officer Con Looby, and Senior Chief Petty Officer Daniel Fawsitt.

An early picture of the LÉ Aisling.
An early picture of the LÉ Aisling.

When LÉ Aisling entered service, few could have imagined that it would clock up 628,856 nautical miles — the equivalent of around the world more than 32 times.

LÉ Aisling was involved in two particularly notable incidents during its service.

On September 29, 1984, the patrol boat intercepted and detained the IRA gun-running ship Marita Ann off the Kerry coast. The trawler contained seven tonnes of arms.

These included American-manufactured heavy machine guns, which had special mountings allowing them to be used as anti-aircraft weapons.

Five of the Marita Ann crew were detained. One of them, current Sinn Fein TD Martin Ferris, received a 10-year prison sentence.

The following year, LÉ Aisling was one of the first vessels to arrive at the scene of the Air India flight 182 disaster.

A bomb had been planted on-board the plane, which exploded off the Irish coast as it was en route from Montreal, via London, to New Delhi, in India.

None of the 329 passengers and crew survived. The victims included 82 children aged under 13.

The majority of passengers were Canadian citizens, or had strong connections with the country, although they were of Indian origin.

LE Aisling’s crew, under the command of Captain Jim Robinson, recovered 38 bodies littered among the wreckage of the aircraft, which was located 160km off the south-west coast.

With the assistance of as RAF and Royal Navy helicopters, along with merchant ships and fishing trawlers, 131 bodies were finally recovered, 101 female, and 30 male.

Several of LÉ Aisling’s crewmen had to enter shark-infested waters to recover the bodies.

Capt Robinson was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal and several of the crew were also decorated for their actions.

The ship was also a real workhorse, and was especially good out in the harsh waters of the North Atlantic.

In its Irish and EU duties to safeguard fishing stocks, LÉ Aisling’s crews have boarded 5,579 fishing vessels at sea, and detained 222 vessels for fishing offences in Irish waters, since 1980.

A Naval Service spokesman said the ship had been continually modernised, and adapted, to ensure she could still deliver an efficient service in a constantly evolving, and challenging, maritime area of operations.

“It is often said that the crew makes the ship,” a spokesman said. “Whether by luck or tradition, the LÉ Aisling has always had a good crew onboard.

An early picture of the LÉ Aisling after she had come into service.
An early picture of the LÉ Aisling after she had come into service.

“She has always been known within the service as a ‘happy ship’ and the high standards established in 1980 have been consistently upheld at home and abroad.”

LE Aisling has also been involved in a large number of search and rescue missions, drug interdictions, and UN supply missions.

LÉ Aisling has visited many foreign ports, most recently Vigo, in Spain, during a fisheries Common Control Inspection Programme, which is a collaboration between Britain, Ireland, and Spain.

Twinned with the City of the Tribes, it is closely associated with the Children’s Ward of Galway University Hospital.

“This is a proud association for the the ship’s crew, who have raised funds for, and regularly visited, their friends in the ward,” the Naval Service spokesman said.

It is not yet clear if the ship will be auctioned off, although this is most likely. Older ships are usually sold to the highest bidder, but this trend was disposed with when the last ship to be decommissioned was gifted to the Maltese government.

Last year, then defence minister, Simon Coveney, presented LÉ Aoife to the Maltese to assist with the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean Sea.

LÉ Aoife
LÉ Aoife

LÉ Aisling, meanwhile, will be replaced by the €70m LÉ William Butler Yeats, which will shortly undergo sea trials off the south-west coast of England.

The ship is being built by Babcock Marine, in Appledore, Devon, and is expected to be delivered to naval headquarters in Haulbowline in Cork Harbour, next month.

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