THE weather a century ago this week was similar to now: ferocious storms threatening the lives of sailors. On February 20, 1914, a Norwegian schooner, The Mexico, went aground off the Wexford coast. Despite the appalling conditions, the Fethard lifeboat put out to sea. But nine of the volunteers died, though many of The Mexico’s crew were saved.
In small coastal communities, such tragic losses are retold from generation to generation.
A memorial to the lost stands in the centre of Fethard village, listing their names: coxswain Christopher Bird, bowman Thomas Hendrick, and crew Michael Hendrick, James Morrissey, Patrick Roche, Patrick Cullen, William Bird, William Banville and Patrick Butcher.
Now, a century later, acclaimed Artemis Fowl author, Eoin Colfer joins music composer (both are Wexford and Kilmore Quay men), Liam Bates, in a concert for the centenary of the Fethard lifeboat disaster.
Hosted by Wexford Sinfonia this Saturday, February 22, at County Hall in Wexford, and with all proceeds going to the RNLI, the performance will include a specially commissioned piece, ‘Heroes of the Helen Blake,’ by Bates, as well as a prefatory reading by Colfer.
The launch of the Wexford Sinfonia "Heroes of the Helen Blake" marking the centenary of the crews loss. @RNLI pic.twitter.com/pVCiLOAdb0— Owen Medland (@OwenMedland) January 29, 2014
“The initial reason for this concert was to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Sinfonia,” says Bates, a composer of film scores, who studied with Leonard Bernstein and has dined with Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli and Bryan Adams. “I was looking around for the right kind of idea; you’ve always got something cooking, but I hadn’t come across this particular tale. Where I live, in Kilmore Quay, everybody is connected with the sea in one way or another, and the chairperson of the Sinfonia, Keith Miller, is also an RNLI volunteer. He ran the story by me, and immediately, loud and clear, came ideas for putting a piece together,” Bates says.
Bates’s aim was not simply to tell what happened, but to explore the emotions of such events, and describe the feelings of those who went to sea and those who stayed behind and waited for them.
“The impact, thereafter, of losing nine men from one small community struck me as an extraordinary piece to create, to touch that emotion and energy. I was looking for poetry, but I couldn’t find anything that came from the point of view of the actual volunteer, the lifeboatman, so I started scribbling myself, and a poem appeared.” It was from that poem, and the backdrop of all Bates had read, that the new piece developed.
What has been remarkable, he says, is how much those involved with this concert, whether playing in the orchestra or singing in the choir, have connections to those who went out on lifeboats all along the Wexford coast. “The links are extraordinary, and it shows how much the sea is ingrained in the lifeblood of the people.
“That fed my imagination. I was writing about something real, so connected to the area in which I live.
“A friend found two Wexford sea shanties for me and I was able to take elements of those and use them. That makes it so much more real and more passionate,” Bates says.
The composition, he says, turns on the faith of the community. “It’s for all those lost, and all those who try to save. The theme may be bleak, but just when it is pushed to the limits, the melody of faith comes through.”
One of the most exciting parts for Bates is an all-male choir of 40 men, as it would have been in 1914.
“As a crowning moment, they join the orchestra for the last movement and sing the song of hope, of the person who leaves family and comfort and safety to save those in trouble — that’s such an incredibly powerful thing to do,” he says.
To this day, Bates says with feeling, people are ready to serve and set out, and his new work is dedicated to all of those.
“That’s what this piece is about, for me. Here in Ireland, we live very much amidst the elements, and the strongest thing I try to express is that we, as human beings, are at our best when we are looking after others. We are made to care for each other.”
As we talk, the hurricane-force winds howl around his Kilmore Quay home and the rain lashes at the windows. The similarity is not lost on Bates.
“To be living where I’m living, and writing at a time when the weather is like I’ve never seen before — it’s been a tremendous source of inspiration,” he says.
Colfer’s inspiration was his father’s writings about the tragedy. “Liam and I have been friends for years, but when he asked me to write something to introduce this concert, I couldn’t think what to do.
“Then, I went through my father’s work. He was a very keen local historian, as well as a teacher, and he published a book on the Hook Peninsula, which contains an account of the tragedy.
“That is so well-written, and captures the feeling of the time and the event so well, that I thought I couldn’t do better than to bring it before the audience at this premiere.”
Colfer says that he is very nervous about reading someone else’s work in public, but also that it will be a rather special tribute.
“My father, Billy Colfer, passed away not long ago. I will be reading his work for him.”