Duty calls for Shane in life-or-death mission

The call of duty is never an easy one, as Lieutenant Shane Mulcahy can bear testimony to.

Duty calls for Shane in life-or-death mission

On the Mediterranean Sea, he witnessed at first hand the desperate faces of migrants fleeing war-torn regions, some with amputations to prove it, along with women and children packed into sinking crafts with no lifejackets.

At the same time, as rescued migrants were being brought aboard the LÉ Eithne, he was constantly thinking of his young wife back at home, Kate, who had recently been diagnosed with cancer.

Shane is the new face of a more highly skilled naval service. If he’s feeling worried inside, he masks it better than a camouflage net and comes across as a born leader, belying his tender years of 29.

He admits that, under the circumstances, the Navy would have allowed him to stay at home with Kate, if that’s what he had wanted.

But, after a number of days discussing his possible posting, the couple decided he should go on what was to be a nine-week mission.

Kate, a nurse, works for VHI’s Swiftcare clinic in Mahon. She was diagnosed with thyroid cancer eight months ago and, “is doing good, thank God, so far”.

Before departing, a fundraiser was organised on her behalf at the Haulbowline base where, on one night, they raised an impressive €10,000 for the South Infirmary’s head and neck Oncology Unit.

Shane had access to Kate through his mobile phone when they were in range of ports and through a ship’s satellite phone, used for “welfare purposes”.

Born in the US to a Cork father and American mother, the family decided when he was 12 to make a home in Ireland and moved to Watergrasshill, Co Cork.

The mass Irish emigration to the US gave Shane a firm grounding in the history of economic migrants, which was not lost on the young officer as he led boarding parties to pull thousands of refugees from totally unseaworthy vessels in the Mediterranean.

He has no doubt that, without the Navy’s intervention, almost all of the 3,337 saved during the LÉ Eithne mission would have drowned. The number has now reached 4,000.

“Only around 10% had lifejackets and most came from landlocked countries and so were unlikely to be able to swim,” Shane recalls. “The wooden barges were leaking. The bilge pumps were working flat out, but they were already running low on fuel when we reached them, so they would have cut out quickly.”

In many cases, Italy up to 500km away.

“The rubber dinghies were also leaking air. In my opinion, none of them would have made it to Sicily,” he says.

“Between January and March last, hundreds of migrants had been dying. The numbers crossing are still high, but nobody is dying.”

He says the look of desperation on the faces of the migrants was something he’d always remember.

“You could feel their desperation and how distressing life must have been for them.”

When boarding parties, accompanied by armed sailors, arrived at the migrants’ vessels, the Irish would use gestures to calm them down before taking the sick, young children, and women off as a priority.

Some of the women had suffered chemical burns, as they usually sat in the middle of the damaged boats, where leaking diesel was pooling. So it was important to get them off as quickly as possible and have them treated by the medics aboard the ship.

“Some of the migrants had basic English and we’d tell them to translate to the others what was happening,” says Shane. “I think they appreciated the navy ship was there to rescue them. But a lot would have had mistrust of the authorities in their own countries.”

Once aboard, the migrants were immediately given paper cups full of water “because many were dehydrated” and high-energy biscuits, as many had not eaten in days.

They rescued about 20 young men who had had amputations, many of whom must have been involved in military conflicts.

Shane says all migrants were searched for weapons. No dangerous weaponswere found but sharp devices such as screwdrivers and other tools which could cause injuries were immediately confiscated.

Once on board, the crew were constantly on alert for any fighting between the migrants, especially as a number of nationalities were in the mix of those rescued.

“Any time we ever saw an argument, our guys were straight in and calmed it down so it never got above anything verbal,” says Shane. “If we didn’t intervene it could quickly escalate and you could have groups of people fighting.”

As part of security measures and gathering information on people-smuggling for the Italian authorities, who were overseeing the operation, everybody rescued was videoed. The videos were all later handed over to the Italians.

“When we dropped off people in Palermo, somebody was arrested [by the Italian police] as a potential people smuggler,” says the young lieutenant. “I think they got the information from the migrants who’d been on board with him.

“We would start taking video footage as we went out to the rescues. It might show somebody at the helm, or somebody with a smartphone or GPs which may indicate they was in charge. The footage was passed to the Italians for them to analyse it.”

The operation had given him “renewed faith in the Navy’s credibility”.

“I had an opinion for a long time that we can play in the big leagues and this has shown we can,” he says. “I reckon we’re as good as anybody else and our training is higher than anything else I’ve seen. What we lack in terms of defence spending, we make up for in the quality and training of personnel.”

He said the Mediterranean mission had been a huge learning curve, and he remains in no doubt that while the publicity from the humanitarian missions would be a boost to naval service recruitment, he was equally hopeful the navy will perform many more overseas missions in the years ahead.

You could feel their desperation and how distressing life must have been for them

More in this section

War of Independence Podcast

A special four-part series hosted by Mick Clifford

Available on

Commemorating 100 years since the War of Independence

Home Delivery


Have the Irish Examiner delivered to your door. No delivery charge. Just pay the cover price.