The band of I Brigade played seasonal favourites as the crew of LÉ Niamh disembarked from the ship to be greeted by hugs and kisses from relatives who had gathered on the pier at Haulbowline Naval Base to welcome them home.
Able Seaman Jordan Culbert, 28, from Birr, Co Offaly, had a special surprise for long-term partner Alison Parsons.
He had purchased an engagement ring while on shore leave in Malta and got down on one knee to propose to her yesterday as their children, Farrah, 6, and Harrison, 3, looked on.
“We’ve been together for 10 years, but I wasn’t expecting this. It was a complete shock,” said Alison after accepting the proposal.
She said she was used to Jordan being away — he was on the same ship when it was on migrant rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015.
Back then it was a purely humanitarian mission. The ship saved 4,166 migrants on that mission, which is still a record.
This time out, she saved 613, primarily because of the change from Operation Pontus to joining the EU taskforce Operation Sophia.
Captain of the LÉ Niamh, Lieutenant Commander Stuart Armstrong, explained that while the crew were involved in rescues, one of its main roles within the taskforce was surveillance and intelligence-gathering designed to disrupt people-smuggling gangs.
The ship was tasked with trying to get information which would prevent the illegal smuggling of oil and weapons into Libya, parts of which still remain lawless as various factions fight for supremacy.
Lt Cmdr Armstrong said he felt they had been very successful in providing vital intelligence on ship movements to the command centre in Italy. “We’re now part of a bigger mission with a bigger team,” he said.
But amid the work there was still some downtime. “Nearly 20 birthdays were celebrated on the mission. We ensured there was a birthday cake for all of them.”
One of those was a milestone celebration. Able Mechanic Matthew Cummings, from Laois, turned 21 while on the mission and pointed out he was lucky as it fell on a day when they were docked in Sicily and was therefore able to sample the nightlife.
Lt Cmdr Armstrong had an emotional reunion with wife Joy and their eight-month-old daughter, Olivia, yesterday.
Joy, who had travelled from Wicklow, said it had been a particularly tough time for her because her mother had died while Stuart was at sea. “But it’s great to have him home for Christmas,” she said after giving him a hug as he was first to step off the ship.
Lt Cmdr Armstrong’s parents, Joan and Hugh, were also present to welcome him home.
A first birthday party was postponed for a day so one of the crew could share it with his son, Alfie.
Katie Dowling and her partner, Gary O’Loughlin, who both live in Cobh, Co Cork, were going to celebrate Alfie’s big day yesterday, along with the homecoming.
“I really missed Gary,” said Katie.
“But we were able to speak to him on the phone on a couple of occasions and the calls definitely made things a little easier.”
Suzanne Greene is somebody who knows all about being away from home.
As she waited for her husband to alight from the ship, Suzanne, who lives in Dublin, explained that she’s a medic in the army.
By coincidence, so too is husband Philip.
He was on LÉ Niamh to provide medical assistance to any injured migrants.
The couple’s two children, Eoghan, 7, and Aoibhe, 4, were waving flags and clearly thrilled to see dad back home.
“Before we had the children we both served abroad on missions in Chad and the Lebanon,” said Suzanne.
For Marie Scott, it was the second time she had turned up to the naval base to welcome home her husband, Chris, who is a leading seaman. He previously served in the Mediterranean in 2015 aboard LÉ Samuel Beckett.
“It doesn’t get any easier,” said Marie, who lives in Churchtown, Co Cork.
She said her three children, aged 14 to 5, “really missed him” and that it was great he was home.