Three members of the 60-strong crew of LÉ James Joyce are returning for the second time to the Mediterranean Sea because they are anxious to help exploited refugees.

Leading seaman Alex Casey’s last tour of duty there was on LÉ Niamh, which came across some appalling tragedies.

Just before LÉ James Joyce departed Haulbowline yesterday, the leading seaman described how, on his last trip, he had come across 14 refugees who died after being locked into the hold of a barge and then, some days later, a barge which had capsized.

“There were 700 people on board it,” said Mr Casey. “We recovered 39 bodies but we believe more than 250 drowned and their bodies were never recovered. I think the people smugglers are despicable.”

The last time he was in the Mediterranean his partner, Aoife, was heavily pregnant. Now the couple has a six-month-old daughter, Holly, and Alex readily admitted it would be tough not seeing either for the next 12 weeks.

Leading seaman Katie O’Leary, who is one of five women on board, remembered when she was on last year’s mission with LÉ Eithne. The Bere Island native acts as a security officer.

“The migrants are scared. They’re hugging you after getting out of the water. The women are handing you their children,” she said. “They are so grateful to be rescued and that makes you feel good.”

When they get on board, many refugees are very dehydrated and hungry and that’s where able cook Robert O’Neill comes in. He also served on LÉ Eithne’s mission last year.

“We prepare food in advance for the migrants and have to feed the crew as well,” he said. “We give them rice or pasta dishes, porridge, high-energy drinks, and liquid supplements. When we feed them we have to replenish the meals.”

LE James Joyce, under the command of Lt Cmdr Neil Manning, is expected to arrive in the area of operations just off the Libyan coast on July 16.

“We have been training over the past two months for this mission. Everybody is ready,” he said. His ship is replacing LÉ Roisin, which arrives in Cork next Friday.

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