In this book I have combined photographs with extracts from poems, song lyrics and the accounts of the men involved given to the local press in 1914 (these are direct transcriptions). This tragedy has inspired many creatives and artists over the years and I am but one more.
The photographs in this book are divided into two separate strands of work, the geographic and emotive. The former are images of the landscape relevant to the narrative of the rescue of those aboard the stricken schooner Mexico and then subsequently the crew of the Fethard lifeboat, the Helen Blake. It is my intention that by seeing these images of the locations where this unimaginable story unfolded; I can turn the abstraction of events from another generation into something a reader can conceive of and envisage today. The latter attempt to portray the emotions that were felt by all concerned through their ordeal, both on the Island, and back on shore at Fethard. Three books have inspired and influenced this work: first and foremost - The Awful Tragedy of The Helen Blake Lifeboat, Fethard, Co. Wexford by Liam Ryan, published in 2010. As I read his publication, I was immediately struck by the beauty of the prose used by the journalists in 1914. They conveyed, with great emotion and understanding the terrible events of the time. The level of research Liam employed in the creation of ‘The Awful Tragedy’ is simply staggering, without his generosity in sharing his research materials; which have been used to populate swathes of the written pages you are about to read, this work would have been altogether very different. I only wish it was possible to credit the individual authors of the articles, but unfortunately, there are no such records kept. The second is Heroes of the Helen Blake by Brendan Power published in 2019. Brendan’s book is a very different beast altogether, with wonderfully evocative text that literally puts you in the shoes of the protagonists of the story. It was reading an early version of his manuscript that inspired me to get out with my cameras and start shooting. My final source of information and inspiration is a wonderful little book created by John Doyle, The HELEN BLAKE - the last Fethard life-boat. Sincere thanks to Rebecca Doyle and family for allowing me to use some of the content. I would respectfully suggest all of these books as companion reading for this work. This is essentially a book of photographs intended to elicit an emotional response from you the reader, and as such does not go too far into the details of the events that unfolded between the 20th and 23rd of February 1914. The details are however fascinating and well worth further investigation.
After the first Chapter which concerns the story of the Mexico and is told by her Captain - Ole Edwin Eriksen, we move on to a Chapter entitled ‘Fearless’. The crew of the Helen Blake set out on their rescue mission during a force seven near gale in a 35-foot long boat powered only by sail and muscle. The tide was too low to launch from the boathouse slip, so she was brought on her carriage to Fethard Quay and launched there. Even this short journey was fraught with issues, the running gear fouled and ropes repeatedly caught. It is my firm belief that a quayside conference would have been held to gain a consensus on whether or not to attempt the rescue. Young Richard Bird who survived the tragedy, but sadly died two years later at the tender age of 24, was not a full member of the crew; nevertheless, he volunteered to set to sea with his uncle Christopher due to the fact that Bill Banville was delayed on his journey to the quay. Bill had been tending his cattle on a cliff top field when he saw the Mexico in trouble, he rushed to meet the lifeboat secretary George Bassett, and the signal to launch the lifeboat was given. He subsequently made it to the quay in time, and so the crew was now fourteen instead of the usual thirteen. This, unfortunately, meant the men didn’t have enough life jackets to go round. Bill was heard to say “if I am to be drowned without it, I will be drowned with it”.
In my view, as experienced fishermen who knew the coastline and currents well, I think they took a calculated risk and considered their mission viable. The reason for the terrible loss of life was pure bad luck, three freak waves smashing their lifeboat to splinters on the shore of the Little Keeragh. The first of the emotive images are revealed on pages 22 and 23. This diptych signifies how suddenly a family and community can be pulled apart by unforeseen events.
After the photographic description of the journey taken by the Helen Blake, your attention is drawn to The Sisters; the Kilmore lifeboat. These brave men ventured out onto the raging sea on the evening of the 20th and only returned to their lifeboat station when it became too dark for them to consider a rescue. At first light on the 21st they rowed for a considerable time into the wind and against the current in an attempt to assist their colleagues and friends. This proved futile however, and they had to return to the station. Later that morning they made another attempt and succeeded in getting to within a half a mile of the islands. On seeing two other lifeboats on scene and taking account of the sea conditions, the cox pragmatically decided to abandon their rescue attempt.
I have placed the journeys of the crews of the James Stevens (Wexford lifeboat) and the Fanny Harriet (Dunmore) in a Chapter entitled ‘Indefatigable’. The crews of the James Stevens and Fanny Harriet remained on duty the full three days and nights of the rescue. The crew of the James Stevens endured an agonising five hours being towed behind the paddle steamer tug Wexford, in their efforts to get to the scene of the incident. The bow wave created by their movement through the ocean into the teeth of the storm meant that their lifeboat was constantly filling with seawater, the only solution to this problem was to bail the boat out all the way to the Keeraghs in bitterly cold conditions. When their first rescue attempt failed, the plan was to tow the boat to Waterford and lay up overnight to prepare for another attempt the next day. As the tug and lifeboat rounded the Hook Peninsula though; the hawser connecting the two, some eight inches thick, snapped. The crew then had to row to Cheekpoint to seek shelter and rest (there is a map on page 50). Their very physical tour of duty was a full 13.5 hours long with only water to sustain them.
The crew of the Fanny Harriet stayed in Fethard at ‘Foley’s Hotel’ (now Molloys Bar) and made many unsuccessful attempts rowing and sailing between Fethard and the Keeraghs attempting to rescue the marooned survivors. Indefatigable indeed. Some of the images presented in these early chapters are bucolic in nature, I was interested in the duality of a landscape/seascape which appears so apparently benign, but could become a fearsome life-taker in such a relatively short space of time.
There are only two photographs in Chapter 4. To attempt to portray the tragic loss of life in the waters that surround the Keeraghs (pronounced Keer-rocks) would have been impossible, only an actual record of the events would suffice. Instead, photographically, I have focussed on the heroism of John McNamara and his rescue of Garry Handrick from the boiling surf around the reefs of the islands. John Mac, dazed and confused from a gaping head wound, had scrambled atop the rocks of the Little Keeragh only to see his friend being violently tossed about in the crashing surf. Mac clambered back down the low cliff and into the crashing waves from which he’d just escaped and managed to grab hold of Garry’s lifebelt. Garry shouted at John to leave him to his luck and not risk his own life, Mac replied: "I suppose they are all gone now but the two of us, and we will go or come together”. The first photograph is a representation of what Garry would perhaps have seen as he was being washed at speed toward the deadly jagged rocks; the second, what John Mac must have witnessed as he selflessly launched himself back down the rock face into the sea to grab his crew-mate.
It’s perfectly reasonable to think it best to photograph the whole project in appalling weather in order to emulate the conditions at the time of the incident. After much deliberation, I decided against this for two reasons. The first, is that I could very easily have ended up with a book of very uninteresting grey pages due to the inevitable poor visibility on such days. The second, the weather at the time did change from hour to hour, a telescope was used from the coast at Innyard for observations, therefore it must have been possible to see the three miles to the islands on many occasions.
In the Chapter entitled ’66 Hours of Hope and Hardship’ I have tried to convey both visually and through the use of image titles how slowly time must have seemed to pass during the interminable ordeal the men on the island suffered. The freezing cold, sea-spray washing over them at high tide, very little sustenance, all of this for three long days and nights. The daytime images are titled ‘Minutes Like Hours’ and I have used very fast camera shutter speeds to freeze time and movement in the views I would imagine the men to have gazed upon during this terrible experience. At Captain Eriksen’s suggestion, the men ran up and down the small green space on the Little Keeragh at night to keep themselves from freezing to death. This was the first long sea voyage for Antonio da Cunha; at only 21 years of age, the youngest crew member of the Mexico. He died of exposure on the island on Saturday morning. The image on page 103 is an imagined interpretation of Antonio embarking on his final journey, as his eyes turned to the sky whilst lying in the arms of John McNamara, with George Crumpton by his side. In my previous Forensic Photography life, I have photographed numerous cases of hypothermic death. As the end approaches, the dying actually no longer feel the cold and are overcome by a feeling of peace and warmth. Despite their own suffering, in appalling conditions, the survivors respectfully laid Antonio to rest in a shallow grave carved out of the Little Keeragh with an axe found on the shoreline. Even in this dark, desperate time, these caring and compassionate men found the strength to honour a young man (a complete stranger to the men of Fethard) who was to die on a tiny, freezing, storm swept island; so very far from home and family. Antonio was later re-interred in Cill Park Cemetery where he now lies in one of many unmarked graves.
Chapter 6 - ’66 Hours of Despair’ is formed entirely of emotive imagery, these photographs were taken in locations that those who at this time were unsure whether or not they were bereaved, would have habitually visited. Here, I have tried to imagine the mental state of the families, wives and loved ones, and what they would have been enduring at home in Fethard. Early images elude to sleeplessness induced by worry and anxiety during the night of Friday the 20th into the early hours of the 21st., later images represent the restless travels of those experiencing existential crisis.
On Saturday the 21st, as described by John Doyle, four men at their wit's end undertook a daring, desperate and some would say foolhardy rescue attempt. They put to sea in an un-ballasted small boat from Grange Beach (this is also known as Little Burrow) and started rowing towards the island. They made it halfway before the only experienced seaman aboard started to sense the danger of what they were attempting, and after the red mist and adrenaline had subsided, he came to his senses. They made it back to shore - just.
Although five bodies had washed ashore on Saturday the 21st the real knowledge that all hope was lost will have become apparent on the 23rd when the survivors finally came ashore. Any question of mistaken identity or some miracle having occurred were now swept away by seeing the faces of those that disembarked from the lifeboat Fanny Harriet; the extremes of emotion experienced at this moment must have been overwhelming. During the following weeks, the terrible reality of a new normal must have gradually started to sink in. It would be natural in this desolation for there to be recrimination, depression and bitter tears of anger expressed by the grief-stricken.
Chapter 9 - ‘Not All Storms Can Be Weathered’ is conceptually centred around a degree of acceptance. The images titled ‘Life Goes On’ are slightly surreal in their execution. I wanted to somehow show that the world still turned, the village still continued with life as it had to, but that now things were irrevocably different. The locations photographed are those that the men, now sadly gone, would have previously gathered and socialised in. I have reduced the tonality of these images to pretty much the bare minimum to inspire a slightly otherworldly view of the village.
The final Chapter - ‘Realisation and Release’ begins with an image which I shot as an interpretation of the searing pain of realising; truly, that you are now at the start of a new life bereft of a loved one, suddenly and unexpectedly taken from you. The funerals would have offered significant closure, and the outpouring of collective grief combined with the support of a close community, would I feel have given the bereaved great comfort. I suspect (I can never know) that the creation of the memorials, a constant reminder, particularly the one in Fethard must have aroused a strange mix of emotions for some, for some time. Ultimately though, these memorials must have closed the door on a part of life, and made it seem like another existence, as though lived by someone else. The final images in the body of the book are about this incremental process of ‘letting go’.
The monument in Fethard is something that people walk past every day. It’s somewhere nowadays that people arrange to meet, most of us, as we meet here, or pass by, generally don’t give a second thought as to why the structure exists. There might be some vague recollection of some event of yesteryear; but for most, the heroism and heartbreak that put the monument there are little realised. I hope this book with its photographs and accounts of the time, in some way, help the reader grasp the impact of the days after 20th of February 1914 on a small community nestled on the coastline of the Hook Peninsula in Co. Wexford, amidst the ‘graveyard of a thousand ships’.