Honouring the heroes of the greatest
loss ever suffered by the Irish RNLI
When Michael and Mary Sheridan’s daughter, Helen, was born in Claremorris, County Mayo, in 1800, they could have had no idea that she would one day become a lady in Georgian and Victorian Britain, or that her name would live on hundreds of years later in the village of Fethard on Sea in County Wexford.
Helen was still a young teenager when she was sent by her schoolteacher father to work with his brother who was the proprietor of Tyrawley hotel in nearby Castlebar. She was just 18 when she met a British army officer more than twice her age who was staying at the hotel. Captain Robert Dudley Blake, like most officers of that era, was from the wealthy landed gentry; his father, Sir Francis Blake, had been appointed High Sheriff of Northumberland by King George III.
The unlikely couple of British officer and Irish country girl fell in love but such a union would have been frowned upon in the locality so their only option was to elope. Reports say they were pursued by Helen’s father and uncle from Castlebar to Ballyglass and on to Tuam in neighbouring County Galway. Love won out, however, and they eventually made it across the country and on to Scotland where, in 1819, they married before moving to Handcross Hall in Cuckfield, Sussex.
Robert decided that Helen should attend a fashionable boarding school in London where she not only completed her education, but also learned the ways of the British upper classes and thus qualified to mingle with the wives of other officers in her husband’s regiment. The couple were very well known, and very active, in the social circles of London and their marriage was a singularly happy one, punctuated with a great sadness when their only child died in infancy.
Robert progressed well in his military career and by the time of his death, in March 1850, he had been promoted to General. There was some consternation when his will was published to find he had left his entire estate to Helen, excluding his family from any inheritance, and this was added to a month later when Robert’s brother, Francis, died and also left a sizeable portion of his estate to Helen.
After over thirty years of marriage, Robert’s death hit Helen very hard and she moved out of their beloved Handcross Hall to a smaller and more manageable house at 4 Earls Terrace in Kensington where she led a quiet life until her death in September 1876. At her request, she was buried alongside her husband in Norham, a small village just three miles from the family seat of Twizell Castle, in Northumbria. The castle is now a scheduled ancient monument and grade II listed building.
Although Helen had drafted a will, it was not signed, so the Crown took possession of her entire estate, valued at around £150,000 (over £10,000,000 today). However, the words ‘let right be done’, followed by the signature of the monarch, Queen Victoria, not only authorised any heirs to proceed against the crown for recovery of her fortune, but also suspended the statute of limitations in this case.
In the years that followed, there were numerous claims to her estate from people throughout the world and although none were successful, it is often said that there are still Sheridans around Claremorris who could be related.
The Crown did honour the bequests in Helen’s will however, and one of those was for the sum of £6,400 to build two lifeboats for Ireland. There were three different boats stationed in Fethard on Sea bearing her name; the first arrived ten years after her death and was replaced in 1897 after eleven years service. The third Helen Blake, built at the Thames Ironworks boatyard in London, arrived in November 1905. The other boat funded by Helen’s bequest was the General R Dudley Blake, which went to Blackrock in County Louth where it was in service from 1909 to 1935, and was famously used on the insignia of the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution).
Helen’s money is still with the Crown and in the UK her story is all but forgotten. In Fethard on Sea however, her legacy lives on and it is the villagers’ intention that the replica Helen Blake will honour its original benefactor as well as the brave crew members.