Tragedy

Honouring the heroes of the greatest
loss ever suffered by the Irish RNLI

rescue-2

In 2014, composer Liam Bates produced a work for large orchestra and choir to honour the volunteers of the RNLI which, two years later was performed by the Wexford Sinfonia in the National Concert Hall. Most importantly though, the name chosen for this piece, which would honour volunteers throughout Ireland and the UK, was, The Heroes of the Helen Blake. Every year since it was founded in 1824, the RNLI has relied on volunteers to crew its lifeboats with virtually every occupation and profession represented. And it was no different on that fateful day when the farmers and fishermen who made up the crew of the Helen Blake, set out from Fethard on Sea in County Wexford on a rescue mission that, sadly, would make history.

Around mid-day on the 20th February 1914, the Norwegian three-masted schooner, the ‘Mexico’, was 20 miles off Hook Head, battling its way through gale force winds on the last leg of a 5000 mile journey from South America. Visibility was almost zero, the weather was atrocious, and the winds were getting worse. The captain was left with very little choice but to run for shelter, but even that wasn’t possible, and she was driven further south by the wind. Just a few hours later, the Mexico was aground on the rocks surrounding the Keeragh Islands in Ballyteigue Bay.

On shore, news of the disaster was relayed to Fethard, the alarm was raised and the men who formed the lifeboat crew made their way from their homes and workplaces to the boathouse to set out on a rescue attempt that would end in tragedy. When it was all over, just 5 of the 14 man crew returned to their homes.
helen-blake-sketchWhat they did that day is almost unbelievable – a cold winter’s day, rain was lashing down, the wind was blowing so hard it was an effort to stand straight, at sea the waves were so high the view beyond them was totally obscured and in the midst of all this, fourteen brave men launched a 35 foot rowing boat to fight their way through three miles of wind and waves, putting their own lives at risk, to save the lives of people they didn’t even know. Statistics say nine crewmen lost their lives that day, but in Fethard on Sea, it is seen as far more than that. These were nine of our fellow villagers, nine individuals, nine people snatched away in the prime of their lives leaving behind grieving family members and three widows with sixteen children who would grow up without a father. And it’s not just those who lost their lives; the remaining crewmen, and those whose lives they had saved, spent three days and nights on the Keeraghs in appalling weather, with no shelter, food or water. It was during this time that a young crew member of the Mexico died and was buried in a shallow grave.

It took the combined effort of three lifeboats: The Sisters from Kilmore, the Fanny Harriet from Dunmore and the James Stevens from Rosslare, together with the Wexford  tugboat, before they could themselves be rescued.

It is those men, those heroes, that their descendants and fellow villagers want to honour by building a replica of their boat that will be a lasting memory and a fitting tribute to their selfless bravery.

The Survivors
George Crumpton
Garret Handrick
John Kelly
John McNamara
Patrick Stafford

members-of-the-helen-blake-crew

Those who gave their lives
William Banville
Christopher Bird
William Bird
Patrick Butler
Patrick Cullen
Michael Handrick
Thomas Handrick
James Morrisey
Patrick Roche
and Antonio Levi
from the Mexico
THE FETHARD LIFEBOAT CREW
Matty Barden

 

 

 

 

Dark and lonesome is the hour before the dawn of day
And dark beyond conception is the cold and silent clay
A widow’s grief is darker still the sorrow few can tell
A grief that is heart rending, on which we will not dwell
But darkest of all is the cloud of grief o’er Fethard hangs today
For her brave heroic lifeboat men whose lives were cast away
On the 20th day of February I mean to let you know
A storm terrific and severe o’er the Wexford coast did blow
A Norwegian barque the Mexico got in a perilous state
by being driven on the Keeragh rocks to meet a dreadful fate
Her crew all in a frightened state together they did group
Awaiting for the Captains orders assembled on the poop
The signal of distress was raised and from the mast it flew
Then pluckily to the rescue came the Fethard Lifeboat crew
The thunder roared, the lightning flashed, the seas like mountains ran,
But onward ‘mid that tempestuous storm the lifeboat proudly came
The signal which was flashed that night was the white o’er the green in view,
The signal which a sailor reads: ‘we will not abandon you’.
As they reached the ill-fated Mexico, oh horror what a shock,
Their boat was bashed to pieces on the dreaded Keeragh Rocks
Oh Lord what a sensation, to behold those heroes brave,
Contending with the raging sea, their precious lives to save
The crew of the gallant Mexico, though terror stricken too
They rendered all assistance to the drowning lifeboat crew
Five of those gallant heroes were all that could be found.
The other nine, by the Keeragh Rocks, I’m sorry to say were drowned.
May the Lord have mercy on their souls, and of their noble kind
And heaven guard the restless ones, those heroes left behind
 

Full details of the rescue and the aftermath are contained in Liam Ryan’s book, ‘The Awful Tragedy of the Helen Blake Lifeboat’
 
 
DONATE
If you would like to help us achieve our goal to honour the heroes of the
Helen Blake,
please BUY A FOOT OF PLANKING
and be named in the Roll of Honour


Go raibh maith agat
(Thank you)
from all of us in Fethard on Sea
Find Us
Helen Blake Lifeboat
Fethard on Sea
New Ross
Co Wexford
Ireland
Social Media – Follow Us
The Helen Blake Project - Facebook
The Helen Blake Project - Instagram