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