Irish Ships and Shipping

The 'Cymric'
A Seafaring Tragedy

©Jim Cooke  

The seafaring history of Ringsend is remembered locally in an estate of houses off Sean Moore Road . Familiarly known as the 'New Houses' their street names are dedicated to the names of ships that sailed the seas as part of the Irish Fleet during the Second World War. All of the ships named were sunk during those troubled times. One such ship was The 'Cymric' which was built in the Anglesey port of Almwch in 1883, the 'Cymric' spent much of her working life in Arklow ownership. She was originally an iron barquentine of 228 tons. She was built by William Thomas and Sons, as was her sister ship, the 'Gaelic', which also spent many years in Arklow ownership. She was 123 feet long with a draught of only 10.8 feet and had wooden masts and a round counter stern. Her early days were spent in the South American trade running from Runcorn to Gibraltar and on to the Rio Grande .

She was bought by Captain Richard Hall of Arklow in 1906 and spent most of her days in the hands of the Hall family. She spent the eight years up to World War I in the Spanish wine trade. Arklow had a long established maritime tradition and W.S. Mason's survey of Ireland in 1816 stated: "The Fishermen of Arklow who are a distinct race, and who inhabit a separate part of the town, are solely given up to their pursuits, nor will they even when reduced to distress employ themselves in labouring works". A large fleet of small cargo vessels was owned in the as well as about 160 fishing vessels. The whole economy of the town was based on the sea. Later, though the fleet declined, many Arklow sons followed the sea for a living, mainly with the great steam and sailing ship companies of Great Britain, and almost every home in Arklow had a ship in a bottle over the door.

The traditional path for a young boy (as in Ringsend) was to learn rowing, sculling and splicing while still at school, spending his play-hours among the schooners lying in the Avoca River. Schooling finished at twelve years but boys would then do a summer season on a fishing smack and then at 13 or 14 years of age he would join a schooner with the rank of ordinary seaman, and so seafaring life would begin.

During World War I (1914-1918) the 'Cymric' was taken over by the British Admiralty and fitted with a 4 inch gun and two 12 pounders to be used as a `Q Ship'. They also installed a twin screw engine (Schooner engines were colloquially known as the 'iron sail'.). The Cymric could now act as a decoy ship under a neutral flag attempting to lure U-Boats into range. A Q Ship was a merchant vessel converted into a gun boat, but camouflaged so that when a U-Boat surfaced to inspect or attack, the Q Ship's guns were turned on her. However, the 'Cymric' was unsuccessful in this venture and was returned to Hall's after the war, in 1919.

For the next 20 years she spent most of her time carrying malt from ports such as Ballinacurra, New Ross and Wexford to Dublin .

In 1927 when on one of those trips to Dublin she had an unusual accident when entering the Inner Basin of the Grand Canal at Ringsend. She collided with a tramcar which was crossing the drawbridge on Irishtown Road . She got too near the bridge and her bowsprit speared the tramcar, but no one was hurt.

The original Ringsend Road Drawbridge, or Brunswick Bascule, later rebuilt as the Victoria Bridge , was since independence known as the Iron Bridge .

Later, in 1933, on Christmas Eve she grounded on a bank in Wexford Harbour when 70 fathoms of rope used the previous day in an attempt to re-float another vessel got caught in her propeller (A fathom equals about 6 feet ). She spent five days aground and was eventually refloated with the aid of a diver and the removal of some cargo (malt barrels).

When the Second World War started, many Irish Ships went in under the British flag and Ireland , which was neutral, needed every available ship to supply the country's needs. In 1943 the 'Cymric' was chartered by Messrs Betson of Dublin to make trips to Portugal for vital supplies in severe shortage due to the war. She had a major refitting done in Ringsend Dockyard at this time and on 29th October 1943 she sailed for Lisbon via Port Talbot , under the command of Captain Michael Cardiff of Wexford, where she loaded a cargo of coal. Bad weather delayed her leaving the Bristol Channel and she had to be taken back to Rosslare when Captain Cardiff became ill. There were many crew changes at Rosslare and it is said many were inexperienced in handling a schooner, being more used to cross channel steamers.

The 'Cymric' resumed her passage on 23rd December 1943 now commanded by Captain Christopher Cassidy, arriving in Lisbon on New Year's Day 1944. She spent a week in port and then left for Dublin in bad weather. She berthed safely in Dublin on 24th January 1944 and there were further crew changes so that now six of the crew of eleven were from Wexford.

On February 23rd 1944 she left Ardrossan in Scotland where she loaded a cargo of coal for Lisbon and was sighted off Dublin the following day for the last time. No wreckage was ever found and her loss may have been due either to foundering in heavy weather, hitting a mine, being sunk by a U-Boat or being driven by a gale into the Bay of Biscay which was a prohibited area of the Western Approaches and so could have been attacked and sunk by Allied aircraft.

To establish a method of safety from attack by their own (Allied) forces merchant shipping and convoys had to keep out of certain areas and travel on the 12th Western Parallel to Gibraltar , known as the Western Approaches. The Bay of Biscay was a 'sink on sight' area to Allied aircraft and warships.

Relatives of the crew received the following letter from Messrs Betson's dated 26th March 1944 :

"We regret that since the vessel left Ardrossan on 23rd February and passed through Dublin Bay the following evening bound for Lisbon , no news has been received of her arrival at that port. Every effort has been made, and will continue to be made, to try and obtain some news of her position. You can rest assured that as soon as any definite word is received by us it will be immediately passed on to you.

"Owing to the length of time that the vessel is now on passage, she is regarded in official circles as overdue" (Quoted from Forde: 'The Long Watch').

This was the final call for the 'Cymric' — missing   presumed sunk.

The Roll of Honour is as follows:

P. Bergin, Wexford; J. Brennan, Wexford; C. Cassidy, Athboy Co. Meath; J. Crosbie, Wexford; K. Furlong, Wexford; B. Kiernan, Dundalk; C. McConnell, Dublin; W. O'Rourke, Wexford; M. Ryan, Dungarvan; P. Seaver, Skerries; M. Tierney, Wexford.

"In the Picture below are at least three Ringsend men. Left to right are the Bissett brothers, Willie and Johnny and Georgie Gaffney, second from right". (Jim Cooke )

"The man first left looks remarkably like Mike "Cootie" Williams of Wexford who worked by her in Dublin, a man I knew well. The man at the back is definitely Michael Tierney who was lost on her and the man in the cap on the extreme right is Sydney Kerr ,later captain ,of Enniscorthy who, like Williams worked by her". (Jack 0'Leary)

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