(This post was amended later on 12 February to include some new details)
Ballycotton, a small fishing village and holiday destination situated on an east-facing headland in East Cork, is an old village that was once an estate of the Bishop of Cloyne. Settlement in the area goes back many centuries. We know who lived there in the 1200s because the text of the Pipe Roll of Cloyne has survived and been re-edited and republished most recently by Paul MacCotter and Kenneth Nicholls. Unfortunately anyone searching for Ballycotton’s medieval remains will be disappointed, since the medieval village was eroded into the sea centuries ago. One extraordinary discovery there in the 19th century was a cross brooch from the 8th-9th century. This gold brooch has a central inset with early Arabic script on it which seems to be the earliest Islamic inscription found in Ireland! Clearly Ballycotton was an important harbour in the early medieval period – probably replaced by Ballinacorra as the port for Cloyne at a later date. The present village of Ballycotton dates from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Ballycotton’s links to the sea include its valuable service as the base of a lifeboat station of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution since 1858. Nearby Crosshaven (on the western shore of Cork Harbour) and Youghal also boast lifeboat stations – which gives an idea of the dangerous nature of the shore on this stretch of County Cork’s coastline. What makes this shore particlarly treacherous are the shoals or rocks lying just below the surface, for at low tide the viewer can see shelf of rock stretching out to sea – a nasty prospect for any vessel caught in a southerly or south easterly wind blowing hard ashore. This same shelf can provide splendid beaches where there is sand, but it is the rocks that pose a serious threat. To make matters worse, there are a number of rocky islands – two at Ballycotton Head and one at Knockadoon Head. Only one of these islands has a lighthouse – it stands on the larger of the two islands off Ballycotton. In addition, there are lighthouses at Youghal and Roches Point.
On 7th February 1936 a huge storm drove a south-easterly gale on to the coast of Cork. This storm developed into something approaching a hurricane. The wind was so strong that the spray from the waves breaking of the cliffs was sent over the lantern of the Ballycotton Lighthouse – over 196 feet above sea level! The mighty stones that made up the breakwater of Ballycotton harbour were ripped up and tossed about. Slates were ripped from the roofs of the houses – and the telephone cables were cut. The fishermen of Ballycotton spent 10th February securing their vessels as best they could in their small harbour.
About 8.00 am on the morning of 11th February, the lifeboat station in Ballycotton received an SOS delivered by car. The station was notified that the Lights Vessel Comet had broken her moorings off Daunt Rock and was drifting towards Ballycotton.
The LV Comet was a lightship – a floating lighthouse – on station off the Daunt Rock. This is a dangerous undersea rock that comes perilously close to the surface some miles due south of the resort of Fountainstown (on the western side of Cork Harbour). Lightships were tough, very heavy ships designed to withstand severe storms at sea. Usually lightships were moored above or near a marine hazard to warn shipping of the danger lurking below the waves. A previous lightship at the Daunt Rock had been lost in 1896 – the bodies of the crew were never recovered. However, if a lightship should break her moorings and drift, then because of her strong construction, she would pose a serious hazard to other ships. This wasn’t quite the situation in February 1936 – but it was perilously close to it. The Comet managed to secure an anchor to the sea bed, but it was uncertain how long that would hold in the appalling seas. The lives of eight men were now in grave peril.
The Coxswain of the lifeboat, Patrick Sliney, took immediate, but careful action. Conscious of the suicidal nature of the task ahead, and wary of upsetting the villagers, he prohibited the use of maroon flares to alert his volunteer crew. Instead he visited them quietly and asked them to assemble at the lifeboat station. They would take the Mary Stanford out before anybody realised that they were gone.
Apart from Patsy Sliney, the Mary Stanford‘s crew that day included:Second Coxswain John Lane Walsh, Motor Mechanic Thomas Sliney, Crewmen Michael Coffey Walsh, John Shea Sliney, William Sliney and Thomas Walsh. To reduce the time it took to get to the Daunt Rock, Sliney took his vessel through the narrow sound between the islands, cutting a half a mile from the journey. As the huge seas crashed over his boat, Sliney counted his men to make sure that nobody had been swept overboard. There was no sign of the lightship, so the Mary Stanford slipped into Cobh to get information on the Comet’s whereabouts. Despite the worsening weather, Sliney took his vessel back out to sea and found that the Comet was now drifting and was just a half a mile from the shore. And she wasn’t alone.
At that time, Cork Harbour was still an operational base of the Royal Navy, in accordance with the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. The destroyer HMS Tenedos had stationed herself close to the Comet to assist, but dared not come too close in the wild seas.
On reaching the Comet, Sliney’s crew tried to attach a steel cable to the lightship to allow her to be towed to port by the Tenedos – but the cable parted each time. At nightfall, the Mary Stanford returned to Cobh to get a stronger cable. The B & I Lines packet Innisfallen now stood by with the Tenedos to render assistance. Meanwhile the famished crew of the Mary Stanford finally got their first bite of food all day as well as three hours of sleep, and a change of clothing.
The storm continued to rage the next day, 12th February, as the Mary Stanford returned to the lightship. By now a fog was making visibility difficult. The Tenedos departed her station and was later replaced by the Irish Lights Vessel Isolde. Rescue was impossible under the weather conditions at the time, so the Mary Stanford stood by for the next twenty-four hours to warn off any shipping. Running low on fuel, the Mary Stanford was obliged to return to Cobh about 7.00 am the next morning, 13th February. Despite the salt burns and seasickness suffered by the crew and an injury to Patsy Sliney’s hand, the Mary Stanford returned to the rescue after refuelling, and permitting her crew a short rest. On arrival, they found that the Irish Lights Vessel Isolde had arrived to tow the lightship to safety, but by now the weather had got even worse, and Isolde was unable to help.
As darkness fell, Sliney had the lifeboat’s light beamed on Comet, but the storm now threatened a new danger – the wind changed direction and the lightship was now in danger of being blown onto Daunt Rock itself. The situation was extremely dangerous for the lightship crew, so Patsy Sliney was obliged to take drastic action. The men on the lightship would have to jump aboard the Mary Stanford – if they missed, they would very likely drown! Moving his vessel to the leeward side of the lightship, and having poured petrol on the sea to calm it (to no effect), Sliney placed his heaving boat alongside the lightship and urged the men to jump. One man got aboard on the first attempt. Five got aboard on the third attempt. The fourth attempt actually damaged the Mary Stanford – and neither of the two men aboard the lightship had jumped. They were too exhausted. The fifth attempt also failed. Sliney then took drastic action for his sixth attempt – he had some of his crew stand at the bows and, literally, grab the men from the lightship. The procedure was as dangerous to the lifeboatmen as it was to the rescued men. Both the rescued men were injured in the attempt, but they were now safe, and received immediate first aid.
The Mary Stanford could now return to Cobh – but with additional drama, as one of the rescued men lost his nerve and had to be restrained from jumping overboard. After spending the night in Cobh, the RNLB Mary Stanford returned to Ballycotton in fine weather having departed from her home base seventy-nine hours earlier. It was, of course, 14th February – St Valentine’s Day. For their extraordinary rescue of the crew of the Daunt Rock Lightship the volunteer crew of the Mary Stanford were honoured by the RNLI: Patsy Sliney was awarded the RNLI Gold Medal, John Lane Walsh and Thomas Sliney were awarded the Silver Medal and the crewmen, Michael Coffey Walsh, John Shea Sliney, William Sliney, and Thomas Walsh were presented with the Bronze Medal.
The Mary Stanford served the RNLI until 1959, when she was retired as a reserve lifeboat. In 1969 she was sold to the Limerick Harbour Commissioners to serve as a pilot launch. In the 1980s she was acquired by a trust to preserve her at Grand Canal Docks in Dublin. This venture fell through and she was effectively abandoned until a group in Ballycotton decided to rescue her. The RNLB Mary Stanford, after a short stop in Midleton, returned home to Ballycotton in the autumn of 2014 to await restoration.
To donate to the Mary Stanford restoration fund:
The Ballycotton Cross (now in the British Museum) is discussed here: