Innisfallen: Voyage of Shock and Mystery

By Captain Frank Devaney

An Extract from the Cork Examiner, 1995

In Roy Hammond's excellent book Media Memories of Cork, I came across a story concerning a violent storm on November 30, 1954, in which the P and O cargo liner Tresillion foundered off the Cork Coast. I well remember the date mentioned as I was sailing as senior second officer on the Innisfallen. Captain Thomas McVeigh was her master, Captain Tim Hamilton, staff captain, and Mr Paul Vollrath third officer on this particular voyage.

Monday, November 29, 1954, was a filthy evening as we cast off from Penrose Quay, Cork, with passengers, some cargo and a full load of livestock. Accompanied by a high S.SE wind, overcast skies and continuous heavy rain, we proceeded on our overnight passage to Fishguard, passing Roche's Point lighthouse at about 7.20 pm. I went to my cabin for a rest as Captain Hamilton took over the bridge watch; I was due to relieve him at the Conigbeg light vessel around 11.00 pm for the second leg of the trip. Off Ballycotton on her easterly course the Innisfallen was taking a battering from heavy seas on her starboard beam which sent sheets of spray over the masts, radar and wireless aerials. The wind was increasing and veering slowly, causing a confused sea. Shortly afterwards a particularly strong sea burst open the third class accommodation bar door causing some flooding, so the passengers from this section were transferred to first class.

All this was most unusual for this great sea boat which not only was fitted with the most modern navigational aids but was also installed with Denny Brown stabilisers. However, one might say in a contemporary phrase that the weather that night was something else. So intense were the conditions that I expected Captain McVeigh might heave the vessel to but he kept on course, a decision in the long run which turned out for the best.

From time to time the fore and aft drawers of the chart room, which were normally stiff to open, would be thrown right out. As there was no rest to be had I went to the bridge to assist Captain McVeigh while Captain Hamilton patrolled the decks. Some time later Chief Engineer Andrew Kerr phoned the bridge to say that water was entering the engine room from the main cattle deck.

It was then discovered the scuppers on this deck were clogged by hay and dung. All hands including the off duty watch below were put to work freeing all the various gratings and outlets. Off the Conigbeg the Decca Navigator antenna and main radio aerials were blown down so Mr. Dan J. Neville, Radio Officer, could not transmit any messages and receive very little. The wind at this time was hurricane force and had veered to about S.S.W. with visibility only about two miles.

About 11.30 pm the gearing of the radar scanner failed, ceasing to rotate due to excessive wind pressure - so the elements were not finished with us yet. A big strong AB from Cape Clear Island named Eugene Daly was sent up to the high exposed platform known as Monkey Island to give the rotor a full spins; this enabled us to get a quick picture of Carnsore Point on the port beam and fix our position, the time now being about 00.10 hours on Tuesday, November 30.

Shortly afterwards the wind veered S.W. but there was no drop in the wind force and the sea and accompanying swell were very high and angry. About half way between the Tuskar Rock and Strumble Head across the channel the captain decided to run before it in a north easterly course for half an hour before heaving to on a course of S.S.W. as he feared we might be on too fine a course towards the Welsh coast. When this was successfully accomplished and the engine revolutions were adjusted the captain slipped into his cabin for a while and I was joined on the bridge by third officer Vollrath.

Moments later a rogue sea came over the fo'csle head and crashed into the forward well deck smashing some iron-bound storm hatches, which covered Number 2 hatchway and washing away the two stairways ascending from the well deck to the passenger accommodation forward and disturbing the bulkhead at the after end of the well deck. This caused flooding in the fore end passenger cabins and alleyways.

Some hours later the visibility improved and we sighted South Bishop light to starboard and later Strumble Head light to port. When entering Fishguard Harbour just before daybreak we met both the Rosslare bound and Waterford bound railway ships leaving port having delayed their sailings due to the weather. When we eventually moored up at Fishguard we witnessed considerable shore damage. Houses were battered, while many large trees were uprooted and winds of over 100mph were recorded at Pembroke during that terrible night. We thought nothing more could happen to us at this stage, but we were wrong. A strange report came from the crew's quarters which no one could explain properly and remains a mystery to all still living.

The sailors' and motormen's cabins and washrooms were on the ship's portside, off an alleyway; in order to get there from the main cattle deck one had to come through a heavy door with a high step in the bulkhead, then make a 90 degree angle right turn to pass through a narrow fan room to another such door which led to the alleyway. A large framed man would have to take great care in negotiating the area. In addition. The doors in question were always kept closed. When one of the motormen went to the washroom on arrival in Fishguard he was confronted by two large bullocks which were standing by the wash basins. He thought he was dreaming. Just as there appeared to be no explanation as to how the animals got there, there was equally no way that they could be got out alive, and regrettably the poor beasts had to be destroyed.

In later years Captain Hamilton was found dead in his bunk during another storm when he was taking the ship back to Cork after dry-docking in Belfast and I replaced him. When Captain McVeigh retired shortly afterwards, I became her Master until just before she was disposed of in 1968.

I have many happy memories of this Innisfallen, her fine crew, many of whom have gone to their reward.