The Navigator's Story

By Redmond Gillen

My grandfather, Redmond John Bruen, was a seaman. He was on the tea clippers going to Australia and New Zealand. He worked with Shaw Saville of London. He packed in the sea and went to America and joined the Klondyke gold rush. He didn't make any money at that, so he sold his stake and bought a canoe and sailed down the Mississippi to New Orleans, himself and a Cockney. Then he turned up at the San Francisco earthquake in 1908. From there he went to Kentucky and bred horses for nine years.

The pub in Rosses always remained in the family, so he came home at the age of 40 and took it over. He started the Elsinore Ballroom. It became famous in the West. Besides a dance floor, they had a skating ring as well. Freddie Dykes was a resident musician in the ballroom so the sea tradition was always in the background. Austie himself was a seaman for 20 years and his father for 40.

I went as a deckhand at 17 to the B & I line in Dublin. I spent 10 months there. I got fed up and went to HMS Raleigh in Portsmouth - it was a training school. I spent three years in the Naval Service. Then I joined a company in Newcastle called Roperner. They were a tanker company on charter to the Ministry of Defence. I was based in Bermuda for ten months shifting aviation fuel and topping up aeroplane tanks.

When I finished there I went down to Kaiou, the main port of Lima in Peru. I went on a boat out of there shifting oil around. I came back on leave and then joined a New Zealand shipping company out of London, and traded between New Zealand Australia and the UK for four years. I was an able bodied seaman, opening the hatches, rigging the derricks, keeping watch at night on the bridge and steering in and out of port. Out at sea the boat would be on automatic pilot. Two days out from port we'd switch to manual and you'd operate dog-watches - three men on a watch, one at the helm steering, one at the wing of the bridge on watch and one below as standby. He, for some reason no one knows, is called a 'farmer'.

We often ran into hurricanes, as we'd go through the Bermuda Triangle then on through the Panama Canal into the Pacific. The gust would be turning round to go up Florida. Often we'd hit one blowing at well over 100 mile an hour wind force. The Bermuda Triangle is notorious for ships and planes going missing. I was actually ten months shipping round it, but nothing happened.

I came away from there and went to Navigation College in South Shields, Newcastle, to do my Mate's Navigation Certificate. I stayed in a boarding house run by a Mrs. Gallagher from Sligo, where previous occupants had been famous villagers from the Point, also going to college. Among them were Captain George Bruen and Captain Vincent Devaney. They were all well known there. I could do no wrong I got my certificate and went back to sea as mate with Captain George Bruen on a general cargo ship called the Spring Lass, also out of London. We traded around the Mediterranean ports - Benghazi, Tripoli, Cyprus, Malta and many others - For practical experience it was the best thing I did - working with someone from home. George was a great time keeper. You'd know the meaning of time working with him. We spent four enjoyable years together in the Baltic and Scandinavia besides the Mediterranean, until I came to the stage that I thought I might do something different.

So I applied for a job in the Rhodesian police through a friend from Rosses Point who was an inspector there in Bulawayo. I was home on leave and got a letter telling me to come out but that I had to pay my own expenses. I went out to Rhodesia to join the police but told them all at Rosses that I was going back to sea.

I actually went to GHQ Causeway, Salisbury, where I met Derek Martin. Then I had second thoughts about becoming a policeman. The civil war was on between Mugabe and Ian Smith. 'I don't want to die for a lost cause,' I told Derek.

I got a ride to Durban in South Africa on the Indian Ocean. I went to one of the most famous pubs in Africa - The Cockney Pride - It's where all the Paddies and Scots drink. Then I went down the docks and got a job with Saff Marine on an offshore rig boat where I spent the next 14 months in and out of Durban.

I decided it was time to go home. I flew to London, and then came home for a few weeks holiday. I suppose the locals thought it looked like I was always on holiday. Next I went with Michael Hogan, who used to be assistant manager of Ryans in Rosses to Nashville, Tennessee, where we worked in various jobs. The most memorable was as a truck-driver with Nashville City Council with Hogan as my helper.

One morning we were driving down Interstate 53 to Alabama and a state trooper stopped us. He asked me to produce identification. I gave him my Irish driving license. 'God dam it,' he said, 'is this a Christmas card? ' He asked me if I was a wet neck, one of the Mexicans that swim across the Rio Grande. 'I can't swim,' I told him. He let us go with a warning.

I left Nashville and by good luck rejoined my good shipmate and friend George Bruen in Newport Rhode Island where we sold wicker baskets and chairs. We set up a stall on the side of the road at Cape Cod. Who came along but Vincent Stanley from Sligo, the musician, one of the best accordion players from the West of Ireland. He got an awful land when he saw us. He thought we were all away at sea. We went to a coffee-house to celebrate, I was the only drinker among them.

I returned to Ireland and went salmon fishing with Dermot Healy and John Kilgallon (Leggy) who had worked the ferries for many years. We had a poor but enjoyable season, and to end it lost a valuable net off the South Coast at Skreen. A sudden squall had struck us, the sea turned savage, and we had to cut her free else we'd have gone up on the rocks. Joe Finnegan, another seaman, was with us that day.

Then I started back to the bar trade which had been run by the family through generation after generation. Sligo is still the most beautiful place I've been, but I like the Channel Islands. I never took to South America - there was only the very poor and the rich.

The poverty was unbelievable in places like Venezuela. No middle class had a chance to emerge. The people I liked best in my travels were the Geordies from Newcastle - they are very like the Irish. And New Zealand was the best country I've been in. It's a country well behind Europe; it's backward, easygoing and friendly.

I found it difficult starting out again from home. I had to prove that I could stay the course. Everyone expected me to be back to sea in the morning, but I stayed, despite what was said. Sometimes I got a call to say would I like to join a ship out of some European or Eastern port, or you might be asked to crew a boat going from Ireland to Australia, but I've learned to say no. The only time I go to sea now is to cross to Coney Island, or guide the coal boats up the Channel. I act now as pilot for Sligo Harbour after my father, Austie, retired.  

Redmond Gillen was interviewed by Dermot Healy for the Winter, 1989, edition of Force 10, the Journal of the North - West of Ireland.