The Voyages of the Tartar, 1896 to 1948

By Captain Frank Devaney

The SS Tartar was built by Scots of Bowling near Glasgow in 1896. She was designed specially to carry herring quickly to market from the Scottish fishing fleet in the Firth of Clyde and when new could reach a speed of 15 knots. Her gross tonnage was 266, with a length of 130 feet and a beam of 22 feet.

In 1889 she was purchased by the Sligo Steam Navigation Company and the Congested Districts Board, for a trade which was opened between Sligo and Belmullet, County Mayo, carrying general cargo and livestock and with accommodation for a small number of steerage passengers. Her crew numbered seven, Captain Michael Gillen of Crescent Lodge, Rosses Point, was her first Sligo master. He had commanded foreign going sailing ships for many years, retiring from the Tartar early this century.

The roads in the West of Ireland at the time were just dirt tracks and large trucks and lorries were then a thing of the future, so the opening of this service must have been a relief to the North and West Mayo areas. The Tartar would leave Sligo loaded with a general cargo and sometimes called to the bays off Porturlin, Portacloy, or Belderg en route and drop anchor. Curraghs would come off and take ashore the goods ordered such as bags of flour, sugar and meal. The trip took about seven hours and at the Broadhaven side of Belmullet a wooden pier was built which extended from the mainland over the mudflats, for about 200 yards, to the deeper water in the channel where the vessel was afloat at all states of the tide.

Bogeys which ran the track would be hand-pushed, loaded with goods, to a large storage shed situated at the shore end of the pier. The main importer at this time was McIntyre, who had a store in the town about a mile distance.

The Tartar usually arrived in Belmullet in the evening and spent the night there, sailing about noon, the following day, having taken onboard livestock, which were slung onboard by derrick with slings around the backs and bellies of the animals being lowered into the hold. The livestock and other goods were transhipped at Sligo onboard the Liverpool or Glasgow bound vessels. Two round trips a week were made during the summer and one in the winter.

At the outbreak of the 1914-18 war the Tartar narrowly escaped being commandeered by the British for war service, but she was later taken over by the Free State government as a troop-carrier and gun-boat during the Civil War, - and indeed had many bullet holes in her superstructure, having been fire on many times by the anti-government forces, when proceeding up and down the Garavogue.

At one stage her crew were captured and held for a couple of days in a house near Raughley before being released unharmed. Another day the opposition mounted a large gun on the road at Rosses Point as the Tartar was coming into the bay, and said they were going to blow her out of the water, in spite of the local women with relatives on board and the local curate. The day was saved, I believe by someone who signaled to the ship before she entered the river, causing her to turn back out to sea. On another occasion with troops on board she used her guns to bombard an enemy position at Raughley Dock.

In the summer of 1928, at the age of seven, during the school holidays, my father got permission to take me for a trip, and I was thrilled at the whole idea. I could have been going to America, as Belmullet to me was indeed far away. Having been fishing in Sligo Bay many times with an uncle with a small boat, without feeling seasick, that was the least of my worries.

The big day duly arrived and on boarding my father said to the chief: I hope he does not get sick. And the chief replied: Wasn't Peter's fella (Peter Gillen's eldest son Tommy Joe) with us a couple of weeks ago, and Pat Bartley's fella (Captain Bartley's eldest son Patrick) and there was no loss on them. On reflection it is sad to think that a decade later both lads were lost at sea during the Second World War.

Soon the Tartar with Captain Pat Bruen in charge was steaming full steam down the river, outward bound with me waving to the family and friends when passing Rosses Point. I had drunk two cups of tea with condensed milk since boarding and my stomach was already complaining about this.

When we had cleared Sligo Bay on a westerly course with a strong northerly wind and a big Atlantic swell, the little vessel began, with a violent corkscrew motion, to perform tricks I did not think possible, and very soon afterwards, having inhaled the oily steamy smell from the engine room, I succumbed, and spent the rest of the trip lying on the starboard bridge wing-seat, covered in coats to keep me warm and vomiting into a wooden fire bucket, strategically placed by my father. From time to time I would roll over onto my back and watch the mast and funnel describe a wild arc across the grey sky, and listen to the clank of the wheel chain as she rolled.

Down below the clang of the shovel as the furnace was stoked and the black smoke belching from the funnel away to leeward and I felt that I was weak and going to die. I remember looking up once at my father at the wheel, who was chewing tobacco, and thinking he must have a concrete stomach, and a little time later when my stomach was completely empty I feared I would not die.

Passing Downpatrick Head, where a portion of cliff with grass on top stands out in the sea from the main cliff face, Captain Pat pointed it out to me and told me a story about Saint Patrick being chased by pagans. He came to the cliff edge, and when his pursuers were about to catch him, the part of the cliff on which he stood moved out to sea. I read recently that the landowners of the area had landed on it by helicopter, and wondered if the Saint went off with them on the return journey.

I watched the captain pull the whistle string and the ship's steam whistle let off a high pitched, mournful, banshee-like blast, causing frenzy among the seagulls in the vicinity. We were approaching Porturlin anchorage, and this was the signal for those on shore to launch the curraghs. At anchor she was still rolling like a pig and I was coaxed to get up and look over the side at the curraghs, but soon had to lie down again.

We were in calm waters off Broadhaven before I came around and began to wander the decks a bit, weak in the legs but otherwise okay. When we tied up at Belmullet my father assisted me in washing with a bucket of cold water and Lifebuoy soap, and I was taken ashore to see the metropolis on foot. But halfway between the pier and the town we called into a small farmhouse owned by two kindly brothers, Anthony and James Hopkins, as my father needed a smoke and a chat. Another brother drove the cargo winch of the Tartar when loading and discharging, and we visited his house in the town later.

One of his sons took me for a walk, and I remember we went onboard a wrecked schooner, berthed there in a small dock. Later, I was taken into a pub where my father had more chat and pints of stout, while I drank red lemonade and ate biscuits. We then walked the mile or so back to the ship, where I was soon fast asleep, at the foot of his bunk, as there was no spare ones. Next day we took on livestock and farm products and sailed for Sligo. I was seasick again on the way, but not as severe as on the outward trip.

I ventured a round trip again in 1930, with Captain Pat Bartley in charge, and she was then calling to Killybegs, on the outward leg. And although I was seasick again, there was some improvement and I knew what to expect.

In the early 1930s when the Free State government went out of power, the Sligo-Belmullet trade ended, and the permanent crew was paid off. The Tartar was then used as a tug and lighter for the grain steamers, which were five thousand tonners, using Sligo at that time, making the odd trip to Ballina and Westport with grain. This temporary work would only last for a week or two. Between grain ships, she was laid up at the Custom's House Quay. At that time her captain was river pilot John Patrick Bruen, as Captain Pat Bruen had joined the Limerick Steamship Company, and Captain Pat Bartley had emigrated to Scotland and joined the Ardrossan Pilot Service. Chief Francis Feeney had retired and Dickie Griffiths became her chief engineer.

Having taken up the sea as a career in 1937 at the age of sixteen, I joined the Tartar for a short period as an able bodied seaman and watched her make other youngsters seasick with a sympathetic eye. The only other ship which I served on which could teach her how to roll was the B&I Line's MV Dundalk, on which I spent three years as mate, and one as master.

During the 1914-1918 war, the Tartar was approaching Sligo Bay on passage from Belmullet, when a sailing vessel with a heavy list and decks awash was sighted. This vessel had been abandoned by her crew, and a rope was attached. The Tartar towed her slowly towards the mooring boys at Oyster Island. The late Katie Haren of Coney Island told me, that such was her starboard list she took a sheer passing the Metal Man under tow and nearly toppled him from his pedestal with her main yard arm.

A gang of men was engaged to pump her out and it was found she had a cargo of salt fish on board, which was stinking. The idea was to bury the fish on Oyster Island, but the Rosses Point villagers couldn't stick the smell and yelled blue murder.

The ship was then towed out to sea where the cargo was dumped, and brought to Sligo Quay. No doubt salvage money was paid and she was later sold. I never found out her name, or who her owners were, but I'm sure it was reported in the local papers of the time.

In the winter of 1938 gales blew along the Sligo coast for many days and a large fire was sighted on Innismurray Island off the North Sligo coast, and word went around like wildfire that the islanders were starving. On government orders the Tartar, which was laid up, was to load foodstuffs and proceed without delay to their relief. Steam was raised and a crew recruited in record time. When she sailed the editor of the Sligo Champion, the late Tom Palmer, was on board.

On arrival in the lee of the island she dropped anchor and boats came off and took the goodies ashore.

I did hear in later years that the fire had been lit accidentally by youths and that the food supplies were okay. But who would deny the hardy souls a little?

It was also said that on arrival back in Sligo some of the passengers and crew were in good singing form, having been repaid for their efforts by the islanders, with some of the hard stuff. They were expert distillers at that time.

The Tartar left Sligo for the last time in 1942 with a local crew. Captain Willie Kilgallon was in command, and on arrival in Dublin they were all paid off.

She was then taken over by a Waterford company, who used her mostly on the coal trade. In 1944 she ran aground on the Wigtownshire coast, and I remember reading in an English daily newspaper that a special channel had to be dug in the sand in order to refloat her.

Later she was reported to be laid up in the Scottish port of Girvan. In 1946 she was purchased by an Egyptian company who renamed her the Dimitrios, and she sailed for Alexandria.

Two years later, in 1948, the Tartar went to a watery grave when she foundered off Cape Sideron, Crete, in a storm.

This historic little ship had lasted for 52 years since leaving her builder's yard on the Clyde.

(The picture of the man at the wheel is Thomas Devaney - the authors father, and Kieran Devaneys grandfather. See his discharge papers here)

Another tale of the SS Tartar