On this years Late Late Toy show the television moment of the year was said to have been the unwrapping of Sergeant Graham Burke by his kids. He was, up to hours previously, serving with Irish peacekeepers in Mali, Africa. The host, Ryan Tubridy, became emotional at the scene, a family reunited. Yet when I heard of it my thoughts turned to my own childhood and how Christmas was marked by an absence; where seafaring men were as likely to eat their turkey dinner in a foreign port or in the middle of the Atlantic or Pacific.
In my father and mothers generation absences at Christmas was just something to be accepted. Emigration was a fact of life and in a seafaring community that absence was probably felt much more as the men were part of a dangerous way of life, and where the monetary return was not very lucrative. Christmas in those days could be marked (if you were lucky) by a package from any part of the world with some hand made gifts and some trinkets with a card of greeting and a bit of news. I suppose that's why those at home celebrated the holiday so much. In my own generation Christmas morning was as much about the house visits as anything else. One of only two days of the year that the pub closed, there was never as much drink consumed. And as it flowed so did the yarns.
|My father left with Tom Sullivan, they spent Christmas 1958 together in a BP tanker in the Persian Gulf|
But ships could also be docked in foreign ports and of course this created the best tall tales. Walter Whitty told me once of a session he went on in the Philippines. One of the crew was an ex WWII British Commando who described to an incredulous crew how they used to dispatch guard dogs during a commando raid, by wrenching the dogs front paws apart. According to Walter when his word was questioned the commando went out into the street and started chasing dogs around with a wild eyed frenzy. By the time the police had stopped him, several hounds lay dead in the street. When the ship sailed for Australia their crew mate was still in jail.
My father had one of a spree in a Spanish port, although I'm not sure if it was Christmas or not. It started with a session in the harbour area, where you would not be sure of your life and you stuck close to your crew mates. Next morning he woke in a cell, and was dragged before the courts.
"Will the prisoner state his name?" says the judge.
"Bob Doherty your honour" says me father.
"Anything to the Dohertys of Cheekpoint?"
"One in the same yer honour"
"I had a fine pint of stout in the Suir Inn a few years back Bob, is their Guinness still as cool and creamy"
"Still the same yer honour"
"Well Bob, stand a round on my behalf the next time you're home - case dismissed"
Being away from family can never be easy however, especially at Christmas, and probably felt all the more when youngsters were involved. The following extract comes from the Irish Times of December 23rd 1955.
"While people all over the world make arrangements to get home for Christmas by air, rail and sea, and worry about the time on Christmas Eve that they will arrive, they may be inclined to forget those whose job it is to get them to their destinations, and in particular the seamen. Few seamen ever count of a Christmas at home, for, as it often happens, they may get a few days with their families before Christmas and then on Christmas Eve they have to leave for Persia, South America or some place even further away.
When the ESSO tanker Avonmouth leaves Dublin port this morning for the Persian Gulf she will have several Irishmen in her crew. Two of these, who joined the ship for the first time yesterday, were Thomas Murphy, aged 20, of Victoria road, Clontarf, who has been at sea for three years, and Andrew Doherty of Cheekpoint, Co Waterford, who has been at sea for 27 years. Since going to sea, Mr. Murphy has not had a Christmas with his family, to whom he said goodbye once again yesterday. Mr. Doherty has not spent a Christmas with his family in seven years, and most of the other twenty he has spent in all parts of the world, mainly at sea.
|Andy's ship ESSO Avonmouth accessed from http://www.aukevisser.nl/uk/id155.htm|
Looking through my fathers discharge book recently I discovered that he first went to sea at 19 years of age in May 1951. His first Christmas was aboard a US tanker the Missionary Ridge. He was at sea or in a foreign port for most Christmases over the next fifteen years. Some of the ships I had not heard of before such as the Andes of London, the Esso Glasgow or the MV Arklow. One of course which I wrote of before was the MV Ocean Coast, on which he was awarded a scroll for bravery following a Mersey river rescue.
Another he served Christmas aboard was the MV Devon Coast, which Tom Sullivan had the following yarn about. My father and another chap were aboard over Christmas, all the other crew had gone to their homes. They were tasked with minding the ship but got fed up with their own company and went shoreside on a session. Staggering back to the ship they discovered a dog howling having fallen over the side of the quay by their ship which was stuck on a ledge. The howls were unmerciful and realising they would get no sleep, they grabbed a rope and my father straddled the gunwale and quayside while his mate slide down to grab the dog. Next moment my father gets a tap on the shoulder from the dock police asking what he thought he was up to. "Mercy Mission Mate" came the reply from Bob. Next day they were on the front cover of the Liverpool Echo, the dog in their arms and they both got a bonus from the company, as no mention was made of their "condition" in the article.
My parents were married on Stephens Day 1964, one Christmas that he was home! I was born the following November and two weeks later he shipped out on the SS British Star not returning home until March. His last Christmas on a ship was aboard the MV Seriality for FT Everard and Sons of London. He signed on in New Ross on December 10th 1968 (my younger brother Roberts 2nd Birthday) and signed off the ship at Ellesmere Port (Liverpool) in January 1969. He went on to take a shore job with the paper mills in Kilmacow where he stayed until the lockout of 1978.
|MV Seriality alongside her sister ship. Accessed from http://www.shipsnostalgia.com 20/12/2017.|
Photo: P Downsby Collection.
So that Tubridy scene some weeks back touched a nerve on so many levels. Because behind all the drink, yarns and laughter at Christmas growing up, there was also a sadness. Young boys left home to join ships where they were thrown together with mixed crews of all nationalities and temperaments and told to get along. Pay was poor, conditions were relatively harsh (but improved considerably by my fathers era) and drink was the only means of escape. Men could be away for months and sometimes years and the longer that went on, the harder I think it became, to fit back in on their return. And needless to say it was the women who held everything together. Wasn't it ever thus!
Thanks to Tomás and Tom Sullivan for helping me with this piece.
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