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GALLERY: The Irish Coast Guard Service in Inishowen

Greencastle Unit and Malin Head Coast Guard Radio

When the Irish Free State was formed in 1922, Tom Casement, brother of Roger, tried to retain the existing Coast Guard Service under Irish control.

However, according to Seamus Bovaird, Chairperson of Inishowen Maritime Museum, he was unsuccessful.

Seamus recalled: “In 1923, it was decided to create a new Coast Life Saving Service (CLSS), with Tom Casement as its first Inspector. The service retained some of the old British Coast Guard establishments and their rescue equipment.

“The service was starved of money and equipment but, by 1979, there were still 54 volunteer stations, equipped with breeches buoys and ladders for cliff rescue.

“The CLSS was renamed the Coast and Cliff Rescue Service (CCRS), in 1986. In 1990, an inquiry into air sea rescue services recommended setting up a rescue agency to be responsible for all aspects of safety and rescue at sea. In May 1991, The Irish Marine Emergency Service (IMES), was established within the then Department of the Marine and took over the CCRS personnel and establishments.

“In February 2000, the name was changed to the Irish Coast Guard. The volunteers of the Greencastle Unit had taken over the store and equipment that was based in the end building of the old Coastguard station in 1923 and continued to use the old equipment, including the 'rocket cart',” said Seamus.

The Greencastle volunteers trained at the flagpole, called a wreck post, at the Dog Hill, now part of Greencastle Golf Club, to practice firing the rocket and rigging the equipment.

The Greencastle Unit was also provided with a 4.5 metre inflatable boat, in 1991 and this was replaced by a “D” class boat, in 1995. The unit was also supplied with a new quad bike.

Seamus said: “As equipment started to improve more storage space was required so the volunteers decided to build a new station by voluntary effort. The new station was opened in 1996 and housed the “D” class inflatable and more modern cliff rescue equipment.

“The station was supplied with a 7.9 metre Delta, capable of 45 knots, in 1999, which led to the need for an extension to the station. This extension was completed in 2000.

“A dedicated launch and recovery slipway was built in 1996. All work on the extension and slipway was achieved by voluntary effort.

“In 1997, the Greencastle Unit began a programme of converting second-hand BT vans into support units. This project led to the delivery of 40 such vans, from Greencastle, to Coast Guard Units around the coast.The Greencastle Unit was instrumental in initiating the first joint exercise between Irish and UK coastguards when they held a joint exercise, on Rathlin Island, in November 1989. This led to Greencastle hosting the first Joint Training Exercise, in April 1991, when Coastguard units from all over Ireland, North and South, came together for a weekend training session, conducted in Greencastle Community Centre,” said Seamus.

This operation led to the establishment of regular training sessions with all emergency services coming from all over Ireland for joint exercises. Joint Search and Rescue (JSAR) exercises were established.

Greencastle hosted JSAR and other training events in 1997 and 2006. Greencastle hosted the Trans-Atlantic Coastguard Games, in May 2009, when coastguards from both sides of the Atlantic competed.

Seamus said: “The Greencastle Unit now has 28 volunteers and is equipped with a 9.00 metre Delta, capable of 45 knots and a wide range of modern rescue equipment for rescue from land and sea.

“The Unit also co-ordinates the helicopter ambulance service, when Coast Guard and Air Corps helicopters use Moville GAA pitch as an emergency pick-up site.”

The 'Rocket Cart' or Coastguard Lifesaving Cart

The 'Rocket Cart' apparatus consisted of a tripod rocket launching apparatus, line carrying rockets and a huge quantity of ropes of various thickness, all carried in a 2-wheel or 4-wheel horse drawn cart.

According to Seamus, a light line attached to the rocket would be fired to the ship in distress.

He added: “The ship’s crew would haul a heavy line and a further light line on to their ship using this first line. Block and tackle, instructions and a breeches buoy where hauled out to the distressed ship. The survivors would be hauled ashore one by one, sitting in the breeches buoy. Finally, a cutting apparatus would be sent out to the ship end of the line to cut away the rope for recovery and reuse.

“The last time a rocket cart was used in Ireland was at Dingle, in 1982. The Spanish ship, MV Ranga, went aground on Slay Head and the helicopter could not operate safely because of the down draft from the cliffs so the only option for rescuing the crew was the rocket and breeches buoy gear.

“The original Greencastle 'rocket cart' is retained, on display, in the Maritime Museum. This cart is one, of only two, such carts retained for posterity. The salvage of the cart is a story on its own.

“In 1986, CCRS headquarters’ staff gave orders for all obsolete equipment to be removed from stations and disposed of. A private individual, in Greencastle, claimed to have acquired the rights to the Greencastle cart, from government sources, but, before he could collect it, the cart mysteriously disappeared out of the store in the old Coastguard Station and could not be found. A search conducted by IMES HQ yielded nothing and the cart was forgotten about,” mused Seamus.

A few years later, the cart was “found” in a fisherman’s shed and was, mysteriously, restored to its original colours and fittings.

Seamus added: “In the early 1990’s, when Bregenz House, the new UK Coastguard HQ, was opened, in Bangor, Co Down, the Greencastle rocket cart was loaned to Bangor for display at the official opening. The cart received a lot of attention and comment at the opening ceremony.

“IMES staff and volunteers had been invited to the opening and HQ and Department officials, from Dublin, congratulated their Northern colleagues on their forethought in preserving an important part of the coastal heritage. They were very surprised when they were told that the cart was on loan from Donegal!

“The official search for the cart resumed but the Belfast Coastguard eventually reported to Dublin that the cart had last been sighted in the Glenshane Pass, on a low-loader, heading West and was presumed “lost, with all hands”.

“The cart eventually made it back to its original home in Greencastle and is on display in the Maritime Museum,” said Seamus.

Malin Head Coast Guard Radio

Maritime Museum volunteer, Peter Homer, has published a booklet on the history of marine communications at Malin Head. It is available from outlets at Malin Head and from the museum.

According to Peter, the Malin Head Wireless Station was established in the Lloyds signal tower, in 1902, when the equipment which had been used in Marconi’s Ballycastle / Rathlin Island tests was installed at Malin Head and Inishtrahull Island.

Peter added: “The General Post Office took over the station on the 31st December 1909.

“During World War I, the establishment at the station was increased by the addition of equipment and services manned by the Royal Navy. The US Naval Air Service had personnel based there to support the US Naval Air Station which was operating flying boats out their base in Ture, on Lough Foyle.

“The station operated under the control of the Post Office until Ireland left the Commonwealth and Malin Head Radio was allocated the new Irish callsign, EJM, on January 1, 1950. The station building was extended and modernised in 1986.

“On February 2, 2000, the 'Irish Coast Guard' name was created to replace the 'Irish Marine Emergency Service'. The Marine Rescue Centres are currently based in Dublin, Malin Head and Valentia Island. The Dublin National Maritime Operations Centre (NMOC) provides marine search and rescue response services and co-ordinates the response to marine casualty incidents within the Irish Pollution Responsibility Zone/EEZ,” said Peter.

The Marine Rescue Sub Centres, (MRSC), Valentia and MRSC Malin Head, are 24/7 centres co-ordinating search and rescue response in their areas of responsibility.

MRSC Valentia is the contact point for routine operational matters in the area between Ballycotton and Clifden.

MRSC Malin Head is the contact point for routine operational matters in the area between Clifden and Lough Foyle.

MRCC Dublin is the contact point for routine operational matters in the area between Carlingford Lough and Ballycotton.

Peter said: “Each MRCC/MRSC broadcasts maritime safety information on VHF and, in some cases, MF radio in accordance with published schedules. This includes navigational warnings as issued by the UK Hydrographic Office and gale warnings, shipping forecasts, local inshore forecasts, strong wind warnings and small craft warnings as issued by the Irish Meteorological Office.

“They also co-ordinate Radio Medical advice from Cork University Hospital to ships in the Irish zone.

“The main roles of the Irish Coast Guard are to rescue people from danger at sea or on land, to organise immediate medical transport and to assist boats and ships within the country's jurisdiction.

“The Coast Guard is responsible for the protection of the ocean and the coasts against pollution and has the right to intervene in ships' operations to prevent pollution accidents. For this reason, the coast radio stations monitor shipping traffic within Ireland’s zone of responsibility,” said Peter.

Each station controls a specific area and is responsible for analysing the rescue requirements of each incident and for tasking the appropriate response. The pagers that alert Coast Guard and RNLI volunteers are controlled from each radio station.

In 2012, after a ten-year campaign against government proposals to close down Malin Head station, the operations room was fully upgraded to a fully Integrated Communication System linked to Dublin HQ and Valentia station. In an emergency the full range of coastal command and control systems can be run from Malin Head.

Inishowen Maritime Museum is currently attempting to collect and preserve photograph, articles, and information of maritime interest. If anyone has material they do not want to part with, the Museum can scan it and return the original right away.

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