An Irishwoman’s Diary on a lifeboat for the Gaeltacht

RNLI to the rescue at Helvick Head

Liam Clancy would have smiled to hear his son Donal singing Home from the Sea on the pier in Helvick Head recently when a new lifeboat was launched. The occasion was peppered with speeches, prayers, bunting, bubbles of champagne, hymns, cheers and applause. The day in west Co Waterford brought a lump to the throats of many as we recalled those family members who had died or been lost at sea. When the local all-male choir, Cór Fear na nDéise, sang an emotive Ave Maria, it was hard to keep back the tears and then the new lifeboat was launched onto the choppy waters of the harbour.

The new Atlantic 85 is a more powerful boat, the latest version in its B class. It’s an upgrade on the station’s previous lifeboat, which was an Atlantic 75. This new boat at a cost of €255,000, measures 8.5 metres in length, it can set to sea in winds of up to force seven, stay out for a maximum of three hours, do a top speed of 35 knots and carry up to four crew. It has added radar that will allow the crew operate more effectively in poor visibility. Also this new lifeboat has VHF direction-finding equipment. She carries a full suite of communication and electronic navigation aids, including VHF radio, VHF direction finder, intercom and hand-held VHF, as well as a searchlight, night-vision equipment and illuminating paraflares for operations after dark. She has a manually operated self-righting mechanism and two inversion-proofed engines, which will keep her functioning even after capsize. She is capable of being beached in an emergency so crews need not worry about causing damage to her two engines or to the steering gear.

The presence of a lifeboat in the Gaeltacht area goes back over 150 years as the RNLI first established a station here back in 1859. From then, the charity organisation operated an all-weather lifeboat until the station was closed in 1969. Local protestors, including my own aunt, Mrs Sheila Long, who spoke passionately on the RTÉ television news about the importance of the lifeboat in the area, failed to persuade the decision-makers of the day to keep the lifeboat. While it remained shut, the responsibility to guard the coast and save lives at sea fell to the bigger stations of Dunmore East and Ballycotton to the west. However, after a terrible tragedy in Dungarvan Bay in 1993 when two teenage boys, first cousins and neighbours Pat Tóibín and PJ Rossiter, were drowned in the bay, the RNLI lifeboat was brought back and the Helvick Head station was reopened in 1996. Since then, the volunteer crews who man the lifeboat have saved 23 lives and brought 340 people to safety. It’s no fluke that the mere mention of the RNLI in this part of the country along the coast has an almost talismanic power. It moves and motivates people to fundraise maniacally all through the year and causes people always to dig deep and donate, secure in the knowledge that lives will be saved.

The new boat is named after her benefactor, the late Robert Armstrong, a Londoner who spent most of his free time sailing in the waters of the North Sea out from his holiday home base in Potter Heigham on the Norfolk Broads. He visited Helvick Head in 2000 for the naming of the station’s earlier Atlantic 75 lifeboat, after it was funded through the bequest of his uncle, Charles William Armstrong.


“In 2000 it was my great pleasure to meet Bob Armstrong and to accept the lifeboat in the name of his aunt and uncle Alice and Charles into the care of Helvick Head lifeboat station,” said Ian Walsh, the local RNLI Lifeboat Operations manager, this year.

“Today it is again my great pleasure to accept into the care of the station this fine lifeboat the Robert Armstrong which was funded from Bob’s generous bequest,” said Ian Walsh.

Coincidentally on the day of the launch ceremony at approximately 7pm, the crew's pagers went off and visitors to the area, including Robert Armstrong's cousin, Judi Fleming, along with other members of his extended family, were able to run to the sea's edge to witness the first call-out of the Robert Armstrong. It was a thrilling moment as local crew members sprang into action in response to the call. In no time the four volunteer crewmen and the search and rescue helicopter were all heading up the bay towards the mouth of the Colligan river and Dungarvan town. All of us on the land prayed silently for those who might be in danger.

Thankfully the shout was stood down as the casualty was recovered before the lifeboat was needed. But still, it was a proud moment to see the boat powering back to port after giving us a glimpse of what she can do.