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The Coastwatching Service

Ardmore Memory and Story - Troubled Times

5. The Coastwatching Service
The Coastwatching service was set up by the Irish Government in 1939. Eighty-three Look-out Posts (L.O.P.s) were established at coastal sites around the country and manned by local recruits during the 'Emergency' years of World War 2 (1939-1945). Their function was to observe and report. In effect, the L.O.P.s were glorified telephone kiosks with bay windows facing seawards and tiny fireplaces. Each L.O.P. was provided with a log book, telephone, telescope and binoculars, fixed compass card, Admiralty charts, silhouettes of ships and air craft, visual signals apparatus and a bicycle. The above information is taken from several articles by Comdt. Quinn in 'An Cosantóir', (April 1983 and January 1988).

The Log Books of all the L.O.P.s are preserved in the Military archives at Cathal Brugha Barracks in Dublin. Comdts. Owen Quinn, Peter Young and Sergeant White were most helpful, while I was researching this article there.

L.O.P. no 20 was on Ram Head near Ardmore. Its undistinguished remains remind me of fireside chats there in the course of Sunday evening walks, being allowed look through the binoculars at perhaps a passing convoy, or talking of the mines, or discussing the aircraft which sped here and there, through the skies on their unknown journeys.

The first available log-book for Ram Head begins on 2 January 1941 and they continue on to 15 June 1945. A point worth noting is the excellent standard of language and spelling in these reports done by men who had had no access to second-level education. The logbooks deal with mines, passing ships, convoys, air traffic, gunfire, explosives, and barrage balloons. Life was exciting out at sea and in the air overhead, but the coastwatchers could only surmise the causes and effects of all these comings and goings. Some days were quiet enough, punctuated by the changing of the watch, the lines being tested and found in order, reporting the weather conditions and visibility.

Each L.O.P. had an eight-man team. They worked eight-hour shifts, around the clock and seven days a week. Dressed as soldiers they were paid a basic subsistence allowance of half a crown per day (12.5p0 in addition to two shillings (10p) Army pay.

The Ram Head personnel consisted of: Jimmy Troy of the Cliff, Tom Monsell, Jerry McCarthy and Tom Foley of the village, Willie Whelan of Ballyquin, Pat Troy of Curragh, and Ned Foley of Duffcarrick. Tommie Mooney was corporal. Willie Whelan resigned in 1944 and Tommie Hallahan replaced him.

Jimmie Troy, who had emigrated to England, paid a visit to Ardmore in the summer of 1989 and called to Willie Whelan to discuss old times. He died shortly after returning to England and his remains were laid to rest, under the shadow of the Round Tower, exactly fifty years after his entry into the Coastal Service.

The first months of service were spend under canvas in the castle field, near Ram Head, until the outpost was built out on the peak of 'The Head'. The letters Eire 20 were white-washed into the ground beside it, the coastwatchers all around the coast having been ordered to cut out these signs in order to delineate our neutral territory. D. Mooney who was a school-boy at the time, and whose father Tommie was corporal, remembers the castle being sand-bagged in order to provide extra shelter.

Willie Whelan the only surviving member of the outpost personnel says, "The war started on Sunday and Jimmie Troy and Tom Monsell were the first two to go on duty, on Sunday night I started with Tommie Mooney; he was a corporal. We went on, at 12pm on Monday night. We had no real orders at the time, only to walk along the coast and watch it. we walked all the cliffs along by Ardo to Whitingbay Strand and back again by Terry's and the Round Tower and the New Line. We sat down in the glen below McKennas (propably Gleann Phiarais) to have a smoke in the shelter. This almight crash came over our heads. "Theres something wrong. Jump up", said Tommie. What was there but a jennet belonging to Deug connell. She stood up on a stone fence and the fence went from under her and crashed down behind us. It gave us a bit of a fright. We thought we were being attacked.

We were based at the Ram. We had no cover, no shelter or nothing but the four walls of the castle for about a month or six weeks, until we got one of those big army tents.

It was a big draughty, but one day, the military lorry came along and the blocks were laid and the hut put together in one day.

The men got one months training in the Curragh, at the beginning and there was a fortnights annual training at Haulbowline. Jimmie Troy also spoke of a period, learning signals at Collins Barracks in Cork, and he told also of being brought in an open lorry on a wet day from Ardmore to Dublin. They left Ardmore at 3pm picked up men at Helvick, Dunabrattin, Brownstown and Hook Head and arrived in Dublin at 5am, cold, wet, hungry and exhausted. Jimmie got pneumonia and spent some time in St. Bricin's Hospital in Dublin, where a lad from Malin Head died. He was sent home eventually by train to Dungarvan, where he had to spend the night, as there was no bus to Ardmore on Good Friday.

He survived these hardships to serve his full time at Ram Head. So did Tom Foley who as asthmatic; when he joined up, the neighbours shook their heads and forecast a short period of service for him, but in point of fact, he never missed a day's duty. The fresh air and sea breeze seemed to have a decidedly beneficial effect. There was no telephone first. Willie days "The guards used be cursing us. We had orders at the time to report everything we'd see." A guard at that time used sleep in the barracks every night. Jerry McCarthy was only wild to go down. "I'll go I'll go" he'd say. He got a great 'kick' from interrupting garda slumbers.

The post was equipped with a compass, which was attached to a tripod outside and there were Zeiss binoculars. Willie says "I saw my mother filling the kettle from the bucket of water she had brought from the well in Moss Kean's". Willie's house was in Ballyquin, away at the other side of Ardmore Bay.

D. Mooney talks of them joking. "Begor, the lads over in Knockadoon are smoking Woodbines today. There must be cigarettes in Ballymacoda." The whereabouts of cigarettes in the war years was a fact to be noted; they were an under-the-counter commodity. The binoculars of course would have had magical qualities, to distinguish the cigarettes, across eight miles of sea.
Ram Head was an admirable situation for an outpost, facing north-east towards Ardmore Bay, Mine Head and a long sweep[ of Waterford coast; to the other side were Knockadoon and Capel Island at the entrance to Youghal Harbour and the Cork coast away to the west with the lights of Ballycotton lighthouse flashing in the night. It was a wonderful place to be on summer days, but could be often terrifying on winter nights. Willie Whelan speaks of Tom Monsell and himself holding grimly on to one another, going along the cliff path, when a fierce south-westerly gale threatened to blow them right over.

They had frequent visitors in summer, including the many nuns holidaying in Ardmore. Nedín referred irreverently to them as bunches of magpies.

Life could of course be quite monotonous, punctuated perhaps by some fishing in the licnean below, or going over to Fr O'Donnell's Well for water. Ned Foley had a pet crow, called General Joubert (presumably after Piet Joubert, commander of the Transvaal forces in the Boer War) which followed him over, first lured by bread crumbs which later became unnecessary. Tom Foley and Willie cooked a pollack (caught by Neidín in the Licnean) one night, only to discover they had no salt. "You're lively" said Tom. "Monsell isn't in bed yet. Run down and ask him for a grain of salt" (run down involved crossing over two fields, negotiating a long boreen and then cycling down the village). "Tom knew the reception I'd get" said Willie. "No fear he'd come himself. Tom Monsell was in bed and I knocked him up. He wasn't too civil at all. I didn't tell him what I wanted till he was at the door. "We've the pollack boiled above now Tom and we've no salt, so I came down for a grain", Willie said very seriously. "May the divil blast you. If I knew what you wanted……………".

Nedín divised a grid-iron with a long handle for grilling mackerel over the anthracity fire. "You'd eat your fingers after them."

Coal was supplied by military lorry. "Sometimes, the supplies were unpredictable and we'd be stealing from one another in the meantime."

The outposts were under constant surveillance by the military authorities. "Fellows in command used come at all hours of the night. They used do one outpost after another first and we'd give each other the tip, but they got wise to that.

The guards were liable to come too. Sergt. Gallagher came one night about 2am. There was an unmerciful shower of hailstone about an hour before. "Had you any shelter fromit", said Willie. "Where I was, was under the stand at the creamery, where Tom Fleming gives out the skimmed milk". The creamery was four miles away at the other side of the parish. He sat down at the fire for about an hour and had a smoke. He was a great policeman, always on the beat, a fair-minded man.

The nearest look-out posts were Helvick Head towards the east and Knockadoon to the west, and when after about twelve months the telephones were installed, they were in frequent communication with each other. Let it be said the messages did not always deal strictly with matters of national import. I remember Tom Monsell coming in and calling to my father, "Martin, I had a ring from the Knockers", which meant that the Knockadoon people had sent a message, that consignments of periwinkles were ready to be collected.

Thady Shea of Knockadoon often entertained the Ram Head men on the telephone, with tunes on the melodian; these were pre-transistor days. Willie Whelan made an appointment to meet him at Killeagh on May Sunday for the annual fun at Glenbower Wood, but was at a loss as to how to identify him, so Thady told him "the tallest fellow in Tattan's pub, that wil be me" and so it was.

Santa Claus used Ram Head as a branch office, one Christmas. Paddy Foley during his school days in Ardmore, remembered being invited in to the post office by Michael Moloney, the post master, who put him through on the telephone to Santa Claus. He and his classmates were thrilled at the idea of speaking to him and giving him their orders, personally for Christmas night. It was some years afterwards, before they discovered Santa Claus had been on duty at Ram Head.

However, life wasn't always as lighthearted as that. An important part of the watchers duties was to observe and report the course of any strange object in the water, and there were plenty of them, especially in the years 1940, 41 an d41 when about 100 mines came ashore between Ring and Ballycotton.

The Allies had laid a minefield in the Celtic Sea. According to International Law, neutral ships were given safe cover. "During the war years, the British Admiralty ahd an office in North Wall house, staffed by three men who were kept informed of any Royal Navy mine-laying activity, the object being to lessen the danger to Irish merchant ships". (The B&I Line by Hazel Smith.)

The first mine to be recorded in the Ram Head logbook was on 24th January 1941.

On 27th January 1941, it was recorded that five mines were ashore between Whitingbay and Ballyquin.

30th April 1941 message from Cork to inform gardai, if any more mines were coming ashore in Ardmore, to get the inhabitants to evacuate.

These extreme measures were not resorted to, even though the people of the locality became quite familiar with mines during the war years. On some occasions they were rendered harmless by military from Youghal; this must have been a hazardous operation. On other occasions, they were blown up by them, and this often caused broken windows in the district.

8th June 1941. Informed by local gardai, mine washed ashore at Caliso Bay. Received message from Youghal to notify Corporal and get him to send men to guard same until military arrive. Comdt. Shaw was the recognised authority on mines and their disposal. Willie directed him and accompanied him to Caliso Bay one night for that purpose.

17th December 1941. Informed by Cpl Mooney that mine reported yesterday is ashore at Curragh Strand.

These are just random samples of the innumerable log entries about mines. Familiarity fortunately did not beed contempt. People had read of the chilling incident near Annagray in co. Donegal on May 10th 1943, when 18 people died after a mine had exploded on the strand. There was a similar tragedy nearer home; on May 2nd 1945, three Ring men were killed when a mine got entangled in the trawl of their boat, the Naomh Garbhan.

A great deal of air activity was noted right from the beginning. Planes, flying boats, monoplanes were noted, most of them English but some German. There were constant log entries dealing with passing aircraft. For instance:

On 21st June 1941, two aircraft came from the south, attacked two British traders and dropped two bombs, which fell wide, then went west. At 17.00 hours on 9th July 1941, heard noise of aircraft about 7 miles south of post, came from west. When south of post, noise stopped instantly as if something went wrong. Nationality unknown. At 23.00 hours, heard noise of aircraft south of post seems to be going west. Heard noise of explosions in same direction. Nationality of plane unknown.

In 1943, there was an enormous amount of aerial activity both British and American. A great deal was in conjunction with naval craft. This activity was stepped up in 1944, when for instance, on 14th January 1944, ten aircraft were recorded between 07.50 and 13.30, all except one, going east. In the spring of that year, there seemed to be a regular stream of U.S. aircraft, about an hour or two apart. The numbers recorded varied from nine daily to twenty-four on 17th February 1944.

On 11th june 1944 between 07.26 and 21.07, thirty planes passed, going both east and west, most U.S. but some British.

During the night, from midnight on, there had been noise of heavy gunfire about three miles south of post and noise of aircraft, and at 1.00am flashes of four morse lamps, about 400 yards between each flash.

June and July entries of 1944 dealt repeatedly with noise of heavy gunfire, explosions and flashes as if from gunfire. These were all calculated to be almost twenty to thirty miles south of post.

Incidents like these were being reported from 1941 on; bombing and explosions of mines. For instance on 24th March 1942, there had been noise first of fourteen explosions, then of nine, thought to be heavy gunfire.

In spite of all this there was heavy traffic at sea through those years and their passing appears in the records. The east and west passing of the Lady Belle of Dungarvan is recorded several times in 1942 and 1943 as is the Kathleen and May and various vessels of Irish shipping - the Irish Pine, Ash and Popular. Trawlers and coal boats also passed Ram Head at intervals, as did the Irish patrol boats, the Muirchiy and Fort Rannoch.

Convoys were constantly on the move. Willie says "What used to be very exciting was seeing the convoys going. They used have those barrage balloons to ward off the planes, twenty or thirty of them going together.

The Innisfallen used pass regularly. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, she'd go down. We could see the men on the deck plain and she used sound the siren and give us a bleep."

On 15th August 1941, eight destroyers, fifteen miles south of post, with two planes circling. The list goes on and on. These are just samples of the entries. On 1st April 1943, a convoy twelve miles south of post, twenty-seven merchant ships, five destroyers with one aircraft circling.

On 31st October 1943 at 14.15, fourteen landing barges passed escorted by one-armed trawler and at 15.56, three landing barges towed by two patrol boats, going east. 27th July 1943, noises of heavy gunfire, eight naval aircraft, also plane. 7th September 1944, 17.08hours, convoy of four disabled merchant ships being towed by two tugboats excorted by three destroyers and two cruisers, one plane hovering overhead. 17.25 on the same day, one merchant ship carrying two planes on her decks, fore and aft, going to meet convoy. 30th September 1944, hospital ship four miles south of post, going west, one troopship, fourteen miles south of post, going west, looks like Queen Mary. On 13th October 1944, a message from Mallow that six Russian launches under British escort are making for Bantry Bay. They are meeting with trouble in the Atlantic and some may have broken loose or may be damaged. If seen, report to Mallow.

Entries like these continue right into 1945, but the end of the era came rather abruptly.

The following laconic announcements appear in the logbook:
12th June 1945, received following message from Captain O'Riordan, Ram Head, L.O.P. is closing down tomorrow.
13th June 1945, Lieut. Busteed is calling for all equipment in L.O.P. which must be labelled Ram Head. Duty is to be continued as usual until Lieut Busteed arrives. Windows are to be fastened up, doors locked and key given to the owners of land. Travelling vouchers will arrive tomorrow and all personnel will proceed to Collins Barracks on Monday 16th june 1945.

And thus, a brief but exciting and important period came to an abrupt end.

The 50th anniversary of the outbreak of World War 11 was commemorated on 10th September 1989 in Clonmel. There was a parade of about 5000 veterans (the other services of course were represented also) from opposite Hearne's Hotel to the Barracks, where speeches were made. Willie met a confrere from Helvick that day and also from Ballycotton, but there was no representative from Knockadoon, though Thady Shea still survivies.

Author: Siobhan Lincoln, T. Mooney, Fritz Hirsch

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