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The sinking of the Coast Guard cutter

County View

County View
John Healy

Rosmoney Coast Guard Station, now in private hands, is located on the western side of the Rosmoney headland, offering a commanding view of the inner islands of Westport bay. Built in 1876, it served for 40 years as a sentinel post of the British administration, its officers and staff keeping a close eye on any possible danger from the sea and, in addition, on much of what went on in the adjacent islands.
At a local level, the Coast Guard involved itself in more run-of-the-mill operations – customs regulations, the prevention of smuggling, and back-up for the RIC in demanding the dog licenses of the islanders and such weighty matters. But it was the zealous pursuit of smuggling and salvage – then lucrative activities for the islanders – that created bad feelings between the Coast Guard and the locals.
And so it was that the islanders conspired to get their own back on the Coast Guard in an operation that involved no great risk to life but would inflict maximum embarrassment on the authorities. The islanders of nearby Dorinish and Islandmore, most affected by the surveillance of the Coast Guard, came up with the plan of seizing and sinking the Coast Guard cutter.
The chief architect of the plot was John ‘Banner’ O’Malley, an experienced merchant seaman. Banner had sussed out the level of security at the station and satisfied himself that those charged with sentry duties were often lax, enjoying their night’s sleep while the boat rocked contentedly at anchor below them.
And so on a summer night in mid 1916, Banner, with the help of neighbours Tom and Richard Gill, and John Kelly, put his plan into action. Proceeding to the north side of the island of Inishtaggart, across from the Coast Guard station, he entered the water at high tide and swam to where the cutter was moored.
Unhooking the cutter from its moorings, he let the boat drift slowly out on the ebb tide. The sentry heard and saw nothing, and soon Banner and his associates had guided the cutter out into the bay and around the side of Inishlyre island. The cutter was to be sunk close to the shore in an area where the seafloor was unusually deep.
Banner set to work with an auger, holing the boat in several places, while his associates carried out stones and rocks to weigh the vessel down. Local lore tells that a group of young people, on their way home to Inishgort from a dance, were summoned into service by Banner, and persuaded to join in the sinking by adding more rocks to the damaged craft. In that way, guilt was spread equally, and there would be no danger of any of the witnesses speaking out of turn later about what they had seen.
As a further precaution, Banner refused to allow any fixtures or brass to be removed from the boat, realising the consequences should any of the cutter’s fittings be found by the British in the searches that would inevitably follow.
The British scoured the islands and the bay in search of the vessel, raiding homes and dredging several areas in a vain search. As part of his careful planning, Banner had dropped weighted, leaking cans of oil at various locations to confuse the searchers.
It took 60 years before the Coast Guard cutter was finally found by a team of divers from Derry. The propeller was recovered in the 1990s by local diver Peter McDonagh.
The story of the sinking of the Rosmoney cutter is one of the dozens of incidental vignettes in ‘Remember Us’, the landmark publication of the Tiernaur Oral History group.