Timeliness and tragedy

Second Reading

CRUCIAL FORECAST Maureen Sweeney was recently presented with an official US Congressional Medal for her role in the timing of D Day.

WWII and the Mullet Peninsula

Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

Though Ireland was neutral in the Second World War, the war visited us. In the early hours of May 31, 1941, the German Luftwaffe bombed the North Strand of Dublin killing 28 people, destroying 17 houses and badly damaging 50 others. Just over a month ago, Hazel Chu, then Lord Mayor of the city, led a ceremony of remembrance to mark the 80th Anniversary of the tragedy.
By coincidence, we on the Mullet Peninsula have also been recalling our connection with the war. On June 19, in a gracious ceremony in Tí Aire, where she is now living, 98 year old Maureen Sweeney (nee Flavin) was presented with an official US Congressional Medal, rarely awarded, for her role in the timing of D Day.
In a tribute read by John J Kelly, who organised the event, US Congressman Jack Bergman stated that ‘her skill and professionalism was crucial in ensuring an allied victory and her legacy will live on for generations to come’.
She also received a parchment from the US Congress stating that her name is placed in perpetuity on the congressional record. In 1944, Maureen, a native of Kerry, was working with the Sweeney family in Blacksod, who ran the local Post Office. Ted Sweeney, whom she later married, was the local lighthouse keeper. Part of his brief, with the help of Maureen, was to send regular weather reports to the Irish Meteorological Service.
On June 3, 1944, her 21st birthday, Maureen sent the weather report to Dublin. She did not know, until a decade later, that her observations determined the start of the D Day invasion of France by the allied troops.
‘Operation Overload’, as it was called under the leadership of General Dwight Eisenhower, envisaged the landing of 175,000 troops on French soil accompanied by 5,000 ships and 11,000 aircraft. Its purpose was to end the German occupation of France as a prelude to the eventual defeat of Adolf Hitler.
The invasion was secretly planned for June 5. However, in the week leading up to the invasion, there was disagreement between the English and American meteorologists on what weather was expected for that date. England experienced a heatwave in May. By early June there were signs that deep depressions were forming over the Atlantic. Maureen’s report indicated that the barometer in Blacksod was falling rapidly and heavy rain and winds were predicted for June 5. Not withstanding our neutrality in the war, we continued to share weather reports with Britain.
When the information reached Portsmouth, where Eisenhower and his staff were based, the invasion was postponed. When a later Blacksod report indicated that conditions were to improve by June 6, that became D Day.
A star sinks
On the last Sunday in June we remembered an event that occurred much earlier in the war. In June 1940 the SS Arandora Star, a cruise ship, commandeered for the British war effort, left Liverpool for Canada.
The purpose of the journey was to bring Italians and Germans, who had settled in Britain, to internment camps in Canada. The British government, suspicious of their loyalty in the war, decided to incarcerate them.
The ship was dangerously overcrowded. Designed for 500 passengers, it had on board 754 Italians, 479 Germans, 86 prisoners of war, 200 military guards and a crew of 147.
The ship captain, Edward Moulton, believed it was a death trap.
His dire forebodings were realised on July 2. Seventy five miles west of Bloody Foreland in Donegal, the Arandora Star, was torpedoed by a German U Boat. Later that day a Canadian destroyer, the St Laurent, rescued 818 survivors. Over 800 perished in the tragedy, 400 of them Italians.
By August some of the bodies came ashore in Scotland and along the west coast of Ireland from Malin Head to Blacksod Bay.
The Mayo News reported that 100 dead bodies were floating around the Inishkea Islands, but as conditions were turbulent they could not be brought ashore.
Eventually, some bodies, mainly Italian, reached the Mullet peninsula and were laid to rest in the ancient cemetery of Termoncarragh. On June 27, through the initiative of an Italian business man, Francesco Morelli, now living in Cashel, Co Tipperary, a plaque was unveiled in memory of those who died in the tragedy.