Whiddy Island disaster: ‘It is something that has never gone away’

The memorial event also served to highlight the simmering sense of injustice felt by many, writes Noel Baker.

Laying of wreaths and prayers to mark the 40th anniversary of the Betelgeuse disaster at the Abbey Cemetary in Bantry, Co Cork. Pictures: Dan Linehan

Five lonely islands off the coast of Whiddy — a mesh of rusty iron and concrete, home to the gannets and the odd seagull. But yesterday came some special visitors.

Out on the gently rippling sea the ferry boat brought the families of those who, 40 years ago to the day, lost their lives in the Whiddy Island oil disaster. It was here, back when the five steel and concrete outposts formed the Gulf Oil jetty, that fire consumed much of the Betelgeuse tanker, when oil spilled across the water and fire blew into the sky. Yesterday was the first time that many of those on board the ferry had ever gotten to the scene, the closest previous visitors had ever been. History and memory was in the air.

Everyone was outside as the relatives tossed yellow and red roses into the water near the remnants of the jetty — everyone, bar one. Inside the ferry, Teresa Shanahan was momentarily lost in her thoughts, twirling a sweet wrapper in her fingers like a rosary bead. Her husband, Liam Shanahan, was one of those lost that night. She broke from her reverie and began chatting with an old friend. “I’ve been there and done that,” she said, adding politely that she didn’t want to speak further. After all, it’s been there every day for the past 40 years.

Outside on the rear deck, her daughter Ann Shanahan took it all in. Earlier, at the cemetery as a piper led the cortege to the Betelgeuse memorial, she was in tears. It was tough.

Ann Shanahan, Ballydehob, Co Cork, who lost her father Liam, on the ferry boat out to lay flowers and wreaths, with her husband Conor and daughters Laura and Emma.

“There is a sense of anger and loss but we are trying to celebrate safety as well,” she said on deck. “It is something that has never gone away.”

Ann, who now lives in Cork, was echoing what Michael Kingston, who lost his father, Tim, in the disaster, had said when he spoke at the Memorial Mass earlier at St Finbarr’s Church. The service celebrated the lives of those lost, and of relatives who have died along the way. Bishop of Cork and Ross, John Buckley, said the suffering for many had been intensified because the bodies of their loved ones were never recovered. They live on in our memories, he said, adding: “We are all pilgrims on the streets of time.”

But the event also illustrated the bond between the French and Irish families. Much of the service was replayed in French and French flags flew in many parts of Bantry, including outside the tourist office and at the water’s edge on the way out to the cemetery. The LÉ James Joyce rested in the bay and Irish naval personnel formed a guard of honour as the families entered the church, led again by the piper. Wreathes from as far away as Alaska and Iceland were laid on the steps.

Inside, it was standing room only, with pews reserved for the families and also for organisations such as the RNLI and the air ambulance. Two specially prepared books in memory of the victims and put together by local school children were presented — one will stay in Bantry, one will return to France.

Michael Kingston speaks at the Betelgeuse disaster 40th anniversary Mass at St Finbarr’s Church, Bantry, Co Cork. Michael’s father Tim was killed on the night.

It also served to highlight the simmering sense of injustice felt by many. Some people might think that after 40 years an event like this might mean a full stop, but in fact, it has opened up new things. From the altar, Michael Kingston declared it “the day of the underdog”, and let go. The Taoiseach should issue a public apologies to the families of those who died, he said, and those deaths should be declared unlawful deaths.

Addressing some of his remarks directly at the senior government minister in attendance, Fine Gael junior minister Jim Daly, Michael railed at the absence of his senior colleagues, including those whose portfolio covers maritime safety.

Nora Kingston who lost her father Tim, before placing a hydrangea in the sea during 40th anniversary commemorations of the Betelgeuse disaster at the Whiddy Island pier in Bantry, Co Cork.

He said it was “Trump-esque”, referring also to correspondence he had sent to various ministers at different times in recent years in his capacity as an internationally recognised and award-winning lawyer who specialises in maritime law and safety at sea. In almost each instance, he received no response, yet within months of sending out one batch of correspondence, Rescue 116 pilot Capt Dara Fitzpatrick, co-pilot Capt Mark Duffy and winch crew Paul Ormsby and Ciarán Smith were killed in the tragedy off Blacksod off Co Mayo.

Dara’s father, John, was present yesterday in Bantry, making a presentation to a new cadet.

Michael said there has been investigations, but there had never been an investigation of Ireland’s maritime framework in relation to that incident. It was another failing, a theme he said went back to before the time his own father was taken. Things left undone, a dereliction of duty, the failure to properly administer justice.

He said Mr Daly now faced “an Andy Burnham moment”, referring to the British Labour MP for Liverpool who helped kickstart the campaign which ultimately led to the fresh Hillsborough Inquiry and subsequent legal actions. His lengthy, forceful address, delivered in even tones, felt like the vocal equivalent of someone upending a table. He received a lengthy standing ovation when he stopped speaking. One person among the throng, scientist Jack O’Sullivan, said: “In my 76 years, that is the most important speech I have heard. Every word is true.”

A lone piper with French ambassador Stéphane Crouzat and Michael Kingston, who represented the families, leading the families of victims of the Betelgeuse disaster to the ceremony at the memorial at the Abbey Cemetary in Bantry, Co Cork.

Even those not present articulated the same view. In a message conveyed from France, Ginette Ravaleau, who lost her husband 40 years ago and who broke her hip before Christmas, said “the tanker was a bomb”. Her husband died “totally intact”, from hypothermia.

Back on the ferry, Thibaud Spitzbarth was watching over his two children, two-year-old Gabrielle and baby Victor, aged just three months. Thibaud was only six when his father, Jean, died in the disaster. He said people carry those thoughts and feelings in their own ways. “I will be proud of having brought my kids with me these days, so they know. Five years from now I will be able to tell them they were there.”

Liam Shanahan, born the night his father died on Whiddy Island, at the anniversary Mass.

Tim Kingston’s own boat had been sailed over to the remains of the jetty and renamed ‘Forever Remembered’ for the event. 

Most Rev Dr John Buckley presents Mary Warner with a memorial book compiled by schoolchildren.

The flowers hit the water and after a while the ferry boat carrying the party coasted by the fading jetty — five gnarled standing stones. Maybe it was a trick of the light, but it seemed like the current was drawing the floating roses ever closer to them.

Local man Denis Connolly, a witness on the night at the Betelgeuse disaster, at St Finbarr’s Church.


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