LIFESTYLE: Celebration of Maritime History

The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland), May 31, 2004 | Go to article overview
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LIFESTYLE: Celebration of Maritime History


As Londonderry Port gears up to celebrate its 150th anniversary, IAN STARRETT looks at a century and a half of maritime history on the River Foyle.

AS a port, of course, the one located on the Foyle dates back much further than 150 years and the history before then was as illustrious, perhaps, as it has been since.

It's just that the latter-day maritime history of the port and the meandering river that divides Londonderry, geographically as well as politically, and the port that serves it, has been recorded in much more detail. From pen to art, to still photographs, to cine film, to 21st century IT wizardry; the saga of the North West port has been diligently preserved for posterity.

What, precisely, is to be celebrated on the Foyle this June is the 150th anniversary of Londonderry Port and Harbour Commissioners.

They were established in 1854 by the Londonderry Port and Harbour Act when the port was given charge of the conservancy and navigation for the river and Lough Foyle.

By that time, Londonderry's great wooden sailing boat-builder Captain Coppin's shipyard wasn't the force it once was as faster steamships came into greater vogue.

His shipyard concentrated mostly on salvage work in the latter days of the Coppin empire and it was sold in 1873.

There followed a series of shipyard openings and closures in the years after that - owners being WF Bigger, Londonderry Shipbuilding & Engineering Company and, in 1912, Swan & Hunter again reopened the yard and ran it under the name of the North of Ireland Shipbuilding Company until 1924.

Some of the old skills were revived at Pennyburn when there were repairs required by the Royal Navy during World War Two, but the halcyon days of shipbuilding in Londonderry were long gone by that time.

Londonderry Port & Harbour Commissioners were only a few years in place when the American Civil War broke out. There were concerns that this would harm Londonderry's lucrative trans-Atlantic shipping business. It had been a major port of emigration for both Ulster-Scots Presbyterians and, latterly, famine-fleeing people.

But the American Civil War proved a silver lining for Londonderry.

Merchants exported war supplies, and emigrants provided job replacements for Americans who had gone off to war.

Londonderry's textile industry flourished too, as women made uniforms for both sides in the war.

Two of the greatest shipping company names in those days were Bartholomew McCorkell, who died in 1887, icon of a family with a great Londonderry maritime tradition that exists to this day, and John Cooke, who passed away in 1895.

The most famous and truly magnificent ship in the whole McCorkell fleet was The Minnehaha, named after the heroine of Longfellow's poem The Song of Hiawatha. Incidentally, six other McCorkell ships were named after characters in the same famous poem.

Londonderry port's role in the World War Two Battle of the Atlantic, from where the allied boats escorted the trans-Atlantic supply convoys, has been well documented.

However, in any reflection on the past 150 years, it's worth recording what Prof JW Blake, the official Northern Ireland war historian, wrote: "Londonderry held the key to victory in the Atlantic."

Nicholas Monsarrat - who wrote The Cruel Sea - wrote about Londonderry in his 1940s novel HMS Marlborough Will Enter Harbour, in which he told the fact-based story of a captain determined not to surrender his vessel after it had been torpedoed.

As the badly wounded vessel, her guns out of action, came into the Foyle, the message sent to the Flag Officer in Charge in Londonderry read: "HMS Marlborough will enter harbour at 1300 today. Ship is severely damaged above and below water-line. Request pilot, tugs, dockyard assistance and burial arrangements for one officer and seventy-four ratings."

Having dictated this message, the captain ordered: "Ask the surgeon-lieutenant to relieve me for an hour.

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