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Charlie Mc Cann's boyhood Memories of Greencastle, Co Donegal

by BBC Radio Foyle

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Contributed by 
BBC Radio Foyle
People in story: 
Charlie Mc Cann
Location of story: 
Stroove, Inishowen,Co Donegal
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
19 December 2005

Charlie Mc Cann's father was a sea pilot who guided the ships up into the quay in Derry from Donegal.Charlie lived in greencastle and saw planes crash and ships anchored at Moville in the irish Free state even though ireland was neutral

This story is taken from an interview with Charlie McCann, and has been added to the site with their permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions. The interview was by Deirdre Donnelly, and transcription was by Bruce Logan.

[Stroove is in Donegal, Eire. It is located on the south-eastern side of the Inishowen Peninsula, just outside the passage that enters into Lough Foyle.]

There were 7-8 sea pilots at Stroove, then they signed on 3-4 younger men. They were all quite old, in their 60s. My father was the youngest, in his 40s.
As the war progressed they got very busy.
There was a huge fleet of escort vessels in Derry. Some only went as far as Moville — there were a couple of tankers anchored there for refuelling, either in the way in or the way out. The pilots worked night and day, on the go all the time.

The pilots station was known as the “watch house”. There were about 4 there at night on stand-by. When the 4 were gone they went up to the house for someone else. There were only 2 phones in the village — the Post office and Pilot Station.
The houses didn’t have phones, but there were 3 boatmen based there as well so they could send one up to call out a pilot at about 4am. They would throw a wee bit of gravel at the bedroom window to waken you, and shout “you better get up”

it was hard to get things in shops eg tea was in very short supply. Eire tea ration ½-oz per week! Coffee unknown — “camp coffee” [like a HP sauce bottle] was the only thing in the shops. US/Canadian coffee was totally new experience
Paraffin oil [no electric until 1950s]. Ships had oil lamps, so lots of paraffin. Capt McGlinchy from Derry got 5 gallon drum of oil for my father.
Fags — everyone smoked. House was always full of cigarette. “Lucky Strike”, “Camel” = US.
“State Express” = Canadian, packs of 25 [others = 20]

“bum-boat men” small boats from Moville went out to ships in the bay to barter Eggs and chickens for tea [1 pound a lb — 2-3 days wages, probably ten times the cost!]

when a ship arrived, pilot was rowed out on small boat. The pilot takes over from the captain, and directs the boat. The pilot is not legally in charge, the Capt [“master”] can overrule if he feels it’s necessary.
In the log book it is written:
TMO = To Master’s Orders
PA = Pilot’s Advice

Merchant ships, usually coal-boats, timber, flour, grain
Naval vessels = corvettes, aircraft carriers, destroyers, sloops [smaller than destroyer], American destroyers [4 funnels, built in WW1], US Coastguard Cutters, minesweepers, smaller craft

Responsible for ships regardless of where they came from. Eire was neutral on the side of the Allies.
The pilots were all Donegal men, except for Ted Kinlay [Liverpool] and Frank Cadden [Derry]. Frank had a beard, not many wore beards in those days. All the rest were from here.
Irish authorities turned a blind eye. Navy men came ashore. As long as you didn’t wear a cap, it was all right. You could go in, have a drink, Go to a dance.
The pilots wore the Atlantic star for their contribution, presented by His Majesty King George VI.

There were a couple of plane crashes in 1944. A liberator bomber in the hill. Flying out of of Ballykelly, Limavady, Maydown, Eglinton. The big bombers from ballykelly on anti-sub patrol. Not supposed to cross Donegal, but some took a shortcut. It was dense fog, one crashed into the hill.
I was at a funeral. My cousin’s wife had died. On the way home we heard about it, so we went to look. She’d hit the side of the hill and gone up it. It was quite gruesome, dead bodies lying all over the place. It was on fire — ammo exploding, from all the MGs. We were only 14-5. only 1 survived briefly from 9 crew.
Dan Kearney, tending sheep, pulled one out of the cockpit. He died in a couple of hours.
The same day another Liberator crashed at Glengad near Malin, and they were all killed.

Another crashed between here and Greencastle. A smallish plane. 3 killed, 1 survivor. A few more crashed in the sea out here, including the famous American one. I was away at school in Letterkenny at the time [1943 onwards]. These divers found it, I never heard of it!

There was one went on the rocks, a big tug boat one night about a mile from here. There’s a metal beacon with no light on it. They tried to salvage it, but it was too badly damaged.
Another one ran aground at the Golf Club, but they got it off. A corvette sank at Derry, but I don’t know the details.

Half a destroyer towed in — the other half was blown off. Some of the bodies were still in the wreckage.
On the west coast of Ireland, a lot of bodies were washed ashore. We didn’t get that here, the tides are different.

[were Donegal fishing boats used as minesweepers?]
I never heard of that. I heard it was the RN.
There was a fishing boat in Loch Swilly as an Examination Vessel. There was one anchored off the lighthouse. It would inspect ships to see they were who they said they were. Then they were told what flags to use, so if they were challenged they would have the password [in semaphore].
The first one here was motor-yacht bluebird, and belonged to Malcolm Campbell. She was painted all admiralty grey.
The one in Lough Swilly was a wee fishing boat. There was a couple of men from Shroove in her — Frank Loughry and Michael Hegarty, I think.
There was no Irish navy, but there was the “marine service” or something.

The plane was loaded with depth charges. The Irish army came a couple of days after, and blew it up.
For weeks after we would go and gather up these machine-gun bullets that were lying all over the place.
The Liberator had both HMGs and LMGs.
With HMG ammo the boys would take the sharp end off, Take out the cordite then hit the detonator. They would use it as a gun. They nailed it onto a fence-post, put a potato on the head, then hit the end with a nail and a hammer.
LMGs used lighter ammo - .303, standard rifle bullet. There were big belts of them. A local man had a WW1 SMLE rifle, and let them fire it if they brought their own bullets! They fired at Seagulls. It had a Range of 1.5 miles. Tracer bullets were the best. But they never hit a seagull!

[were there Dances?]
A hall was built in Shroove in 1938-9 as community centre. It was later converted in chapel, to the disgust of teenagers!
Moville had navy, sailors and Derry folk. Late Bishop Neil Farran banned people from going to dance by bus. There was a Priest at every dance, and the Bishop ordered him to bar anyone who arrived by bus!

Charlie had no direct contact with Yanks. His father kept contact with some sea captains after the war.
Some ships were regular, there was a Londonderry Sqdn of 3 destroyers until 1968.
Subs were uncomfortable — no shelter on top of the conning tower. A different type of officer, more laid-back, always gave him a wee drink in the ward-room [6ftx10ft, 2 officers slept there]. Sub Capt Cassidi lived in Limavady. He eventually became an admiral.

Charlie’s dad was pilot to one of the escort groups when the U-Boats surrendered. Charlie O’Donnell piloted the first ones in.
The U-Boat captains were giving away their Zeiss binoculars, father had 2 pairs. He gave one pair to Charlie’s aunt. Jack Gillespie’s are in the museum.

Jack’s brother’s ship was trapped in Dunkirk Harbour, he escaped to England on another ship. He became a pilot.

Charlie piloted an old frigate, the “Harry” [capt class] to Derry. The Captain told him “Don’t worry about the speed. This ship is going to the scrapyard!”
He went up to 18 knotts. The only time he ever went from Moville to Derry in under an hour.
If you go too fast the wash hits the beach, damages boats.

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