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The Coast Guard at 200 - Bicentenary Booklet Published by Former Irish Coast Guard Officer Joe Ryan

14th January 2022
A Coast Guard retrieves a woman from a breeches buoy

The Coast Guard’s role in combating smuggling and providing famine relief and gruelling night work at sea which was “enough to kill a horse” are recorded in a booklet marking its bicentenary by retired marine radio officer Joe Ryan.

Ryan, who worked in the Irish Coast Guard from 1995 to his retirement in 2014, has put together a commemorative document (downloadable below) that traces the organisation’s history from its establishment by a British act of parliament in January 1822.

He records how its first inspector general, James D’Ombrain, was of Huguenot stock and began construction of station houses in Co Cork. By 1900, there were about 200 stations around the Irish coast, primarily to prevent smuggling but with a secondary lifesaving role.

The many former British navy ratings employed used their gigs and galleys to save lives prior to the establishment of RNLI stations – and often volunteered to crew RNLI lifeboats, he writes. From 1831, when D’Ombrain undertook an annual sail around Ireland, he witnessed the effects of famine on the west coast and was instrumental in organising relief.

This led to clashes with his higher authority which adopted a harsh unforgiving attitude reflected in Seamus Heaney’s work, For the Commander of the Eliza”. Sir Randolph Routh had complained to Sir Charles Trevelyan about D’Ombrain during the 1839 famine and this was the basis of Heaney’s poem, Ryan writes.

The Compass Rose at Kilmore Quay story is on page 20 of Joe Ryan's Bicentenary Booklet downloadable belowThe Compass Rose at Kilmore Quay story is on page 20 of Joe Ryan's Bicentenary Booklet downloadable below

Ryan quotes from D’Ombrain’s correspondence with the British government on the issue – “I cannot but feel deeply mortified and grieved at the censure their Lordships have passed on me for an act which I considered at the time to be one of pressing emergency. “

After his retirement, D’Ombrain became a commissioner of the Lighthouse Authority of Ireland- at that time the Corporation for Preserving and Improving the Port of Dublin.

Ryan writes of the loss of the first White Star liner, Tayleur, which was wrecked off Dublin’s Lambay island on January 21st, 1854, with about 200 of the 670 passengers and crew on board surviving; the call up of Coast Guard ratings in Ireland to serve with Britain in the Crimean War from 1854; the transfer of Coast Guard control to the British Admiralty in 1856, with duties ranging from assisting vessels in distress, undertaking navigational duties, recording reports from fishing harbours and identifying wild birds and rare fish washed ashore.

“The Admiralty had an ulterior motive in taking over the Coast Guard. They had a reserve of trained men to call upon in times of war. We can also see how things like their benevolence and lifesaving skills were no longer priorities,” Ryan writes.

The Coast Guard Heli and Howth RNLI in 2007.  This story is on page 64 on the bicentenary booklet downloadable belowThe Coast Guard Heli and Howth RNLI in 2007. This story is on page 64 on the bicentenary booklet downloadable below

The death of Captain John McNeill Boyd and five of his crew from the guardship Ajax during an attempted rescue of two ships seeking shelter in Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) during storms in February 1861; the Fethard lifeboat disaster of February 1914; the establishment of the Coast Life Saving Service after independence in 1922; the initiation of a separate Coast Watch service during the second world war; and the last use of a breeches buoy are covered by Ryan.

He pays tribute to Joan O’Doherty (nee McGinley’s) West Coast Search and Rescue Action Committee of 1988, which highlighted the need for more helicopter rescue bases, and the role of Capt Liam Kirwan, first director of the new Irish Marine Emergency Service from 1993.

Kirwan had worked with Capt Peter Brown and Capt David Shiels on the Coast and Cliff Rescue Service from 1987, and Ryan also recalls the contribution of the late Agnes Walsh who worked for the Department of the Marine during implementation of the Government’s Doherty report on search and rescue.

MV Plassy was wrecked on Inisheer in 1960. The local CCLS team rescued the crew of 11 using breeches buoys.  See page 46 in the booklet downloadable belowMV Plassy was wrecked on Inisheer in 1960. The local CCLS team rescued the crew of 11 using breeches buoys.  See page 46 in the booklet downloadable below

Incidents such as the loss of all six crew without trace from the Donegal fishing vessel Carrickatine in November 1995; the death of volunteer diver Michael Heffernan during the Belderrig cave rescue in north Mayo in October 1997; the deaths of four Air Corps crew when Rescue 111 crashed off Waterford in July 1999; the extraordinary rescue of a young Spanish crewman wearing no lifejacket from the Skerd Rocks in outer Galway Bay by Rescue 115 from Shannon in 2000; and the rescue of 21 sailors from the Fastnet Yacht Race competitor Rambler in August 2011 are also recalled.

Ryan records the devastating impact of the death of the first Irish Coast Guard volunteer on duty – Caitriona Lucas of Doolin Coast Guard in September 2016 – and the loss of the Rescue 116 helicopter crew of Capt Dara Fitzpatrick, Capt Mark Duffy, and winch team Paul Ormsby and Ciarán Smith off Blackrock island, north Mayo on March 14, 2017.

Ryan spent 12 years at sea on all types of ships working initially for Marconi Marine, before going freelance and spending the final six years directly employed by a supertanker company. He worked as a computer engineer with McDonnell Douglas Information Systems Ltd in Dublin, and joined the Irish Marine Emergency Service in 1995 – renamed as the Irish Coast Guard in 2000.

He retired in 2014, and his booklet is based on research undertaken for a lecture for the Maritime Museum in Dun Laoghaire that same year. His commemorative publication is downloadable below, and copies are also available by contacting him at email [email protected]

Published in Coastguard
Lorna Siggins

About The Author

Lorna Siggins

Email The Author

Lorna Siggins is a print and radio reporter, and a former Irish Times western correspondent. She is the author of Search and Rescue: True stories of Irish Air-Sea Rescues and the Loss of R116 (2022); Everest Callling (1994) on the first Irish Everest expedition; Mayday! Mayday! (2004); and Once Upon a Time in the West: the Corrib gas controversy (2010). She is also co-producer with Sarah Blake of the Doc on One "Miracle in Galway Bay" which recently won a Celtic Media Award

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The Irish Coast Guard

The Irish Coast Guard is Ireland's fourth 'Blue Light' service (along with An Garda Síochána, the Ambulance Service and the Fire Service). It provides a nationwide maritime emergency organisation as well as a variety of services to shipping and other government agencies.

The purpose of the Irish Coast Guard is to promote safety and security standards, and by doing so, prevent as far as possible, the loss of life at sea, and on inland waters, mountains and caves, and to provide effective emergency response services and to safeguard the quality of the marine environment.

The Irish Coast Guard has responsibility for Ireland's system of marine communications, surveillance and emergency management in Ireland's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and certain inland waterways.

It is responsible for the response to, and co-ordination of, maritime accidents which require search and rescue and counter-pollution and ship casualty operations. It also has responsibility for vessel traffic monitoring.

Operations in respect of maritime security, illegal drug trafficking, illegal migration and fisheries enforcement are co-ordinated by other bodies within the Irish Government.

On average, each year, the Irish Coast Guard is expected to:

  • handle 3,000 marine emergencies
  • assist 4,500 people and save about 200 lives
  • task Coast Guard helicopters on missions

The Coast Guard has been around in some form in Ireland since 1908.

Coast Guard helicopters

The Irish Coast Guard has contracted five medium-lift Sikorsky Search and Rescue helicopters deployed at bases in Dublin, Waterford, Shannon and Sligo.

The helicopters are designated wheels up from initial notification in 15 minutes during daylight hours and 45 minutes at night. One aircraft is fitted and its crew trained for under slung cargo operations up to 3000kgs and is available on short notice based at Waterford.

These aircraft respond to emergencies at sea, inland waterways, offshore islands and mountains of Ireland (32 counties).

They can also be used for assistance in flooding, major inland emergencies, intra-hospital transfers, pollution, and aerial surveillance during daylight hours, lifting and passenger operations and other operations as authorised by the Coast Guard within appropriate regulations.

Irish Coastguard FAQs

The Irish Coast Guard provides nationwide maritime emergency response, while also promoting safety and security standards. It aims to prevent the loss of life at sea, on inland waters, on mountains and in caves; and to safeguard the quality of the marine environment.

The main role of the Irish Coast Guard is to rescue people from danger at sea or on land, to organise immediate medical transport and to assist boats and ships within the country's jurisdiction. It has three marine rescue centres in Dublin, Malin Head, Co Donegal, and Valentia Island, Co Kerry. The Dublin National Maritime Operations centre provides marine search and rescue responses and coordinates the response to marine casualty incidents with the Irish exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Yes, effectively, it is the fourth "blue light" service. The Marine Rescue Sub-Centre (MRSC) Valentia is the contact point for the coastal area between Ballycotton, Co Cork and Clifden, Co Galway. At the same time, the MRSC Malin Head covers the area between Clifden and Lough Foyle. Marine Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC) Dublin covers Carlingford Lough, Co Louth to Ballycotton, Co Cork. Each MRCC/MRSC also broadcasts maritime safety information on VHF and MF radio, including navigational and gale warnings, shipping forecasts, local inshore forecasts, strong wind warnings and small craft warnings.

The Irish Coast Guard handles about 3,000 marine emergencies annually, and assists 4,500 people - saving an estimated 200 lives, according to the Department of Transport. In 2016, Irish Coast Guard helicopters completed 1,000 missions in a single year for the first time.

Yes, Irish Coast Guard helicopters evacuate medical patients from offshore islands to hospital on average about 100 times a year. In September 2017, the Department of Health announced that search and rescue pilots who work 24-hour duties would not be expected to perform any inter-hospital patient transfers. The Air Corps flies the Emergency Aeromedical Service, established in 2012 and using an AW139 twin-engine helicopter. Known by its call sign "Air Corps 112", it airlifted its 3,000th patient in autumn 2020.

The Irish Coast Guard works closely with the British Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which is responsible for the Northern Irish coast.

The Irish Coast Guard is a State-funded service, with both paid management personnel and volunteers, and is under the auspices of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. It is allocated approximately 74 million euro annually in funding, some 85 per cent of which pays for a helicopter contract that costs 60 million euro annually. The overall funding figure is "variable", an Oireachtas committee was told in 2019. Other significant expenditure items include volunteer training exercises, equipment, maintenance, renewal, and information technology.

The Irish Coast Guard has four search and rescue helicopter bases at Dublin, Waterford, Shannon and Sligo, run on a contract worth 50 million euro annually with an additional 10 million euro in costs by CHC Ireland. It provides five medium-lift Sikorsky S-92 helicopters and trained crew. The 44 Irish Coast Guard coastal units with 1,000 volunteers are classed as onshore search units, with 23 of the 44 units having rigid inflatable boats (RIBs) and 17 units having cliff rescue capability. The Irish Coast Guard has 60 buildings in total around the coast, and units have search vehicles fitted with blue lights, all-terrain vehicles or quads, first aid equipment, generators and area lighting, search equipment, marine radios, pyrotechnics and appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) and Community Rescue Boats Ireland also provide lifeboats and crews to assist in search and rescue. The Irish Coast Guard works closely with the Garda Siochána, National Ambulance Service, Naval Service and Air Corps, Civil Defence, while fishing vessels, ships and other craft at sea offer assistance in search operations.

The helicopters are designated as airborne from initial notification in 15 minutes during daylight hours, and 45 minutes at night. The aircraft respond to emergencies at sea, on inland waterways, offshore islands and mountains and cover the 32 counties. They can also assist in flooding, major inland emergencies, intra-hospital transfers, pollution, and can transport offshore firefighters and ambulance teams. The Irish Coast Guard volunteers units are expected to achieve a 90 per cent response time of departing from the station house in ten minutes from notification during daylight and 20 minutes at night. They are also expected to achieve a 90 per cent response time to the scene of the incident in less than 60 minutes from notification by day and 75 minutes at night, subject to geographical limitations.

Units are managed by an officer-in-charge (three stripes on the uniform) and a deputy officer in charge (two stripes). Each team is trained in search skills, first aid, setting up helicopter landing sites and a range of maritime skills, while certain units are also trained in cliff rescue.

Volunteers receive an allowance for time spent on exercises and call-outs. What is the difference between the Irish Coast Guard and the RNLI? The RNLI is a registered charity which has been saving lives at sea since 1824, and runs a 24/7 volunteer lifeboat service around the British and Irish coasts. It is a declared asset of the British Maritime and Coast Guard Agency and the Irish Coast Guard. Community Rescue Boats Ireland is a community rescue network of volunteers under the auspices of Water Safety Ireland.

No, it does not charge for rescue and nor do the RNLI or Community Rescue Boats Ireland.

The marine rescue centres maintain 19 VHF voice and DSC radio sites around the Irish coastline and a digital paging system. There are two VHF repeater test sites, four MF radio sites and two NAVTEX transmitter sites. Does Ireland have a national search and rescue plan? The first national search and rescue plan was published in July, 2019. It establishes the national framework for the overall development, deployment and improvement of search and rescue services within the Irish Search and Rescue Region and to meet domestic and international commitments. The purpose of the national search and rescue plan is to promote a planned and nationally coordinated search and rescue response to persons in distress at sea, in the air or on land.

Yes, the Irish Coast Guard is responsible for responding to spills of oil and other hazardous substances with the Irish pollution responsibility zone, along with providing an effective response to marine casualties and monitoring or intervening in marine salvage operations. It provides and maintains a 24-hour marine pollution notification at the three marine rescue centres. It coordinates exercises and tests of national and local pollution response plans.

The first Irish Coast Guard volunteer to die on duty was Caitriona Lucas, a highly trained member of the Doolin Coast Guard unit, while assisting in a search for a missing man by the Kilkee unit in September 2016. Six months later, four Irish Coast Guard helicopter crew – Dara Fitzpatrick, Mark Duffy, Paul Ormsby and Ciarán Smith -died when their Sikorsky S-92 struck Blackrock island off the Mayo coast on March 14, 2017. The Dublin-based Rescue 116 crew were providing "top cover" or communications for a medical emergency off the west coast and had been approaching Blacksod to refuel. Up until the five fatalities, the Irish Coast Guard recorded that more than a million "man hours" had been spent on more than 30,000 rescue missions since 1991.

Several investigations were initiated into each incident. The Marine Casualty Investigation Board was critical of the Irish Coast Guard in its final report into the death of Caitriona Lucas, while a separate Health and Safety Authority investigation has been completed, but not published. The Air Accident Investigation Unit final report into the Rescue 116 helicopter crash has not yet been published.

The Irish Coast Guard in its present form dates back to 1991, when the Irish Marine Emergency Service was formed after a campaign initiated by Dr Joan McGinley to improve air/sea rescue services on the west Irish coast. Before Irish independence, the British Admiralty was responsible for a Coast Guard (formerly the Water Guard or Preventative Boat Service) dating back to 1809. The West Coast Search and Rescue Action Committee was initiated with a public meeting in Killybegs, Co Donegal, in 1988 and the group was so effective that a Government report was commissioned, which recommended setting up a new division of the Department of the Marine to run the Marine Rescue Co-Ordination Centre (MRCC), then based at Shannon, along with the existing coast radio service, and coast and cliff rescue. A medium-range helicopter base was established at Shannon within two years. Initially, the base was served by the Air Corps.

The first director of what was then IMES was Capt Liam Kirwan, who had spent 20 years at sea and latterly worked with the Marine Survey Office. Capt Kirwan transformed a poorly funded voluntary coast and cliff rescue service into a trained network of cliff and sea rescue units – largely voluntary, but with paid management. The MRCC was relocated from Shannon to an IMES headquarters at the then Department of the Marine (now Department of Transport) in Leeson Lane, Dublin. The coast radio stations at Valentia, Co Kerry, and Malin Head, Co Donegal, became marine rescue-sub-centres.

The current director is Chris Reynolds, who has been in place since August 2007 and was formerly with the Naval Service. He has been seconded to the head of mission with the EUCAP Somalia - which has a mandate to enhance Somalia's maritime civilian law enforcement capacity – since January 2019.

  • Achill, Co. Mayo
  • Ardmore, Co. Waterford
  • Arklow, Co. Wicklow
  • Ballybunion, Co. Kerry
  • Ballycotton, Co. Cork
  • Ballyglass, Co. Mayo
  • Bonmahon, Co. Waterford
  • Bunbeg, Co. Donegal
  • Carnsore, Co. Wexford
  • Castlefreake, Co. Cork
  • Castletownbere, Co. Cork
  • Cleggan, Co. Galway
  • Clogherhead, Co. Louth
  • Costelloe Bay, Co. Galway
  • Courtown, Co. Wexford
  • Crosshaven, Co. Cork
  • Curracloe, Co. Wexford
  • Dingle, Co. Kerry
  • Doolin, Co. Clare
  • Drogheda, Co. Louth
  • Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin
  • Dunmore East, Co. Waterford
  • Fethard, Co. Wexford
  • Glandore, Co. Cork
  • Glenderry, Co. Kerry
  • Goleen, Co. Cork
  • Greencastle, Co. Donegal
  • Greenore, Co. Louth
  • Greystones, Co. Wicklow
  • Guileen, Co. Cork
  • Howth, Co. Dublin
  • Kilkee, Co. Clare
  • Killala, Co. Mayo
  • Killybegs, Co. Donegal
  • Kilmore Quay, Co. Wexford
  • Knightstown, Co. Kerry
  • Mulroy, Co. Donegal
  • North Aran, Co. Galway
  • Old Head Of Kinsale, Co. Cork
  • Oysterhaven, Co. Cork
  • Rosslare, Co. Wexford
  • Seven Heads, Co. Cork
  • Skerries, Co. Dublin Summercove, Co. Cork
  • Toe Head, Co. Cork
  • Tory Island, Co. Donegal
  • Tramore, Co. Waterford
  • Waterville, Co. Kerry
  • Westport, Co. Mayo
  • Wicklow
  • Youghal, Co. Cork

Sources: Department of Transport © Afloat 2020

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