Documentary On One: The Sinking of the Saint Patrick tells the story of Wexford native, bestselling author and child protection expert Shane Dunphy's investigation into the greatest marine disaster in his county’s long seafaring history - listen to The Sinking of the Saint Patrick above.
The Saint Patrick, a Rosslare to Fishguard passenger ferry, was bombed and sunk by the Luftwaffe on 13th of June 1941, resulting in the deaths of 30 people. What puzzled Shane was why: the ship was not a military vessel, and Ireland as a neutral country was not at war. Yet the St Patrick was targeted not once but twice – the year before it was sunk a German plane had opened fire on the ship.
The documentary charts Shane’s journey to find answers. Perhaps the most haunting interview is with Alice Hunt, who lost a father and brother on each of the two attacks respectively. RTÉ’s Charlie Bird tells Shane about his connection with the St Patrick, and during a journey from Rosslare to Fishguard maritime expert Michael Cleere describes in grim detail the events that occurred on the fateful night the ship went down, and the terror the passengers and crew must have experienced. Historian Billy Colfer speaks of watching aerial dog-fights from the unique observation point of Hook Head Lighthouse, and of dead mariners being washed up on the coast.
On a trip to Germany, Shane finds the last remaining Heinkel bomber, now in storage in a military museum, and has the opportunity to discuss the ethics of warfare with a German military officer and historian, asking in particular why an Irish ship would have been viewed as a reasonable target.
The Sinking of the Saint Patrick touches on the machinations of politicians and military tacticians, but what Shane is primarily interested in are the lives of the people affected by these world events. The St Patrick belongs to another Ireland, one where things might have been simpler, but where complex and frightening things were happening in the background.
Eamon De Valera dominated Ireland’s political landscape in the ’40s, but despite his best diplomatic efforts the rapid changes the world was experiencing made it impossible for him to keep the forces attempting to exploit our nation, with its unique tactical positioning at the gateway of Europe, at bay. The British, the Germans and the Americans wanted access to our seaports and airports, and the Irish were branded cowards for staunchly refusing to get involved.
What The Sinking of the St Patrick shows is that, involved or not, Irish people died. The 30 men and women who drowned when the ship slipped below the waves within sight of the Welsh coast were casualties of war, and at the time the documentary was made there was not a single commemoration of their loss.
Thankfully the power of podcast and radio was able to change that.
In June of 2012, as a direct result of this documentary, a plaque was unveiled in Rosslare Europort to honour those who lost their lives on the St Patrick.
Alice Hunt was there to see it.
It was a proud moment.
Documentary On One: The Sinking of the Saint Patrick, RTÉ Radio 1, St. Patrick's Day at 6pm - listen to more from Documentary On One here.