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  • A baptism of fire for father of Irish navy

    While Pearse held the line in the GPO, Seamus Ó Muiris fought at Jutland


    Tom McCaughren

    March 28 2021 02:30 AM

    When Patrick Pearse and his comrades were battling it out with British soldiers from inside the GPO on Easter Week 1916, two brothers from Clifden were in the royal navy, preparing their ships for the biggest naval battle of World War I.

    The Battle of Jutland was fought in the North Sea, near Denmark. Fourteen British and 11 German ships were lost, along with their crews - almost 7,000 killed on the British side, about 3,000 on the German side - though both sides claimed victory.

    Compared with that scale of death, what occurred at the GPO may not have been considered much of a battle. But while Pearse and his garrison were forced to surrender, they won a moral victory that sowed the seeds for the independence we enjoy today.

    We don't know if the Morris brothers from Clifden were even aware of what was going on in Dublin in 1916. It's far more likely they were preoccupied with thoughts of their impending sea battle. In any event, when the battle ended Charles Morris numbered among the dead. His younger brother James survived. He was just 27 and following the Battle of Jutland was assured of a great career in the royal navy.

    Why then, does a portrait of James hang at the entrance to the officers' mess at Naval Service headquarters in Haulbowline, Co Cork, alongside one of WB Yeats? And why is he called Commander Seamus Ó Muiris?

    Readers will be familiar with Yeats, but unless you are interested in maritime history, you may not know much of James Morris, aka Seamus Ó Muiris. He was the great-uncle of my son-in-law, Tim Morris, so I have a particular interest in him.

    As a member of the Morris family from Clifden - one of the tribes of Galway - it was not surprising that James should pursue a career in the royal navy.

    As John de Courcy Ireland, former research officer of the Maritime Institute of Ireland, wrote, he was "a direct descendent of the first Irish Catholic to receive a commission in the royal navy when the Penal Laws were relaxed in 1794".

    "Henceforth, in every generation since, one or more of the family served with distinction in that navy."

    During the War of Independence, however, James - then Lt Commander Morris of the royal navy - was appalled by the brutality of British forces in Ireland.

    "In 1920," wrote de Courcy Ireland, "he had a great career before him, when - learning of the repression being exercised by the British government back home in his native land - he resigned his commission in protest, an act of conscience of rare purity."


    Tim, who is director at Windmill Lane Pictures, tells me that his great-uncle resigned his commission on learning of the brutality of the Black and Tans. A native Irish speaker, he returned home, reverted to the Irish version of his name, Seamus Ó Muiris, and took an intense interest in maritime matters.

    As nationhood emerged, Ó Muiris urged upon de Valera the necessity of Ireland having its own navy. In fact, says Tim, he wrote letters in Irish to Dev saying he couldn't have an island State unless he had a navy.

    They must have been strongly worded letters, as de Courcy Ireland wrote that he "admonished our early governments" on the subject.


    In 1938 Britain handed back control of the Treaty Ports. Ó Muiris, according to de Courcy Ireland, was "hastily summoned to Dublin, and became our wartime government's naval adviser and director of our improvised Marine Service, which kept our coasts clear of mines and spies throughout the Emergency".

    The royal navy had been patrolling our waters and Ó Muiris, as Commander of the Marine Service, continued to urge de Valera to create a navy of our own.

    In 1946 the government decided to establish the Naval Service. It wasn't the independent navy Ó Muiris had in mind, but was to be part of the Defence Forces. However, his dream had come true. Ireland had its navy - and, according to Tim, de Valera told him to "go and buy some ships".

    Tom MacGinty, in his history of the Irish navy, says approval was given for the immediate purchase of three corvettes, the first of which was named the Macha.

    The Macha became the first ship of the Naval Service to be deployed overseas, when in 1948 it carried home the remains of WB Yeats from France.

    The poet had died in France in 1939 but had expressed a wish to be reburied in Sligo. World War II intervened, and in 1948 the Macha was sent to Nice to honour his request. The operation was overseen by the then minister for external affairs, Seán MacBride, son of Maud Gonne MacBride. Yeats had hoped to marry Maud Gonne and she had inspired many of his poems.

    The portrait of Yeats (by his father, John), which hangs beside that of Commander Ó Muiris in Haulbowline, was presented to the captain and officers of the Macha by his widow, George - a "thank you" for bringing him back.

    Recently, the Naval Service honoured the poet by naming one of its ships the William Butler Yeats - something, I imagine, his widow would have liked very much.

    As for the portrait of Seamus Ó Muiris, it was presented to the Naval Service at a ceremony on board the corvette Emer in 1997. "With a gracious speech," wrote de Courcy Ireland, "Minister for Defence Barrett accepted from the Morris family a magnificent portrait of the Commander, to be hung permanently in the officers' mess at Naval Headquarters."

    Tom McCaughren is an award-winning author and former security correspondent with RTÉ

    A baptism of fire for father of Irish navy - Independent.ie

  • #2
    All good but the history is more complex. First Oi/c of things maritime was Major General Vize an ex-Clan Line Chief Engineer aided by a Superintendent O'Connor Master Mariner, during the Civil War period, and afterwards Vize oversaw the reduction of craft to 4 , during the 30's period largely for Fishery Duties. Haulbowline was taken over in 1938 by a Commandant N. Harrington and later by Commander Crosbie which were the first seeds of a Naval Force of MTB's and eventually Corvettes.
    Last edited by ancientmariner; 30 March 2021, 21:56.

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