06 February 2006

The Sinking Of The 'Nellie M'

Derry Journal

Friday 3rd February 2006

Monday (today) marks the 25th anniversary of the IRA sinking of the 'Nellie M' coal boat in Lough Foyle. On Friday, February 6th, 1981, the merchant vessel, valued at £3million, with a coal cargo worth £1million, was at anchor in Lough Foyle between the coasts of Co. Derry and Co. Donegal, waiting for the tide to turn so she could proceed upriver to Derry.

What its skipper and crew didn't know, however, was that an armed IRA unit was on its way to scupper it. Seven IRA men hijacked a pilot boat at Moville pilot station and instructed its pilot, a Moville native, to take seven volunteers armed with tons of explosives out to the coal ship. Five IRA men kept guard at Moville docks during the operation. Reports from the time, including those in the 'Derry Journal' recount how the IRA went on board the 'Nellie M' and commandeered the vessel. They informed the ship's chief engineer about their intention. Realising the seriousness of the situation, he agreed to cooperate and went to the living quarters to inform the crew. The captain of the 'Nellie M' would later comment on the professionalism of the IRA volunteers.

With four of them keeping guard over the skipper and crew, the other three immediately set about planting the timed explosives in preplanned positions in the engine room. The crew were then told to put on lifejackets and get into their lifeboat. The volunteers then attached a rope from the lifeboat to the Moville pilot boat and towed it towards shore.

When they were close to shore, the lifeboat was then set adrift. At about this time, when the volunteers and 'Nellie M' crew were out of harm's way, the merchant coal ship was rocked with an explosion and the fires on deck could be seen from miles around. Another explosion, timed to go off several hours later, would slowly begin to sink her. By daybreak, the rear of the vessel was submerged. It is understood the IRA volunteers left a message on board that merchant ships in future would meet the same fate, in line with their pledge to disrupt the movement of British ships off the Irish coast. The crews of such ships would not be targeted, they said. Almost a year to the day later, a second coal boat, the St. Bedan of Glasgow, was also bombed and sunk by the IRA. Moville man Seamus Bovaird, who was home on leave from the Merchant Navy at the time the St. Bedan was bombed, recalls the aftermath of the incident.

"I was a member of the Merchant Navy and Airline Officers Association and the union asked me to help their members on the St. Bedan, who included the crew and officers. "They were taken to Keaveney's Hotel and because they had come in from sea on a raft, they were standing there soaking wet, not knowing how they would get home. "We organised for them to get clothes from a local shop, Breslin's and shoes from Bonner's. The bills for these clothes were all paid up about three months later. We also organised for them to get transport home. Some flew and others took the ferry," he remembered.
But the story of the 'Nellie M' didn't end there. She was raised and refurbished in 1982, sold to an Irish company and renamed 'Ellie'. Two years later, JR Rix & Sons Ltd., of Hull bought her and once again she was renamed, this time to 'Timrix'. In 1991, the vessel was extended by about seven metres and in 1995 was again resold. She was renamed 'Maltese Venture' and within a year, sold again as the 'Spezi'. Six years ago, in 2000, she crossed the Atlantic to new Colombian owners and is still trading as 'The Dove'. Not many boats can boast of having had no fewer than six names.

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