The ferries are often subsidised by local or central government intent on saving every penny. Scottish services are seldom in a situation where everyone concerned is satisfied with the status quo, more usually settling for rumbling resentment between arguments.
However, Scottish ferries can appear all sweetness and bonhomie compared to Galway Bay. Back in November 2002, imagine the scene when the contracted ferry Oileáin Árann arrived at Kilronan on Inishmore, the largest of the Aran islands with the island’s essential day to day supplies. The Harbourmaster refused to let the ship unload, apparently for health and safety reasons. He would have to be very sure of his ground wouldn’t he, prepared as he was to face the islanders’ wrath?
I have seen the supplies landed there and besides bottled gas, a huge proportion of the freight seemed to be Guinness and other beers. There was probably food too though it wasn’t obvious. You can savour the image of the Oileáin Árann pulling away with her deck cargo of still brim full kegs and crates glinting in the noonday sun heading back to Galway. I am assuming the harbourmaster survived…
History is not exactly repeating itself, but in January this year the long serving passenger ferry operator O’Brien Ferries issued a statement that the service would be halted in late January until March. The reason given was a new levy per passenger that the harbour company was imposing which the ferry company was obliged to collect. For the best part of two months the islands would have been without a passenger link. The reason for this new levy seems to be a recent 50mn Euro investment in Kilronan harbour by the government, the cost of which commentators say the government are trying to recoup from ferry users.
The threat to the service has been lifted temporarily as all parties enter into emergency discussions. Presumably some form of financial deal is possible, but whichever way you look at it, the islanders are in a trap between government fi nancial policies and private operators who do not have to accept a deal that doesn’t suit them.
The vessel Oileáin Árann was a strange looking almost futuristic vessel, designed for both passengers in a forward tower structure and a rear freight deck served by crane. Her hull was built at Brombrough by McTay Marine and completed by their then associates James Miller of St Monans, Fife, both being now out of business. Remarkably there is little on the web about her building or her early days in the ‘90s, almost as if she was unlovely, unclaimed and unloved. However, there is life once more at McTay with local company Carmet Towing having taken over the site.
The ship is perhaps more valued by her new Icelandic owners. In 2006 she was acquired for operation in Northern Iceland now managed by Samskip. She was radically rebuilt as a ro-ro, the Saefari, serving the northern most inhabited islands of Iceland, Grimsey and Hrisey from the port of Dalvik.
Since her day, the passenger ferries to Aran are large fast monohull launches and small motor vessels reducing crossing time from the previous nearly three hours from Galway to under an hour from Rosssaveal Co Galway or Doolin in Co Clare. The year round service (subject to a new deal being struck) is from Rossaveal and seasonal from Doolin while freight is mainly still from Galway in the hands of Lasta Mare Teo who operate an interesting Romanian built rear deck cargo vessel Blath na Mara 330,’83. She looks ideal for the purpose, having a robust long reach derrick for high lifting onto the tidal quays she uses. She had displaced a small motor cargo vessel the Stenland, but more on both these ships in Coastal Commentary.
The earlier mainstay on the Galway-Aran service built by Liffey Dockyard for ‘CIE’, the nationalised Irish Transport operator, was the Naomh Eanna. She still languishes in increasingly poor order at Dublin, where a number of increasingly desperate sounding enthusiasts and heritage interests are trying to organise the means of preserving her without gaining any serious support from the government or its agencies as yet. I count myself lucky having enjoyed two visits to the Arans during the time of what I call the ‘dream team’ of Naomh Eanna on passenger-cargo duty and Galway Bay which was passenger only, both operating from Galway. The latter was effectively an Atlantic Liner with a three hour journey out to the Arans. She was, of course, the former Red Funnel steam tug-tender Calshot, herself now the subject of preservation at Southampton.
Hard to believe, Calshot 684’29 as late as the 1960s had been purchased and motorised by Holland America Line and as the Galway Bay in their colours, served their liners Ryndam and Maasdam calling at Galway Bay between Europe and New York. Of course in her earlier life, Calshot had served many - probably all - the Southampton-calling prestigious Atlantic Liners as a tug or tender since she was delivered from Thorneycrofts. She made an excellent little Atlantic passenger ship in her own right.
Landing craft type ferries continue to be the practical way of serving other small Irish islands in the far west. Lasta Mare Teo operate the Madelen to Insihboffin from Cleggan Co Galway. While in ’92, CalMac’s former Kilbrannan, the first of their eight small Island Class ferries built at Lamonts, became the Arainn Mhor serving the 15 minute run from Burtonport Donegal to Arranmore Island.
There is classic ‘cascading’ of vessels occurring in these waters where the success of ferries leads to them out-growing the route and so she was moved to serve Clare Island and Inishturk from Roonagh Co Mayo as the Clew Bay Queen. Last month, I reported new tonnage building for internal Northern Ireland service and I wonder if there will soon be more changes in the rest of Ireland.