Peter Berresford Ellis reviews The Sinking of The Kenbane Head by Sam McAughtry, Blackstaff Press, ISBN 0-85640-763-1, £6.99 pbk
MEMBERS OF the Connolly Association will probably know the name of Sam McAughtry, Belfast born trade union activist who left school at the age of fourteen, then went to London and joined the RAF as a fitter in 1940. He became a navigator, was promoted from the ranks to an officer flying bombing missions over Germany.
When the war ended, he worked as a labourer on building sites before becoming a civil servant and joining the Ministry of Agriculture in Belfast in 1947. But he was no unionist and moved on as a journalist, scriptwriter and presenter on radio and television, becoming a senator in the Irish government.
His works range from sketches, travel books to autobiography and autobiographical fiction.
He is best known for such books as Play it Again Sam (1978), Blind Spot (1979) McAughtry's Belfast (1981), McAughtry's War (1983), Down in the Free State (1987), Touch and Go (1993) and Hillman Street High Roller (1994). Most recently came his best-selling memoir On the Outside Looking In (2003).
But his classic work, so far as this writer is concerned, is The Sinking of the Kenbane Head. This was first published in 1977 and is reissued in paperback.
The Kenbane Head was sunk on 5 November 1940, by the German battleship Admiral Scheer. But this book is more than the poignant story of how Sam's brother Mart McAughtry, aged twenty-seven years, serving as a fireman on The Kenbane Head lost his life that day in the grey, cold Atlantic waters.
It is a memoir of a Belfast family growing up in the city's Tiger Bay, a family with a seafaring tradition. Sam and Matt's father first went to sea in 1897 and Matt was named after a seafaring McAughtry buried in Carrickfergus nearly 200 years ago. The book is about the road that led to the death of one of them on a 5,155 tons, elderly cargo ship off Greenland. There were twenty survivors out of the 44 souls on board.
After the continued ignorant attacks and comments from people like Lord Tebbit, who claimed the Irish nations was pro-Nazi in WWII (by which he refers to Ireland's neutrality), this book is a timely reminder of the countless Irish merchant sailors who gave their lives in that struggle. The Kenbane Head was an Irish ship crewed by Irishmen. The captain was T.F. Milner from Islandmagee and its crew consisted of men not only from Belfast, Ballyhalbert, and Carrickfergus but from Cork, Limerick and Clonakilty.
The sacrifice of the merchant service, let alone the Irish contribution, is sadly not acknowledged, The author comments:
"I couldn't understand why the English always looked for bravery in the Royal Navy and completely ignored the crews of the ships which the Navy were signally failing to protect."
This is a poignant tale; a powerful one and Blackstaff are to be praised for bringing it back into print.
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2005 Peter Berresford Ellis