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History of the Naval Service

History of the Naval Service

Tracing its roots back to 1913 and the very founding of the state the Irish Army has played a massive part in the creation and development of the Republic of Ireland.  However the states water’s were controlled by the British Admiralty from 1922 till 1938 when Great Britain handed back the Treaty Ports and control of Irish waters, to the Irish Free State. The government, in May 1939, ordered 2 Motor Torpedo Boats (MTB’s) from Great Britain.

The entire process of raising some type of Navy was greatly accelerated by the outbreak of World War II as Ireland needed to have its own Navy to uphold its neutrality. The order for MTBs was increased from 2 to 6 and the Marine and Coast watching Service was established in September 1939 (the Coast watching function was removed in 1942). 

1922 - 1938

Until 1922, Ireland was under the control of Great Britain and the Royal Navy patrolled Irish waters. The Treaty of 1922 in which the 26 Counties of the Republic of Ireland gained their independence, did not however grant control of the seas around our coast to the newly independent nation. A clause in the Treaty retained this right for Great Britain who, in addition kept control of the ports of Cork, Berehaven and Lough Swilly (these were known as the "Treaty Ports"). Ireland was however allowed to raise a force of coastal vessels for “protection of the revenue and fisheries”.

In 1923 the Coastal and Marine Service was established with an assortment of small craft including tugs, trawlers and river patrol boats. Personnel who manned this fledgling Navy / Coast Guard came in the main from the Merchant Navy. There was little formal Naval training and the force was disbanded in 1924, having been only 10 months in existence, with the ships either being sold or scrapped and personnel returned to their former duties. Furthermore, in the same year the Naval Base at Haulbowline was handed over to the Irish Government by the British and promptly closed down, although being maintained in good order.

From 1924 to 1938, there was little interest in maritime affairs in the country. A report from the Ports and Harbour Tribunal in 1930 bluntly pointed out the “lack of interest and general apathy in matters relating to the ports”. The sole official representative of the Irish Free State, on the seas, was the fishery cruiser “Muirichu”. This vessel came under the control of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries and was unarmed which was not helping its task of detaining illegal fishing vessels. Permission was sought from the Admiralty in 1936 to carry a gun on the ship - this permission was granted. It is not recorded if this helped the detention rate of the Muirchu!
In 1938 Great Britain handed back the Treaty Ports and control of Irish waters, to the Irish Free State.

1939 - 1945

Ireland now had control of its own destiny, both at sea and ashore. However, without a Navy, and being an island, the country had no means of protecting its coasts and off shore waters.

The government, in May 1939, ordered 2 Motor Torpedo Boats (MTB’s) from Great Britain. The entire process of raising some type of Navy was greatly accelerated by the outbreak of World War II as Ireland needed to have its own Navy to uphold its neutrality. The order for MTBs was increased from 2 to 6 and the Marine and Coastwatching Service was established in September 1939 (the Coastwatching function was removed in 1942).

The Naval Base, Haulbowline was reactivated to act as a Base for this Service. By 1941 the Marine Service consisted of 10 craft (6 motor torpedo boats plus 4 assorted vessels) and about 300 all ranks. Their tasks during the war included mine laying (in Cork and Waterford harbours), regulation of Merchant Ships, upkeep of navigational aids and fishery protection.
At the end of the war in 1945, the Coastwatching Service was quickly disbanded and the Marine side ran down with ships being sold off and personnel leaving.

1946 - 1971

In September 1946 the Government decided that (what remained) of the Marine Service should become a permanent component of the Defence Forces. Thus was born the modern day Irish Naval Service. From numbers which had slipped from 300 all ranks to 160, increased rapidly on the ratings side, to 400. There were 23 officers - 2 ex Royal Navy, 1 ex Royal Indian Navy and the remainder Merchant Navy. Three Flower class Corvettes were purchased from Great Britain in 1946/47. With the disposal in 1952 of the last craft which had served during the war, these three corvettes became the backbone of the Naval Service in the 1950’s and 60’s. During these years numbers of personnel (about 400 ratings and 40 officers) remained constant. The first Naval Service Cadet intake was sent for training to Britannia Royal Naval College Dartmouth, UK in 1947.

Thus the Naval Service continued through the 1950’s and 60’s, with Fishery Protection being the main day-to-day task. Between 1968-70, the Corvettes had reached the end of their working lives and were withdrawn from service. In 1970 the Naval Service was again in decline - personnel began available. A decision was taken to buy 3 Coastal Minesweepers (CMS) from the UK in 1970, which breathed new life into the Naval Service. These were taken over and commissioned in 1971.

1972 - 1989

The period from 1972 - 89 was an extremely interesting time for the Irish Naval Service. It was during this time that the Naval Service received many of the ships it Operates with today, it was also a time that the Naval Service saw it’s first great steps towards modernisation of the Service.
During this period the Naval Service saw the commissioning into service of seven new ships. Also during this period the Naval Service received two auxiliary ships, LÉ Setanta (A15) and LÉ Ferdia (A16).

In 1972 LE Deirdre (P20) was commissioned into service. She was the first of four new ships to be built in the 1972 - 1980 period. After LE Deirdre followed LE Emer (1978), LE Aoife (1979), LE Aisling (1980). The funding for these ships came from the EU after the Irish Exclusive Fishery Zone was extended from 12 miles out to 200 miles in 1976. This left the Naval Service with four modern and well equipped warships to add to the fleet to aid it in conducting it’s operational requirements.

Four years later, in 1984, the Irish Naval Service commissioned LE Eithne (P31); it’s largest addition to the fleet and remains so even today. LE Eithne is a Helicopter Patrol Vessel, which operates an Air Corps Dauphin helicopter. It is capable of operating for extended periods in the harsh environment of the North Atlantic. It has even conducted fishery patrols for NAFO (North Atlantic Fishery Organisation) off the Grand Banks, Newfoundland, Canada.

1990 - 2001

As the Naval Service entered the nineties, its stature had grown and it had proven itself to be a confident and professional service of the Defence Forces. But it was during the nineties that the Naval Service really came of age, as it celebrated its 50TH Anniversary, in 1996. The Service had progressed from being a small unit into a rapidly growing organisation.

Throughout the nineties, the Naval Service maintained its high standards of excellence. Fishery Protection played an important role in the Service’s day-to-day operations and this showed through the numerous detentions the Service made annually for infringements found during boarding operations. It was also during this period that the Naval Service became involved in combating a new threat, drug smuggling. New legislation provided the Naval Service with the powers to board and detain personnel and vessels involved in the illicit trade of drug smuggling. The Naval Service was involved in numerous seizures of drugs throughout the nineties. It is still involved, on a constant basis, in patrolling our waters and preventing drugs from reaching Irish shores.

During the nineties the Service maintained it’s Resupply Missions to Lebanon, Cyprus and the former Yugoslavia; ensuring that the needs of Irish Peacekeepers were always met. After the success of LE Eithne’s visit to the USA in 1986 it was decided to send the vessel back to the USA to an International Naval Review in 2000, which was held in New York. This also included visits to Boston, Halifax and Bermuda.

As millennium approached, the Naval Service decided it was time to bring in some changes of its own. Plans were made for a new type of Naval Vessel to be built. In 1999 construction began on LE RóisÁn (P51), which would be the first vessel of this class, this was joined in 2001 by her sister ship LE Niamh (P52) The Naval Service also implemented a new structure to the organisation in the late Nineties.

2002 - present

The Naval Service continued its development in 2002 with a landmark deployment to the Far East. LÉ Niamh, the newest of the Naval Service patrol ships, conducted a four month voyage which included the first ever visit by an Irish naval ship to Hong Kong, Incheon, Shanghai, Tokyo and Penang with a refueling stop in Cochin, India . Enroute the LÉ Niamh conducted a resupply for the Irish troops serving with the UN in Eritrea.

Several high profile incidents occurred during this period ensuring that the Naval Service was never far from the national, and sometimes the international headlines. These included LÉ Aoife’s part in the rescue operation for HMCS Chicoutimi, a Canadian Navy submarine which suffered a fire off the coast of Donegal in October 2004. Numerous other Search, Rescue and Diving Operations punctuated this period, in addition to the Naval Service’s increasing fishery protection output and a general increase in patrol days per ship. This increase in output was a result of internal restructuring measures and service-level agreements with external agencies and stakeholders, ensuring that the Naval Service continued to deliver maritime military services with built-in efficiency, value and flexibility.

The LÉ Niamh was again deployed in this period when, in October 2003 She was sent on a mission to the West Coast of Africa, in support of the Army’s reconnaissance prior to the deployment of Irish troops in Liberia with the UN. LÉ Niamh’s taskings included the transport and delivery of vehicles, equipment and personnel to Monrovia’s war-torn port, and the logistic, medical and communications support of the recce party as they explored the coastal areas. The ship acted as a secure, armed base for the recce party and was also poised to conduct an extraction of personnel should the situation deteriorate unexpectedly. For good measure, LÉ Niamh conducted a charting survey of the port while there, using the navigational skills and training of her personnel to note the position of wrecks, damage to piers and other navigational hazards for future reference. LÉ Niamh deployed to Liberia within seven days of having been off the Mayo coast on a routine patrol. It is a very good example of the military capability and operational flexibility that Naval Service units bring to any situation.

Throughout 2002 to the present developments ashore continued apace with the construction of the National Maritime College of Ireland, a partnership between the Department of Defence, the Naval Service, the Department of Education and the Cork Institute of Technology. This state of the art facility opened for its first students in September 2004. It represents an enormous advance in the training environment for Naval Service personnel. Modern classrooms, equipment and training facilities mean improvements have been made in seamanship, engineering, sea-survival and fire fighting training. Navigation and engineering training in particular are making use of high tech simulator facilities. The Naval Service continues to run its military training in the Naval College installations on the Naval Base but the bulk of the maritime training is now conducted in the NMCI. Graduates of Naval Service courses are now routinely achieving certification to national and international maritime standards as the Naval Service goes from strength to strength in this new era.