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Abandoning Asgard & Supporting The Atlantic Youth Trust

13th October 2015

I was doing the RTE television commentary at the start of the 2005 Tall Ships Races from Waterford. Three Irish tall ships led the international fleet ASGARD II, JEANIE JOHNSTON and DUNBRODY, with the State’s vessel, ASGARD, accorded the honour of being the first vessel.


Asgard II in the fjords

Photographs of that occasion recall other television broadcasts I did of Tall Ships Races - the 1997 start from Cork Harbour; the Tall Ships Races in Dublin and Belfast and the return of the Race to Waterford for a second time.

When Neil O’Hagan of the Atlantic Youth Trust told me that the Government had included the Trust in its Capital Development Plan, I thought of those occasions and how the active sailing trio of Irish tall ships had been reduced now to zero.

Neil was enthusiastic: “This is a major breakthrough and the result of over three years research, consultation, and professional advice, not to mention the genuine support of the most senior politicians in Government,” he told me.

I am glad to note that last phrase – genuine support from senior Government politicians, because I remember a time when this was not the case for the national sail training programme.

As I thought about his treatment of ASGARD II I wondered – can a State which abandoned a national sail training vessel after many years of dedicated service, be trusted to deliver on what it has promised towards the concept of a new Tall Ship?

The inclusion in the Government’s planning of the Atlantic Youth Trust’s proposal for a new sail training vessel to facilitate youth development, mentoring, and training on an all-island basis is a milestone for the project, as Neil O’Hagan says. He described it as “the first clear, public commitment from an Irish Government to invest in youth development in the maritime sector and positive in cross-Border relations.

It was a previous Government which abandoned ASGARD to her fate on the seabed off France, but behind every Government is the permanent Civil Service and I wonder has the mindset towards maritime affairs really changed there? As a journalist I also wonder, from long experience of politicians, if a Capital Plan on which implementation will not begin until after the next General Election will be completed and if that is cynicism, it can be traced to Willie O’Dea, then Minister for Defence, who had responsibility in that office for ASGARD when it sank on the eleventh of September, 2008. Here I must state a personal consideration. I heard that news when I arrived in Florida in the USA, on holiday with my wife Kathleen. We were both relieved to learn that our son, Rowan, was not aboard. He was Mate and Deputy Master on ASGARD II for over five years. He was on leave and so, was not involved in the sinking.


Asgard II all lit up in Limerick – Willie O'Dea's city

I did not have any involvement in the reportage of the sinking, but when Willie O’Dea as Minister responsible equivocated later about initial promises to replace ASGARD and repeatedly turned down offers of replacement vessels, I took up the issue on SEASCAPES which I then presented on RTE Radio. I was careful approaching the issue, but was surprised that no salvage efforts had ever been made. Whatever about the controversy over whether she could be restored to sailing again, it seemed that recovery would be critical to establishing what happened.

When Willie O’Dea later decided that the compensation money of €3.8m, paid by the insurers for the loss of ASGARD should be handed over to general Government funds and not kept for the national sail training programme which was closed down, it was an issue that could not be ignored. I sought an interview that was never granted. I had no reason to conceal the fact that my son had been on the ASGARD crew.


Asgard II Irish national sail training vessel

I believed that the training programme was essential, fundamental, to stimulating youth interest in the sea and that it also provided a wide cultural and educational benefit to young people, something well testified to by those interested in youth development. It also provided opportunities for older sailors, the mix of youth and maturity aboard was mutually beneficial.

Extensive testimonials to this have proved the point, including my own experience at aboard the Jeanie Johnston when she was at the quayside in Newfoundland on her voyage to America and Canada, with thousands visiting her. I was recording a television programme about the voyage when a teenager from Dublin put me in my place. She was amongst a group of boys and girls from North and South of the Border who I asked whether they had had differences between themselves from their backgrounds.

“Mister,” she responded. “There is no 'I' (which I took to refer to being independent) in a crew which is a team that we are and which we have learned to be to sail this boat.”

Message understood!

As Willie O’Dea abandoned ASGARD, repeated attempts were made through his office, the Department and the ASGARD office seeking an interview with Minister Willie, making repeated offers to go anywhere, anytime, to interview him, they were fruitless. I never did get an interview, though Willie is not shy of appearing on the media.

Maybe I wasn’t trusted!

Public appreciation of sail training on Tall Ships is lacking, not helped by general media savagery against the JEANIE JOHNSTON and DUNBRODY over the years, the latter of which has proved itself an essential part of the economic fabric of New Ross, even if not actively sailing, but telling the maritime, historical and emigration story of Ireland.

So what of the future?

There are supporters and detractors of the Atlantic Trust Project and those involved. There was the same about ASGARD and, while there were exceptional people on its board dedicated to sail training, I did wonder at times about some of the appointees and political decisions.

I wish the Atlantic Youth Trust project well and hope for its success.

Following its inclusion in the current Government’s capital programme, Neil O’Hagan said: “We will be working hard to execute our plans with the support of public, private, corporate and philanthropic supporters. While there is still a lot to do, there is an inevitability growing around the project.”

To look at photographs of ASGARD II, to read Winkie Nixon and Eric Healy’s book about ASGARD I and II and see the restored ASGARD I in the National Museum in Dublin, is to realise the huge tradition the new vessel will have to follow.

Also read:

Afloat's Asgard coverage that includes sinking reports and salvage attempts from 2008

Afloat's WM Nixon on: 

Tall Ships & Sail Training – Ireland's Atlantic Youth Trust Will Give It A Different Spin

Is a 40m Sail Training Ship Too Much Of a Tall Order For Ireland?


Published in Island Nation Team

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