While away from Waterford recently, I was saddened to learn of the death of Vincent O’Toole, one of the city’s genuine characters and legends.
During his long and busy life, Vincent was a master mariner, a businessman, racehorse owner and fierce proponent of all things Waterford. He could also be dogged and fiery and it was all backed up by a firm resolve, high intellect and a shrewdness that, more often than not, saw him come out on top in his many battles.
Writing this, it occurred to me that there are probably two generations of young Waterfordians who, apart from an infamous libel action he successfully took some years ago, know little or nothing about him.
For instance, there was the fascinating story of his battle with Waterford Corporation over the William Vincent Wallace plaques that adorn the outside walls of his Maryland Hotel on the corner of The Mall and Catherine Street. It’s a good tale of which I will write another day.
Then, for years, there was a wonderful battle of wits between Vincent in his role as proprietor of The Maryland Hotel and the Garda Síochána whose business it was to enforce the licensing laws. Looking back now, all those endless court arguments and counter arguments were pretty harmless stuff yet they provided great entertainment for the readers of The Munster Express in our court reports.
However, today I will concentrate on an incident in Vincent’s life when he was a Deck Officer cadet aboard ‘The Irish Elm’ during World War II. This account was kindly supplied by Waterford writer and businessman, John Molloy, a friend of Vincent who was also a senior officer for many years with the now defunct Irish Shipping Line.
John’s account came from his considerable research into the diaries of German U-Boat commanders.In March 1943, ‘The Irish Elm’ was half way across the Atlantic en route for the United States when U-Boat 638 surfaced and forced her to stop. The German submarine Commander ordered that ‘The Elm’ should lower a lifeboat and send across an officer with the ship’s log-book and official papers. As a junior officer, Vincent was ordered to make the rather terrifying trip in a row-boat and hand over the ship’s papers to Captain Hinrich Oscar Bernback.
Vincent and his deputation were made to wait in their little boat bobbing about under the shadow of the submarine and covered by an armed crew.
Eventually, the log-book and papers were handed back and Vincent and the others were informed that they should return to ‘The Elm’ where the Captain was instructed to ‘stop engines’ and observe a strict radio silence. They were furthermore informed that the submarine would dive and resurface at a later time when they would flash a light from the conning tower. If the light was green they could proceed with their voyage but if the light showed red they would have a short time to abandon ship before the ‘The Irish Elm’ was sent to the bottom by torpedoes.
According to the report, the Irish Captain immediately gave orders to prepare to abandon ship, a perilous situation in winter on the open Atlantic in small lifeboats. Vincent later quipped that there were more prayers uttered by hardened seamen in those few hours than by all the monks in Mount Melleray in a month! After an agonising wait, the U-Boat surfaced and flashed a green light. They were safe! Captain Bernback went on shore leave shortly afterwards but his submarine was sunk with no survivors during his absence on land. He survived the war and died in 1982. Vincent O’Toole and the crew of ‘The Irish Elm’ also survived that dangerous time sailing seas polluted with mines and the constant fear of being attacked by U-Boats even though they were aboard an Irish ship. Sometimes, the bravery of merchant seamen in that awful time is overlooked.
Vincent is survived by his wife Ruth; his daughter, Eithne, and his grand-daughter, Saoirse. He was pre-deceased by his daughter, Una, and his first wife, Maura. Go bhfaighe a anam agus anamacha na bhfíréan suaimhneas síoraí.