Michael’s always ready with a warm welcome when the boat comes in
EUAN MCARTHUR meets a retired seafarer who gives spiritual and pastoral care as a ship visitor in Greenock and Port Glasgow
MICHAEL O’Connor MBE always dreamt of going to sea. Now, as a retired seafarer, he finds himself still living his own personal dream by bringing spiritual and pastoral care to seafarers arriving on Scottish shores.
Born in Greenock just 400 metres from James Watt Dock, Michael’s first memory as a child was heading straight there from St Mungo’s Primary School school to admire the fleet of ships arriving from all over the world carrying sugar, oil and nuts for the many sugar refineries which the town had back then.
Driving him was an instinctive desire to pursue a life at sea. Michael, now in his 70s but as enthusiastic as ever, began ship visiting as a member of the Legion of Mary on behalf of Apostleship of the Sea many years ago, and has since served as a loyal and inspiring ship visitor in his home town as well as that of nearby Port Glasgow.
“In those days with the Legion of Mary, we reported every six months to Apostleship of the Sea (AoS) headquarters in Carlton Place, Glasgow,” the parishioner of St Laurence’s in Greenock, who served his time in Lithgow shipyard in Port Glasgow, said.
“As a member of the Legion of Mary, we are encouraged to look after the welfare of seafarers. Being an ex-seafarer, I know the feeling only too well. A kind word can go a long way when you’re a stranger on a foreign shore. Apostleship of the Sea helped me immensely during difficult times abroad. The seafarers are thanking you but, in truth, it’s me who comes off feeling humble.”
Michael is a well-known face in his hometown and is forever found visiting ships, as he works closely with Joe O’Donnell, AoS port chaplain for Clydeport, and their dedicated volunteers.
Although it can be difficult for the average seafarer, who often spends around nine months at a time away from home or is even signed-up on a year-long contract, there are times when the special mission makes this tireless volunteer smile.
“One Filipino seafarer, on berthing in Greenock, once asked me where can I get a tyre,” Michael recalled. “I said what for? He replied that it was for his bike so I took him up to nearby Halfords and got him what he needed.
“The young man was obviously quite clever. Quite often the ports where the ships arrive into are a bit of a distance from shops and amenities, so he’d come prepared.”
Things can get worse, though, as events on his doorstep proved just over four years ago. In August 2012, there was the distressing sight of a ship’s crew being stranded on the Clyde for over four months in a long-running case which shook the local community. Around 21 Filipinos, four Italians and one Romanian chief officer were stranded on board the Italian cargo ship Mariolina de Carlini at Inchgreen Dry Dock in Port Glasgow due to outstanding debts. Crew members faced the prospect of having to celebrate Christmas far from home, coupled with the obvious difficulty of being unable to provide for their families back home amid wrangling over unpaid wages.
Michael, in true fashion, stepped in to visit the stricken ship and brought newspapers and other provisions on a daily basis while ensuring they got to Mass by taking them to nearby churches.
On hearing of their plight, Douglas Rae, Morton FC chairman, bought a Christmas tree for the ship and gave the seafarers free admission to Cappielow on match day where the club’s ‘new mascots’ were warmly received by supporters alike.
“Having been at sea most of my life, I could well appreciate what the crew were going through,” Michael said. “I got on great with all of them. I know the value of being able to share the bond of Faith with people in foreign ports.
“It was a hard time for them. They had just finished delivering a consignment of coal at Hunterston when the vessel was impounded. Fortunately, the ship just got back sailing before Christmas to get back to Bolivia. In that case, it was like a happy ending and it was a huge relief for all concerned.”
Born in 1940, Michael has seen most things at sea having travelled across the world and, in so doing, experienced some unforgettable memories, so he knows better than most the everyday needs of a seafarer.
“I think a cheery disposition is essential,” he said. “At the end of the day—which can be a long one for a seafarer—they need something or someone to lift their spirits.
“I love every minute of it. I’m feeling good. Here’s hoping and praying to Our Lady Star of the Sea for another few years helping seafarers with any problems or anxieties they may have while cut off and isolated from loved ones back home.”