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Our heroes of the high seas

IT WAS a tragedy that paralysed the country with grief. On Christmas Eve, as the most severe storm of the century raged, 15 brave men drowned off Dun Laoghaire.

The 1895 disaster -- which is still commemorated annually by local lifeboat crews -- is recounted in a new book, Mayday! Mayday!, which chronicles the proud history of the RNLI in Ireland and Britain.

The horror unfolded when the steamship Palme from Finland got into difficulties. The 15 died when a new lifeboat, Civil Service Number Seven, responded to the Palme's distress rockets but before it reached the ship, it was flipped over by a mighty wave.

The stricken men's comrades were unable to reach them in the huge seas of Dublin Bay. Bodies washed up on the Dun Laoghaire coastline on Christmas Day and it was St Stephen's Day before the crew of the Palme was rescued.

The incident is one of a number recounted in the book, which involved Irish lifeboat crews.

Crews here were also involved in recovering bodies from the Air India disaster of 1985 when a Jumbo Jet was blown up in Irish airspace and 329 people died. One Irish lifeboat, based at Valentia, recovered five bodies alone.

That disaster came six years after another high-profile rescue involving Irish lifeboats during the Fastnet race of 1979 when crews from Ballycotton, Courtmacsherry, Dunmore East and Baltimore spent hours at sea trying to save terrified and exhausted yachtsmen.

The disaster occurred when an unseasonal storm decimated the race, sinking or wrecking 25 of 306 yachts taking part -- 21 lives were lost.

Today, there are 43 lifeboat stations in Ireland and all are on call day and night to aid seafarers. The RNLI remains a remarkable institution, with just 2pc of its funding coming from Government sources.

The long history of the RNLI dates from 1824 and has seen the organisation save some 139,000 lives since then.

The independent charity's backbone is its 40,000 volunteer members in Britain and Ireland who crew lifeboats and carry out vital support functions.

One of the most dramatic incidents recounted in the book is a 2006 rescue in heavy seas off Scapa Flow in Scotland.

Local doctor Christine Bradshaw was winched from a lifeboat onto the deck of the Singaporean oil tanker FR8 Venture in a galeforce 12 storm. There she found one man dead, and another dying, after they had been hit by enormous waves. She was able to help save a third man and was awarded a bronze medal by the RNLI for her courage.

Mayday! Mayday! The History of Coastal Rescue in Britain and Ireland is published by HarperCollins. Price €26.40