Revolutionary Remembrance: Options For Ship Names (That Aren’t Poets)

Something a little different for this post series today, focusing on a very specific possibility for remembrance.

The Irish Naval Service has the unfortunate problem of being largely anonymous to most Irish people. It’s task as a constabulary navy is neither exciting or especially notable, merely a requirement that the INS does competently, insuring good order at sea, assisting in rescue operations and  stopping anything related to smuggling/illegal fishing etc. None of those jobs is bound to grab the headlines, but the INS and its eight ship fleet can at least be counted upon to do them all well without attracting much notice. When I broached the following topic on Facebook the other day, one of the responses I got was “Ireland has a Navy?”, an all too common reaction.

Which makes any interjection of the Navy into the news notable to me, and this is a doozy. The oldest ships in the Irish fleet, the LÉ Emer and Aoife, are to be sold off, either to pursue new careers outside the military or to become scrap. In their place come two new ships from Babcock Marine. It’s their names that are inspiring this post, which is connected to the theme of revolutionary remembrance.

The two new ships, as heralds of a new naming policy for the INS, are to be dubbed the LÉ James Joyce and the LÉ Samuel Beckett, with all subsequent ships, when and if they enter service, to also be given the name of an Irish poet or writer.

I have a few problems with this.

Ship names can be tricky, and there is no difference for Ireland. Allow me to go through some of the possible sources for names, discuss the pros and cons of each, and offer some examples.

All of these come back to one general guideline and one looser one: the names must be basically Irish in nature, and should also involve some military aspect if possible.


Pros: It is a good and notably unique way to celebrate a person and the options are figuratively unlimited. No problem finding an Irish military persona to use as well, and the right choice would find little controversy.

Cons: The obvious options (Collins, De Valera, Pearse etc) would probably engender some controversy and debate, as they always do. The revolutionary period lacks any really notable naval figures specifically, so any name picked would have little connection to the sea. Some object to giving ships such names since it may cause some confusion (maybe).

Possible Examples: LÉ Ernie O’Malley, LÉ Cathal Brugha, LÉ Markievicz

Famous Irish Sailors

Pros: Obvious Irish, military and naval connections can be seen to make this option more suitable. Little commemorated up to this point. Use of this option could be used to commemorate early commanders of the actual INS.

Cons: Ireland lacks any real stand out candidates who aren’t little known or served in a foreign navy of some kind, which essentially precludes them. Post establishment of the INS, few commanders have done enough to be considered worthy of such a high honour. Likely to engender opinions of irrelevancy due to lack of notoriety.

Possible Examples: LÉ Jerome, LÉ Kavanagh, LÉ Maloney (all former FOCNS’s)

Older Irish Figures

Pros: Quintessentially Irish and plenty of military options too. Figures like Brian Boru have obvious naval connections as well. Could help to commemorate little known figures and era, and would brook little controversy.

Cons: Some might consider them too old for such a modern honour, with little connection possible. Better historical options available closer to today’s time.

Possible Examples: LÉ Brian Boru, LÉ Hugh O’Neill, LÉ Wolfe Tone

Places – Cities

Pros: A simple solution, which celebrates the countries major urban centres without the typical accusations of unsuitability. Could be done in order of population. Imbues ships with a sense of connection to the country. All Irish cities are port cities as well.

Cons: Not military in nature. Some might see a bias against countryside areas. Perhaps seen as too plain and simple.

Possible Examples: LÉ Baile Atha Cliath, LÉ Corcaigh, LÉ Luimneach

Places – Other

Pros: Much the same as the above, only focusing on other areas, perhaps mountains, rivers and other geographical things. Definite sense of identity with Ireland could be created.

Cons: Bound to provoke resentment towards chosen area/debate about suitability over others. Not very military at all in most cases. Perhaps, again, seen as too plain and simple.

Possible Examples: LÉ Carrauntuohill, LÉ Shannon, LÉ Burren


Pros: Very military in nature. Obvious possibilities for remembrance, both in the revolutionary period and further back. Unlikely to engender much controversy depending on exact selection.

Cons: Realistically has to be limited to Irish victories, which are depressingly rare. No real naval examples to speak of. Could get mixed up with Place name categories and all associated cons. Perhaps too militaristic for a constabulary navy. Some selections would certainly provoke controversy.

Possible Examples: LÉ Kilmichael, LÉ Glenmalure, LÉ Clontarf


Pros: Basic ship names would engender little controversy. If done as Gaelige, an Irish connection could be found. Large pool to choose from.

Cons: Boring.

Possible Examples: LÉ Saoirse, LÉ Peacekeeper, LÉ Bua


Pros: Starting with earliest, a definite Irish, and frequently military connection. Commemorating historical personality.

Cons: Inevitable political controversy. Plenty of non-military options.

Possible Examples: LÉ W.T. Cosgrave, LÉ John A. Costelloe, LÉ Charles Haughey (ha!)


Pros: Same as the Taoisigh, with added benefit of commemorating commanders in chief of the Irish Defence Forces. Probably less political controversy too.

Cons: But still some. Could also have issues with suitability for a military craft and family reactions.

Possible Examples: LÉ Douglas Hyde, LÉ Sean T. O’Kelly, LÉ Erskine Childers


Pros: Previously used criteria, so has a track record. Sense of Irishness and certainly unique.

Cons: Bound to be dismissed as antiquated. Pagan religion choices may be unpalatable. Has been done before.

Possible Examples: LÉ Dagda, LÉ Eriu, LÉ Cuchulainn


Pros: Definite Irish connection. Unique. Non-militaristic.

Cons: Too non-militaristic. Could engender mockery. Unlikely to be the taste of subjects relatives (already an issue with the LÉ James Joyce).

Possible Examples: LÉ Oscar Wilde, LÉ WB Yeats, LÉ Seamus Heaney

Of all of these potential avenues, the ones that appeal to me the most are the older Irish historical personalities and the cities. Those two for me, do the most to check off the requirements for sense of Irishness and lack of controversy, and in most cases also have a military connection. The multitude of historical figures available pre-1900 is advantageous, while on the other hand the limited amount of Irish cities could allow for a revisiting of this issue sooner than our previous naming policy, which has been in effect for over 40 years. And you can just as easily split the difference, with one ship being named the LÉ Wolfe Tone, and other the LÉ Baile Atha Cliath, my own favourite choices (Wolfe Tone would be especially appropriate in 2013, this being the 250th anniversary of his birth).

But most of the choices above are better than that of poets, which for me is far too distant from the military nature of the vessel they will be indentifying, too open to ridicule both internally and externally and too unpalatable based on who these people were: do you really think that James Joyce, a man who spent much of his life outside of Ireland and who refused to change his British passport after independence, would appreciate a military ship of that state being named after him?

The INS gets ships so rarely, that enough time may pass for this issue to be looked at again in a fresh light when more ships are added to replace Ireland’s ageing fleet in the next decade. But that time gap is an important reason why we should be having this debate with greater volume now.

It’s a decade of remembrance, so these choices are important. I may have suggested going outside the past 100 years, but it still an important point for commemoration of our historical record in general: commemorations have to be appropriate for the medium they are using, be it a parade, a painting, a documentary, or even the name on a boat.

To that end, because a message such as this is hollow and useless without being directed at the right people, here is the text of a letter I will be sending to President Michael D. Higgins, Minister of Defence Alan Shatter, my local TDs and some media outlets:


I am writing to you today to express my disappointment that the Irish government is going ahead with plans to name the new ships meant for the Naval Service as the LÉ James Joyce and the LÉ Samuel Beckett.

While these names commemorate great literary figures, are fairly unique for the constructions they are being used for and are most certainly Irish, I feel that they are thoroughly unsuitable for the purpose they are being proposed for.

While Ireland’s Naval Service is small and embodies our neutral, peacekeeping ethos, I feel that the choice of poets does disfavour to their inherently military nature. Such names could easily engender ridicule of our navy both at home and abroad, damaging the prestige and presence that such vessels are supposed to embody. Moreover, it can hardly be claimed that James Joyce or Samuel Beckett would be delighted at the prospect of such an honour, of having a nominally military vessel bearing their name. These were not military or military-minded men, and in the case of Joyce, his descendents have expressed disgust at the plans.

If I may make suggestions, I would urge you to consider and support the naming of these ships and future ships of the Naval Service after other Irish historical figures with a greater connection to our military, and even naval, history. Figures such as Brian Boru with his legacy of warfare on water, or Wolfe Tone, the 250th anniversary of whose birth is being celebrated this year, would be, in my opinion, eminently more suitable. They would be Irish names, military names, strong names that I would hardly consider capable of brooking much controversy.

I hope that you reconsider this new naming policy for the Irish Naval Service before it is too late.

Yours sincerely


This entry was posted in History, Ireland, Irish Defence Forces, Revolutionary Remembrance, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Revolutionary Remembrance: Options For Ship Names (That Aren’t Poets)

  1. Kay O'Sullivan says:

    Are not all ships female??so therefore female it must be
    how about we remember Grace O’Malley our pirate Queen

    • NFB says:

      While ships are informally referred to as “she”, that has never been taken, by any navy, as a requirement that the name be female. The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower is still called “she/her”.

      A pirate? As the name of a state military vessel? If the INS ever took part in UNISOM missions to combat piracy off the Horn of Africa, might be a bit awkward.

  2. rurr says:

    How about reviving the names of the Irish Merchant marine in WW2. Irish Oak, or the names of their captains Irish-nominally military they were in harms way in war ti,e.

    • NFB says:

      They’ve be done. Why do them again when there are other options?

      • rurr says:

        Tradition. The RN, and USN give there ships historic names. Ark Royal, Prince of Wales. Wasp, Why not take the opportunity to remember the Irish ships and seamen who braved storm and bullets and mines. Some of who perished, performing vital duties for the the state in time of war
        Nice bit of PR when the Naval service pays a courtesy call
        If one could find the names of the Irish privateers who fought in the War of the Three Kingdoms that would be interesting. Perhaps a bit obscure.
        Erin’s hope, the Fenian ram, are two other options

  3. Pingback: NFB’s Top Ten For The Year (2013) | Never Felt Better

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