The Man in the Tank

In December 1941, a man’s body was washed up here, on the west coast of Inis Oírr. This was not unusual, especially during the war. What was different about this occasion was the large oil tanker the body was found inside.

Locals gathering debris after a storm found the tanker thrown up on the rocks near the shore. On opening the hatch, they were confronted with a foul smell and a badly decomposed body.  As it was the height of the Second World War, many assumed he was a soldier, and possibly even a German one at that. But with nothing, not even clothing, to identify the man, there was little they could do except bury the poor soul in the graveyard, where he rests to this day, known only as “Fear an Tanc” (The Tank Man).

The tanker, on the other hand, was a lucrative find, and was swiftly stripped from its frame to be sold to a company in Galway. Unfortunately, unexpected high seas overnight carried the tanker away, and it soon sank into the bay. The only proof it was ever there is the rusted frame and wheels which still sit on the stony shore, a monument to a mystery never solved.

Recent discoveries

However, recent research has shed some light on the story. A documentary crew, with the aid of several experts in rail and maritime history, were able to establish the origins, not of the man, but of the tanker itself. The tanker, it was discovered, was part of a Stanier F8 train. With this key detail, it was possible to trace the carriage even further – to the deck of the SS Jessmore, which was carrying three locomotives of this model to Turkey in February 1941 when she sank off the west coast of Ireland. The shipment was strategically important for Britain, as they needed to maintain good diplomatic relations with Turkey in order to ensure their neutrality in the war.

The Jessmore’s convoy (OG-53) left from Liverpool on the 15th of February, and sailed north around Ireland in order to avoid potential conflict with occupied France. On the 19th the Jessmore was accidentally rammed by another ship in the convoy, and it was decided to bring her back to Derry for repairs. However, the damage was too extensive, and she sank on the 21st of February 1941, with all the crew safely disembarked and accounted for.

This raises some interesting questions: if the man was not a member of the crew, then who was he? Why didn’t he have any clothes? And, more ominously, why was the hatch locked from the outside? While the immediate assumption during wartime was that he was a soldier, it is more likely that he was an innocent victim of some nefarious crime, who could have died at any point between the tanker’s manufacture and the sinking of the Jessmore. While we can speculate, the likelihood is that we will never know for sure.

If you would like information on Inis Oírr history call into Cleas.