Hurricane hero’s Co Cork hilltop haven for sale

Asking price: €850,000

Agent: Sherry FitzGerald O’Neill (023) 8833995​

​”The bravest of crew from our station put to sea in Force 10 gales and 50ft waves to aid competitors… as 15 sailors were drowned,” said the crew of the Courtmacsherry lifeboat in a statement issued on the 40th anniversary of the tragic 1979 Fastnet Race. Four rescuers also perished that night, bringing the death toll to 19.

A newspaper clipping of Stephen ‘Sammy’ Mearns’ war heroics

But it could have been far worse because 60 were pulled from the sea by rescue teams and likely would also have drowned without the courage and resilience of the lifeboat crews and others in what they described as “the most atrocious weather ever encountered”.

The unexpected storm hit the world famous bi-annual sailing event that takes crews from England to Fastnet off Cork, around it, and back. The storm caused 75 boats to capsize and five sunk outright in a defining episode in Irish sailing history that would change yacht design and safety standards forever.

Steering the Courtmacsherry lifeboat that night was coxswain Stephen ‘Sammy’ Mearns, whose crew rescued 10 people and aided two other yachts — one-sixth of the total rescued in the historic operation involving 4,000 people, including the entire Irish Navy.

The house sits on the side of a hill

“At one point on the way home, towing a deep-keel yacht, Mearns worried that shallow ‘Courtmac’ wasn’t the best option. He suggested Kinsale, whereupon a ‘near-mutiny’ erupted among the crew, exhausted after over 20 hours at sea and anxious to be home,” his daughter Gaffney recounts. “They managed to scrape in — but only just.”

Mearns was made of steely stuff. The Englishman also won a DSC medal in WWII flying Spitfires and Sea Hurricanes while escorting shipping convoys in the Atlantic, and on the notorious ‘Murmansk run’ to northern Russia. Later in the Korean War, he flew carrier-based Fairey Fireflies in ground-attack preparations for the spectacularly successful Inchon sea-landing, which saw UN troops snatch South Korea from oblivion.

The entrance hall

As an air stewardess, his daughter Jackie later “came to better understand” her dad’s achievements and how “incredibly brave and difficult it was to land an aircraft on a tiny speck of ship in heaving seas”.

Until his passing in 2009, aged 88, Mearns lived at Signal Hill with his wife Anne, who died last year. He built the house on a raised site behind the famous Courtmacsherry Coastguard Station, which he previously restored when he first came to live in Ireland in 1970.

The living room

As its name suggests, Signal Hill has views of Courtmacsherry Harbour from one of the best vantage points in West Cork, an area where competition on that score is quite exceptional. The British navy had a signal flag post here just above the coastguard station, sited to be seen from as far away as is possible.

Jackie recalls: “They met an Irish guy in a pub [in the UK], who said they’d find reasonably priced large properties in southern Ireland, so they hopped on the ferry. They spent a week driving around and on their last day, they spotted the ruins of the coastguard station. I don’t even think it was for sale.” But Mearns somehow managed to acquire the deeds.

Sammy Mearns and his wife Anne at the adjoining coastguard station they restored

Sammy and Anne restored the ruins and its cottages, and rented them out. His next project was an old shark-fishing ‘lugger’, a type of sailing boat, sunk in the harbour. “Dad got it up, brought it to the station and spent years doing it up. He even cut down trees for the mast. He just loved it,” says Jackie. Mearns then proudly sailed the lugger himself to France for a classic boat festival.

True to the best lifeboat traditions, he was more proud of the ships he saved than the enemy planes he shot down. Only one boat was lost in 21 wartime convoys he escorted and only because it had somehow fallen behind in a storm.

When Jackie’s parents sold the coastguard station in 2005, they had acquired the flag site above it to build their next home, Signal Hill.

Sammy’s daughter Jackie Gaffney is selling the property

The newer house is much easier to manage — and warm too with a B2 BER, unusual for its year. Jackie says her father was “passionate” about this aspect of the construction. The entrance, to the rear of the house, is ever-practical with benches for discarding muddy boots.

A central entrance hall connects to the main living areas, with a stairs to the first floor. The slate floor in the hall continues to the kitchen/dining room, office and downstairs bathroom.

The fairly big sitting room has an open fireplace to huddle around in Atlantic storms, with a triple-aspect view to north, south and east that coastguards would have avidly scanned in the 19th century in search of smugglers.

The kitchen and dining room has a granite worktop — stone is a theme here — and glass double doors to the patio area. Off the kitchen, there’s a family bathroom, utility room and the master bedroom with en suite, and a feature corner window with garden and sea views, plus access to the garden terrace.

The kitchen with wooden island unit

This has built-in wardrobes on two walls, while the en suite is a ‘wet room’ with underfloor heating.

Upstairs, there’s a family bathroom with a marble countertop, three double bedrooms and a large lockable walk-in wardrobe/store room. Total accommodation extends to 2,347sq ft.

It comes with 2.7 acres of mature trees, hedging, lawns and wild areas that are very secluded for a home that’s only 250 yards from Courtmacsherry Village.

A driveway skirts the boundary to a viewing area at the highest point in the site, where the famous flagstaff once stood to signal to passing ships and Kinsale Head. The terrace flagstones came from Castle Bernard in Bandon, originally the headquarters of the O’Mahoney clan.

Jackie and her sister Maxine are selling the property in an executor sale.

Sherry FitzGerald O’Neill seeks €850,000.