The Diving Suit & the Men Who Wore It

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​Three hundred years ago, the world's most innovative diving suit was an airtight oak barrel, which required the weight of a full-grown pig to sink it. Fortunately, things had advanced considerably by 1905 when this pioneering diving suit was made for the Board of Works in Ireland.

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​The suit was designed by Siebe, Gorman and Co., a London-based engineering firm run by William Augustus O'Gorman (1835-1904). Mr Gorman - he dropped the 'O' - was the Limerick-born son of an Irish sea captain who started his career by manufacturing ice-making machines for his German-born uncle, Augustus Siebe. He subsequently became the senior partner in Siebe's company, which had been developing diving apparatus since the 1830s. After Mr Gorman's death, the company was taken on by Vickers, the weapons manufacturers, under whom it produced the standard diving dress and helmet used by the Royal Navy during the First World War.

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​The genius of this suit was the tube that linked the metal 'Admiralty Pattern' helmet to a mahogany and brass pump at surface level, which allowed for a constant supply of compressed air to reach the diver. A pressure valve allowed air to be released if too much was pumped in. The tightly woven canvas suit kept the water out, while a combination of weighted shoes and a weighted belt to keep the diver submerged under water.

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​This diving suit has the distinction of being worn in succession by Dinny and Kevin Madigan, a father and son, who maintained lock-gates along the Shannon Navigation for a remarkable seven decades. Dinny was a conservative but cheerful man whose everyday dress was a suit and tie. He had no problem in slipping on the diving suit when called upon, spending long periods underwater examining and repairing the locks.

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Dinny also used the suit to inspect the flying boats at Foynes on the Shannon Estuary; one of his biggest jobs was to take up the buoy anchorages when the opening of Shannon Airport made Foynes obsolete in the 1940s.

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​When Dinny's son Kevin became the maintenance man on the River Shannon, he continued to wear the same, somewhat weather-beaten, suit, plunging into the cold, murky waters right into the 1970s. After its last recorded use in Athlone in 1991, the suit went on display at  various waterway venues in Ireland before coming to Scarriff in December 2018 where it is still on display.

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Denis 'Dinny' Madigan was foreman on the Fox, a maintenance barge operated by the Shannon Navigation Company during the early twentieth century. Built by Grendon's of Drogheda in 1865, the Fox had already spent 45 years as a steam tug on the Grand Canal before her transfer to the broad, majestic Shannon.

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Over the next half century, she powered up and down almost 200 miles of river and estuary, guided by Dinny, as he set about repairing lock-gates and re-painting or re-placing the buoys and markers along the way. Dinny's crew of was made up of his son Kevin, Jimmy O'Brien as Fitter / Engineman and two deck hands, Mick Clifford and Paddy Lynch.

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​When not on duty, the Fox's home port was the Old Canal Harbour in Limerick City, where the Madigan family lived in a harbour house beside the tidal lock. In 1956 the Fox was cast aside by the Board of Works; Dinny put out a call for help to Syd Shine, the showband icon, whom he had befriended on the river in earlier decades. Syd duly restored the venerable Victorian barge as a training ship, having extended the wheelhouse, added a cabin top, installed a new diesel engine and painted it pink.

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​Meanwhile, a new Fox was dispatched to the Madigans. Built by the Ringsend Dockyard Company in 1937, it had spent the 1940s carrying mixed cargo on the Barrow line of the Grand Canal. Under the Madigans, the vessel was likewise employed to keep an eye on the markers, locks and bridges along the Shannon. In 1969, it was replaced by the Coill-an-Eo, a purpose-built work boat, which looked after maintenance along the river as far north as Leitrim and Lough Key.

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Kevin Madigan, Dinny's feisty son, was foreman and skipper of both the second Fox and the Coill-an-Eo. Like his father, he looked after locks, buoys and markers on the Shannon, aided by a merry crew of Fox veterans Jimmy O'Brien and Mick Clifford, as well as deck hand Michael McMahon, with Bertie and P.J. Conroy joining later on. It wasn't always fun; on one occasion Kevin had to retrieve the body of a pilot whose Piper Apache plane crashed into the river near Shannon Airport in 1958.

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A skilled carpenter, Kevin spent much of the winter months manufacturing and installing new lock-gates as far upriver as Clarendon, County Roscommon, 160km north of Scarriff. He retained a tremendous passion for the Shannon right up until his death in 1989.

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