A Life In Stolen Moments

Ken Kenny, our Dad, was many things in his lifetime, and among them was Marine Radio Officer in the Merchant Navy. He qualified and first went to sea in 1950 and sailed for about 10 years, coming ashore for good in his late twenties. He could always be coaxed into talking about the years he spent at sea. He loved telling people about this period because it took him and his listeners on a journey to places we’d all heard of, but that he’d been to, and come away with a story, or sometimes several.

If I have borrowed the subtitle for this piece from My Life In A Stolen Moment1 where a young man tells the story of how he left his hometown to make it in the big city, it is because I recently turned up a letter from Ken where he gave the backstory to his leaving his hometown and going to sea. Both tell coming-of-age stories which are based on actual events, while both remain stories. Re-reading Dad’s letter the other day reminded me of an audio recording, made in a stolen moment in 2019, where he talks in more detail about one of his very first trips with his own inimitable oral delivery. They seemed to weave together naturally enough to give this post.

Catching sea fever

Ken was a Dublin teenager during the late 1940s when British shipping companies were looking to Ireland for new recruits to step into the space left by the loss of more than one generation of seafarers and ships during World War Two. In a letter from 1993 when he was 61, he nuanced the personal story behind his own decision to sign up :

Marconi Recruitment Brochure – Source Radio Officer Nostalgia

My interest in seafaring came largely from books. My education was a wreck, I bunked school regularly for my last year, spending my days between the library, the docks and the cinema. Surprise, surprise, I still managed an Honours School Certificate, but the family had abandoned hope of me as an academic. We had a neighbour who went to sea as a Radio Officer, he passed through a Commercial College and went free lance on Panamanian ships – relatively big money at the time and his mother was always telling mine of large cheques arriving. That probably helped when I promoted the idea of my going to Technical College and, once qualified, to sea.

If this wish to go to sea conveniently coincided with what his mother was hearing from her neighbour, young Ken had also had further encouragement from his Uncle Bertie Farrell. He was a retired missionary, full of travel stories after years in Kenya, who was then in a nursing home in Blackrock, a 30-minute bike ride from Dad’s house in Rathmines. By way of thanks for Ken’s delivery of the weekly bottle of brandy supplied by the family, Bertie would draw his nephew out of himself and tell him about the wide world beyond the closed society of Dublin :

My vision whenever I watched a ship sail away was filled in, and I realised that the world was my oyster. Even if I was timid still.

Qualifying as an R/O

At the time, becoming a Merchant Marine Radio Officer or R/O took 2 years. Potential employers were cargo and passenger ships. Ken would also work on cable repair ships. Basically, in those days, everything information-wise would come to the ship by radio – weather reports, time signals, ship to shore communications and ship to ship chatter. There was also a responsibility for equipment maintenance, which Dad seemed to enjoy as his first shore job when leaving the Merchant Navy would be monitoring and checking radio equipment on ships arriving in the port of London. To all these tasks the trainee R/O would have to bring knowledge of regulations as well as electronics, while also gradually learning what it is to be an efficient go-between in sometimes unpredictable situations.

Describing the experience in his letter, Dad seemed to have found his path, suddenly revealing on the training course, which he followed in Southampton, academic skills which he had previously kept unexploited :

I don’t think my father expected my success in exams. I completed the two-year course in 18 months. He made a fuss and refused to sign the parental consent forms, then essential for anyone under 21, right up to the last minute. Then, on the day I actually left, goodbyes were at the house. No one came to the boat.

The letter had taken him a while to write, probably in stolen moments, but its arrival clarified and framed events which had previously been hazy for me.

New chapter, new name, new language

Off to Liverpool to join his first ship, Ken remembered thinking a chapter of my life was over, as he put it. He was going to have to get used to being called Sparks, a new name for him, but the standard nickname for Radio Officers on board ship. He was also about to submerge himself completely in a world of shortwave radio static, broken English and the unfathomable language of International Morse Code.

Ken Kenny, Radio Officer

He would never completely lose the ability to speak in all those mysterious dits and dahs invented in the 1840s by Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail. Discussing this with my sister Louise, she reminded me that, for the contribution Ken made to the Met Office data base by sending in Morse Code copies of live weather reports from shipping areas he was sailing in, he actually received a letter of commendation for the quality of his Morse : the clear fluency of his coding made it very simple for receivers to make direct text transcriptions of his reports.

If you’re not familiar with Morse Code as a language, try your hand at encoding by typing any sentence you want into the “Input here” box on the link and then pressing “Play” to listen to the results. Morse Code transforms letters of the alphabet in a sender’s text message into a system of dots and dashes (called dits and dahs by users); these in turn are transmitted to a receiver station as a corresponding sequence of short or long sound bleeps. The encoded sounds then get decoded back into letter text for distribution at the other end by the receiver.

Morse Code may strike you as being a thing of the past in an age of mobile phones and conversational AI robots, so take a peek at a recent video report on the subject. Languages never completely die as long as there are speakers keeping them alive.

US TV Report on Morse Code and those magic telegraph keys and that rhythm which Dad always said was so important.

Sharing Sea Stories

Many of the stories and events which Morse Code has carried over the years are lost for good now. However, Morse Code itself is a language whose structure is securely recorded so that, even if it falls into disuse, it will merely be dormant, never dead. But could we save all the sea stories our Dad, Ken Kenny, told?

At one point, we tried to get him to write it all down – but he couldn’t possibly have done that. No, no, no. He had the written style for doing it, of course – the quotes from his letter in this post are proof of that – but putting pen to paper for such a long time was beyond him. We all understood that putting it in writing might take some of the life out of the oral freedom, so maybe he could tell it all to a dictaphone for somebody else to transcribe? My brother Simon invested in an easy-to-use dictaphone, but Ken had the equipment sitting in a safe place, unused. Had he started recording? No, he hadn’t. No reason given. End of discussion. He could be particularly untalkative when it suited him.

I only really became aware of the wealth of detail in these stories once I started living abroad when we saw less of each other. My main contact with Mum and Dad was over the phone, but we talked about other stuff then, because they liked to switch their loudspeaker, making it a 3-way conversation. No, for sea stories, you had to be in the same room, preferably with some liquid refreshment to hand, and time to spare. Inevitably, his tales of the sea would have to wait for one of my very occasional visits, when even a prompt of minimal proportions would get him started.

On one such visit, Ken was getting into his narrative stride as he sat back in his chair and turned out a story about something I’d never heard him talk about before – a voyage to Korea in 1950 something, which I now realise was one of his first, if not the very first. That particular visit was in March 2019 when we knew he was terminally ill and I was aware that this could be the last time I would see him. Listening to his voice, trying to memorize its inflexions, the words he chose, I glanced at my phone sitting there on the table to check the time. The phone’s voice recorder was a tool I had started to use more and more in teaching both for recording students’ oral work and for listening back to audio files they sent me. I suddenly thought about recording him. Should I ask? Of course, I should. But I didn’t want to break his flow; nor did I want a re-run of the dictaphone experience and communication shutdown. I wanted a keepsake, so I discreetly switched on the voice recorder for a few minutes.

The Korean War Medal

Listening back to Dad’s voice today, I realize he is a 86 year-old narrator talking about a journey he made when he was about 18, and had just qualified as a Radio Officer in the Merchant Navy. His vessel was navigating as a passenger and troopship between Liverpool and Korea where a war had started following the invasion of South Korea by troops from Soviet-backed North Korea on 25th June 1950. The full historical context of the invasion-counter invasion sequence can be found here.

He name-checks the various stops along the way but, when the recording begins, he is explaining a rumour going round the ship’s crew about a war medal.

… the Korean War. We technically were entitled to a medal,apparently, a Korean War Medal2, because we had landed troops in Korea while hostilities were still on. And, I don’t know who started the rumour that – when we were leaving Korea at the end of the discharge of troops, somebody started the story : “Oh well, you know, we must all apply for this medal now, you know – we’ve been participants in the Korean War.

Korea Medal – Source Wikipedia

And the Captain came on the blower3 and said : “It has been brought to my notice … certain crew members wish to apply for decoration. Any such man should pursue his legal rights. But let him be aware he will never ever sail under my command, or any command of any shipping company that I work for at all. Over and out.

Because actually we put the troops down quite a long way from the front. We went round south of Seoul. I can’t remember where. It’s on the map. You hear about it from time to time. But then it was quite a small port, south-east of Seoul.4 We had to go up, right up round Korea to get there. So we were in a fair bit of danger, I suppose you could say. But we didn’t see any action at all. And the troops, poor sods, a lot of them had been very near discharge or very near repatriation.

Being unsure of the historical background as he was telling the story, I asked him the nationality of the troops being discharged in Busan. And his answer brought the British Empire back to life.

British. Well, we picked up a whole bunch of them from Aden5 in the first place. There were a squad we got there. Then we went down the African coast, and the biggest number we got were from Mombasso 6(sic). We took a terrific number from Kenya where they’d been. And then we got some more. We stopped in Singapore and Hong Kong. We got batches. We didn’t get big numbers, we got batches.

But there were quite a few from the UK in the first instance, when we left, but some of them were originally destined to go to Africa. And some of the guys – what they did was, they relieved one batallion somewhere or other and, instead of going home, these guys went out to Korea. It was a hard world in ’50!

You can find the audio version of the story quoted above on Soundcloud here.

Needless to say, there was no more talk of a Korean War Medal on board the Orduna. But I wanted to know more about the ship.

SS Orduña – Source shipstamps.co.uk

The Orduña was a beautiful ship – or had been

He’d named ships before. Names floated in and out of things he said. The Glenearn and the Cerinthus were cargo ships. The Marie Louise Mackay was a cable repair ship. These were names which rolled off Ken’s tongue, but here was a new one, he’d never mentioned before : The Orduña.

She was a beautiful ship. She really was – or she had been. She was running down … but the signs of grandeur were there … (pause) … Orduña. She was originally on the Spanish … (long pause) … Our Lady of Orduña6 was a magnificent oil painting on the big stair. There was a fancy dual-entry stairs where you came down and then you walked down into the main dining room. And then this beautiful oil painting was up on the … Our Lady of Orduña. It may not have been Our Lady. It may have been The Lady… (pause) …Yes, The Orduña. But she was a – she had been a fine ship.

Of course, Dad was a Radio Officer on the Orduña. So once we’ve remembered the ship, next stop is the radio room where he spent time transcribing into English the Morse Code dits and dahs from out of the crackle and hiss of the headphones.

Her radio room – except that she didn’t have one when she was built, so it was a sort of add-on on the top deck. Not quite the claustrophobic capsule of the American build, but it was just a cabin put on which hadn’t been there, you know. Didn’t sit very sweetly in the lines of the ship but you spent all your time in there when you were on duty. You did two four-hour shifts. On the Orduña, say, you had – where it was a four Radio Officer team. The Chief Radio Officer did no set watch. And then the number 1 did the easy watches and so on. But in point of fact, you work as required.

The working as required was a notion he carried with him. He found it hard to keep himself busy – not always able to do the things he wanted, and not always wanting to do the things he needed to do. At sea, there were watches. But what did you in between?

Funny old game. Once you’re at sea, you’d just as soon be working as idling. Well, I mean, you’ve got to eat and you do bits and pieces – write the old letter and so on. But broadly speaking, you have lots of time, and you’re prepared, if it’s useful and gainful and entertaining or something (to do extras). I mean, I used to be a favourite in the cableships for finding the cricket scores wherever we were. You know, keeping up to date with the touring teams and things. They always appreciated the fact that there was a bulletin up.

The recording stops there, on a creative note. .

Life in a stolen moment

People take so much stuff with them when they steal away over the final horizon, that the little they leave behind is precious. There are objects which tell stories, then there are simply the stories themselves. In Dad’s case, among the leavings I have, there is the letter which came from my sending a request for more precise information about the start of his yearning for the sea, and there is the audio recording about an early sea voyage, made on the fly.

It’s a pity he missed the boat with the internet because there are lots of sea stories posted, especially with from Merchant Navy retirees seeking to connect with old shipmates. Now, hopefully, with these few stolen moments from his stories out there, something of him sails on.

Still want more?

Learn to memorize Morse Code in 15 minutes? That’s what the man says.

A Marine Radio Officer’s Blog by Ian Coombe which plunges you into the world of shipping. Engagingly written too.

An Irishman’s diary on Marconi’s tempting offer is from the Irish Times and reflects the kind of information and contact Ken would have had with the recruitment drive in post-War Dublin.


  1. Written by Bob Dylan in 1962. ↩︎
  2. According to Wikipedia, To receive the medal, navy personnel were required to complete either 28 days aboard ship in the operational areas of the Yellow Sea or the Sea of Japan, or at least one day of shore duty. ↩︎
  3. The ship’s loudspeaker system. ↩︎
  4. Busan (pronounced Pusan in Korean) was one of two cities not captured by the invading North Koreans. ↩︎
  5. Aden had been officially administered as part of British India until 1937 when it became the Colony of Aden. It would become a key strategic location for British troops in the years ahead until independance in 1963. ↩︎
  6. Mombasa, Kenya. ↩︎
  7. He hesitates on the name and his Catholic upbringing peeps through. Lady becomes Our Lady, the Virgin Mary. He corrects this further on.

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