In 1985 Ireland’s Michael d’Alton observed that “a Scot, it would seem from his name, has made a landing on Rockall”.
The alleged ‘Scot’ – Tom McClean – had planted a Union Jack and stayed for 40 days, in an attempt to claim the currently disputed rock in the north-west Atlantic “for England”.
D’Alton countered by recounting his part in a successful, albeit briefer, Irish tricolour planting expedition in 1975. In recalling these exploits recently, a Dublin newspaper called McClean a “British man”.
In fact Tom McClean’s identity is at least as confused as are claims on Rockall. His mother gave birth to McClean in Dublin’s Bethany Home in 1943, because she was unmarried. Not the first to suffer involuntary child migration to England, McClean was sent unaccompanied in 1947 to “Mr Fegan’s Home” for “Protestant boys” at Yardley Gobion. He was later misinformed that his parents had died in a fire.
Mr Fegan’s junior orphanage was run by women who, according to McClean’s 1983 memoir, “weren’t nuns but they dressed as if they were... We had Bible classes every day, twice on Sundays”.
Since food was poor and in short supply, boys “fought among ourselves to get enough to eat”. McClean further recounted: “I learned to fight early and was often beaten for it”. This treatment prepared McClean for life in the British Army’s parachute regiment, before transfer to the SAS.
In 1969 McClean was the first to row the Atlantic alone, from Newfoundland to Blacksod Bay in Mayo. He did it again in 1982, in a boat nine feet, nine inches, long. After tracing his roots McClean remarked in 2010, “I claimed Rockall for England when I was Irish”. He added “it’s quite a story, with Ireland and England and everything”. He observed: “I’m an Irishman sounding like an Englishman, living in Scotland… [E]very single person in my family going back generations is Irish”.
Now the government of where McClean has lived for many years is claiming Rockall. Perhaps McClean’s shared, if complicated, heritage could inspire the Irish and Scottish governments to share the uncomplicated rock.
Dr Niall Meehan, faculty head, journalism and media, Griffith College, Dublin