Built in 1959 by Ailsa Shipbuilding at Troon the general cargo and cattle ship Slieve Donard was unusual in that she had a stern door to allow up to 61 cars to be driven onto the main deck. She could accommodate 150 cars in all, usually trade cars, but normally she carried up to 668 head of cattle or 30 20ft containers, or an equivalent mix of each. Thanks to her drive-on, drive-off capabilities the ship quite often saw supplementary service at Stranraer and Fishguard during the summer months, carrying additional cars while drivers and passengers travelled on the principle ships.
Life onboard the cargo ships was anything but dull. Towards Christmas they would carry live poultry such as geese in cages. Holyhead’s Capt. Glynne Pritchard recalls ‘These were discharged from the ship by putting a rope sling around say five cages and hoisting them ashore. One night, flat calm, we were the second boat into Holyhead. As we approached the Boathouse we could hear loud 'honking' noises, and were amazed to see several geese swimming around, pursued by the mooring boat, which eventually had to give up the task to attend to our needs. I was on the Slieve Bawn that evening and apparently whilst discharging from the Slieve Donard a slingfull of geese somehow ended up in the dock. All were eventually captured and rehoused.’
Although the cattle trade is long gone, shipment of dogs and horses has continued to this day, the latter in horse boxes. Back in the days of the ‘Slieves’ the ships had several kennels for prized greyhounds while race horses were carried in special stalls.
Capt Pritchard recalls, ‘By radio, the foreman ashore would ask "Will you take horses tonight?" We on the ship would reply that it was dependant on the forecast. If the wind was forecast to be strong to gale from the south we would refuse shipment because of the excessive rolling we may experience. I have on occasion been down with the grooms, off the South Stack, 'talking' to the horses as conditions turned out to be worse than expected. It was essential that the horse stalls had wooden battens secured to the deck against which they could brace their hooves.’
The Slieve Donard's UK career was a short one – just 16 years. Two weeks before the big new roll-on, roll-off car ferry for Holyhead was launched as the St Columba, the Slieve Donard left her home port on 1 July 1976 bringing down the curtain on the company’s livestock trade. General cargo was now the preserve of the cellular container ships Brian Boroime and Rhodri Mawr.
Photo: Robert Cox collection