The tragedy saw nine crewmen of the Fethard ‘Helen Blake’ Lifeboat lose their lives while trying to rescue the crew of the Mexico that had gone aground at the treacherous islands. One of the Mexico crew – a Portuguese sailor – died of exposure on the Keeragh Islands on 21 February 1914, as relatives of the marooned men stood on the shore awaiting news, unaware that the bodies of some of the Fethard victims were being washed up at nearby Cullenstown.
The Mexico – a steel, three-masted schooner – had gone aground amidst an appalling storm. The ship was laden with mahogany that was being transported from Central America to Liverpool. With the ship beginning to break up, the Fethard Lifeboat set out despite the mountainous seas in response to distress signals. The lifeboat reached the vessel at midnight, but was caught by an enormous wave and was thrown onto the rocks where it shattered almost immediately.
The lives of the people of the small fishing village of Fethard were changed irrevocably. Nine of the lifeboat crew, all from the locality, tragically died – Coxswain Christopher Bird, Bowman Thomas Hendrick, and Crew Members Michael Hendrick, James Morrissey, Patrick Roche, Patrick Cullen, William Bird, William Banville and Patrick Stafford. The deceased men left three widows and eight orphans. For two days, attempts to save the remaining men who were out on the shelterless Keeragh Rocks were thwarted by the weather. Eventually, six trips to and from the island, made on a small dinghy, brought to land the men who were suffering badly from exposure.
In the end, nine lifeboatmen and one of the crew of the Mexico were lost to the sea.
This dramatic event attracted world attention and contributions were made to the relief fund set up for the widows and orphans of the lost men from as far away as Norway, where King Haakon and Queen Maud made personal donations. Some of the contributions ended up being sent to the similarly named inland town of Fethard, Co Tipperary. Subsequently the name of the coastal village was changed to Fethard-On-Sea.