On Friday 16th April I appeared on Seascapes, the RTÉ Radio 1 maritime programme with Fergal Keane. Fergal very kindly interviewed me about my book Waterford Harbour Tides and Tales. We covered the background to my blogging and writing, discussed the importance of Waterford as a port, and finished with the story of the Portlairge. If you would like to listen back the link is below.
I’m delighted to be able to announce that all the residents of the Russianside, Cheekpoint, Co Waterford will receive the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine against COVID-19 later this morning. Due to diplomatic considerations, a media blackout was insisted upon until now by both the Russian embassy and the Irish Dept of Foreign Affairs.
As most blog regulars will know, the small community of Russiansiders, here in the village of Cheekpoint, Co Waterford owe the origins of the placename to a shipwreck of many years past. The Russian sailors were taken in by the community, and those that died were buried on the local strand.
The event was largely forgotten after the Russian revolution, but in recent years with a change in political leadership and the effort locally to revive an awareness in the story, stronger links have been forged between the country and the small rural community.
In recent weeks the Russian embassy contacted local resident Kate Cunningham, a leading member of Busy Fingers, the Knitting and Crochet circle. As a gesture of solidarity between the Russian State and the community, Kate was asked to liaise with her neighbours, and in strict confidence test the waters as to the willingness to accept the offer.
Although some concerns were expressed about this being a publicity stunt, the offer was overwhelmingly accepted due to the ongoing shortages of other products. Specific guidelines have had to be accepted, including the media silence. However, it is with great expectation that we look forward to the vaccine rollout this morning. A large media gathering is expected and strict access to the Russianside will have to be observed. I look forward to posting pictures later today.
This month’s blog comes from the pen of my cousin James and gives a fascinating glimpse into an era of history that many will have a general idea of and the Irish involvement. However, what was a surprise to me was the scale of Irish participation in the blockade running and the many Waterford connections too.
At the onset of the American civil war the Southern states faced a major predicament, theirs was mostly an agrarian economy based primarily around cotton. The Confederacy lacked major manufacturing capacity and after losing access to the steel mills and ironworks in the North of America by necessity they turned to foreign suppliers of the material of war. Cotton became currency and European merchants started to capitalise on the southern state’s desperation and the soaring price of cotton. Irish merchants weren’t immune to this new business opportunity and one of the best-known examples is Peter Tait of Limerick who manufactured over 50,000 uniforms for the Confederacy.
Peter Tait and other merchant adventurers faced one major obstacle; the Union blockade. The North quickly moved to close the ports of the Southern states with their superior naval forces. Initially, this blockade was fairly loose but became more complete as the war progressed. European merchants with the aid of Southern agents started to break this blockade and even constructed purpose-built blockade runners with a focus on speed and stealth. Low, dark painted hulls with telescopic funnels to reduce silhouettes these ships were nearly impossible to spot at night as they dashed at speed through the Union blockade. This article will focus on an unusual encounter between two vessels with Irish connections both involved in the blockade of the South.
Sometimes the tortoise catches the hare and this was certainly the case on the morning of the 9th of December 1863 when the USS Circassian captured the blockade runner Minna. The Circassian was a hybrid vessel carrying both sails and a steam engine and nearly twice the size of the Minna a modern screw driven steamer capable of higher speed.
The seizure of the Minnawas a major blow to the Confederate states and made international news with papers as far away as England carrying the story of the “capture of the celebrated blockade runner Minna, splendid barkantine steamship of Waterford, undoubtedly one of the finest prizes of the war”[i]
The same newspaper that described the Minnain such tones of admiration also provides some insight into how theCircassian came to capture the Minna. It described the arrival of the vessel Ocean Wave into New York harbour and reported how it had lent assistance to the Steamer Minna of Waterford which had developed a leak whilst bound for the Confederate port of Wilmington[ii]
On the morning of the 9th of December, the Minna didn’t try run from the Circassian which was the usual tactic of the faster blockade runners which used speed to get themselves out of trouble. Whether the Minna simply couldn’t run if it was leaking or whether it was taken totally by surprise is hard to tell. Another contributory factor to her quick surrender was that the Circassian mounted a 30-pound canon and Captain Upon of theMinnadecided discretion was the better part of valour and ordered the Minnato stop and strike her colours.
As per standing orders, Upton ordered the Minna to be scuttled to avoid falling into enemy hands. Anticipating such a move a boarding party from the Circassian was sent across with orders to save the vessel. The boarding party was led by a young engineer Theodore F Lewis who wrote home to his uncle to tell of his exploits. His proud uncle had the letter published in the Vermont Record explaining how Mr. Lewis and the executive officer of the Circassian “worked hard with a Colt revolver at the head of Minna’s engineer and succeeded in keeping the vessel afloat”. The article also mentions the value of theMinnabeing set at $250,000 and bonus for the prize crew that seized the vessel; they were entitled to a one tenth share of the value. [iii]
Although physically very different vessels the Minna and the Circassian had a lot in common. Firstly both were built in Britain; theCircassianon the Clyde and theMinnaon the Tyne. Both vessels also shared strong Irish connections, Minna was built for the Malcomsons of Portlaw and registered in Waterford. In 1863 the Minna was sold to MG Klingender and later to CK Prioleau [iv] although she remained registered in the port of Waterford. Klingender and Prioleau wouldn’t be your usual Waterford names and were both based in Liverpool working for a law firm called Fraser Trenholm, agents of the Confederate States of America.
The time period of the American Civil War was devastating to the Malcomson commercial empire, as the blockade of Southern ports by the Union navy tightened, their cotton factory in Portlaw started to run low on southern cotton and the Malcomsons financial fate rested on the outcome of the civil war. Additionally, William Malcomson head of the family at that time had started to diversify with varying degrees of success and was a major shareholder in the Galway Steamship company which owned several ships, one of which was the steamer Circassian.
As if a cotton shortage wasn’t bad enough, through a series of ill-advised business moves the Galway steamship company encountered heavy losses and it is estimated that William Malcomson personally lost nearly one and a half million pounds[v]. One of the other major shareholders in the Galway steamship company was John Orrell Lever, who had a shared interest in cotton manufacture and shipping. In 1861 Lever organised the sale of the Galway Steamships companies paddle steamer Pacific to Fraser Trenholm (a firm he also had a financial interest in) and theCircassianbegan its career as a blockade runner soon after. [vi]
The Circassian had a short career as a blockade runner, she was encountered by the USS Somerset in broad daylight under full sail and steam in May of 1862. She initially ignored calls to stop but a live round fired through the rigging from the Somersetconvinced the Circassiantosurrender[vii]. She would enter union service as the USS Circassian soon after.
Another unusual feature of the encounter of the Circassian and the Minna was the freight being run. When the Minna was towed into Fort Monroe on the 14th of December it was reported that she carried a mixed cargo of spices, quinine, rifles, powder, vitriol, wines & liquors, agricultural tools, hardware and general merchandise[viii]. The report also mentioned the Minna carried a valuable marine engine probably destined for one of the new home made iron clad fleet adopted by the Confederacy. Part of the general cargo was a large consignment of Bibles printed in England and destined for the south. What the desperate confederate soldiers might have thought of valuable space on a blockade runner being taken up by bibles is anyone’s guess.
The extent of involvement of Irish merchants in blockade running into the Southern states is difficult to estimate as it was a clandestine activity with union agents watching European ports for the departure of vessels bound to run the blockade. One strategy used to circumvent the blockade was transhipment. Large shipments were sent to ports such as Nassau and Havana with legal bills of lading, if these ships were intercepted mid journey by the Union navy they had committed no crime. Once landed the goods would be unloaded and ran at night into Southern Ports.
Island Queen, owned by Curran & Co of Dungarvan was involved in the South American trade, and at one point took on a lucrative consignment of rifles and war materials which was freighted from Le Havre to the confederacy. Having successfully out manoeuvred the blockade she was escorted to Fort Fisher near New Orleans by a Southern battleship and berthed amidst loud cheers from the quayside.[ix]
Despite the huge profits to be made, blockade running it was a risky business; the ships involved were only expected to make a handful of runs before being captured. As a consequence of this expected short life span some shipbuilders started to cut corners and the sea worthiness of some vessels was questionable. An example of this which also offers a insight into the makeup of a typical blockade running crew was the paddle steamer Hattie. The vessel was launched on the Clyde in August 1864 and left in the depths of winter for the Atlantic crossing. The Hattie suffered storm damage and put into Waterford for repairs she left on the 15th of December and was never heard from again. After the disappearance, a crew list was published which revealed a crew of 26 of which 6 were Irish with only one American crew member; the master of the ship [x].
Peter Tait of Limerick’s blockade running activities are well established with his ships such as the Evelyn leaving Foynes to run his uniforms into the south for the confederate army. The Circassian and the Minna were both controlled by Fraser Trenholm of Liverpool and Charleston but the purpose of their sale must have been known by their previous owners. At the conclusion of the war complex legal arguments ensued between Great Britain and America concerning the legalities surrounding the running of the blockade and seizure of blockade runners. One ship called theAlinehad arrived in Liverpool in June of 1865 as the war drew to a close. The American government launched a legal case to seize its cargo and some of the names mentioned in the cases prove insightful. One of the defendants listed was CK Prioleau of Fraser Trenholm a William Greer Malcomson and an Andrew Malcomson were also listed in the case[xi]. These Malcomsons were cousins of the Waterford branch of the family and were based in Liverpool.
Legal action between Britain and America came thick and fast after the war with claim and counter claim, a look through some of the legal actions reveals some more interesting Irish connections. Another Waterford connection is Captain John Read of Tramore, Master of the bark Science (built at Waterford by Whites Shipbuilders in 1836, originally brig rigged) which was seized by the Union on the 5th of November 1863 sailing from the south with a cargo of cotton bound for London[xii].
Legal papers also reveal that the Waterford vessel the Queen of England in July of 1861 was turned back from the Southern coast by an armed Union vessel. The Queen of England had sailed from the port of Waterford and was due to collect tobacco from Richmond for a Dublin based distributor. The owners of the vessel launched legal action after the war in an attempt to recover loss of earnings[xiii].
The American Civil War had far reaching economic impacts with fortunes made and lost by merchant families across the globe. Some reliant on Southern exports backed the Confederacy out of necessity whilst others hoped to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the conflict. The Irish participation in blockade running is a topic worthy of further research.
For anyone with an interest in the Irish participation in the American Civil War I would thoroughly recommend following the work of Damian Shiels who has worked tirelessly over the years to explore this topic https://irishamericancivilwar.com/
I would like to thank James for this fascinating account on a story that has opened my eyes to another area of Waterford’s rich maritime heritage which I was unaware of. There must have many more twists and turns to be unearthed in such activities If you have any other information to share with James he can be contacted through twitter on his very popular Irish Smuggling site @IrishSmuggling
In 2024, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution will be celebrating two hundred years of saving lives of sea. TheRoyal National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck was founded in London on March 4th, 1824 by Sir William Hillary. On October 5th, 1854, the name was changed to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution – the RNLI – as it is still known today and still adhering rigidly to the same noble principles since 1824.
In 1924, there were eight men alive who had received Gold Medals in the first century of the Institution for gallantry and conspicuous service in saving life from shipwreck. Of the eight, five of them were English, two Irish and one Welsh. The eight were invited to attend the Centenary Dinner and other celebrations in London, as the guests of the Institution. Seven of the eight were able to attend. The one person unable to attend, due to ill health, was Reverend Father John O’Shea, who was at time was a curate serving in the parish of Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary. Father O’Shea was from Lismore, County Waterford. He was educated at Mount Melleray Abbey, on the slopes of the Knockmealdown Mountains, near Cappoquin. His census returns in 1911 showed that he had been born in Australia.
On St. Patrick’s Day, Friday, March 17th, 1911, the wind freshened from the South East and soon it was blowing a full gale. Teaser, a schooner, registered in Montrose, Scotland of 79 tons register, owned by a Mr. John Hewitt of Connah’s Quay, Flintshire, North Wales, left Swansea on Tuesday, March 14th, 1911. She was bound for Killorglin in Dingle Bay with a cargo of coal and called in at Milford Haven which she left on Thursday, 16th, March. The Teaserhad been built at Perth in Scotland in 1864. She carried a crew of three: Master Thomas Hughes, from Connah’s Quay, a mate called Fox and an ordinary seaman Walsh.
On Saturday morning, March 18th, Teasergot into difficulties and was unable to shorten sail and was soon driven ashore on the Black Rocks at Curragh (to the east of the village of Ardmore, Co Waterford).
The Gold Medal of the RNLI, which is a much-coveted distinction, only bestowed for deeds of exceptional valour, was awarded to the Reverend Father John M O’Shea, curate at Ardmore, who, with others, made a noble attempt to save the crew of the ill-fated Teaser. Attempts were promptly made to summon the nearest lifeboat, stationed at Helvick but owing to the storm the telephonic communication failed, and by the time the boat reached the scene all that was possible had been done by a gallant band of men at Ardmore.
As soon as the local Coastguard observed the vessel, the rocket apparatus was dispatched to the nearest spot. The coastguards, with skill, succeeded in throwing rocket lines over the wrecked vessel. The crew were, however, so exhausted by exposure and so numbed with cold that they could not make use of the lines.
Seeing that the unfortunate men were unable to help themselves, Petty Officer Richard Barry, and Alexander Neal, of the Coastguard, regardless of the danger which they ran, plunged into the icy sea, and attempted to swim to the vessel, but the heavy seas were too much for them, and they were beaten back to the shore.
It was then that Father O’Shea, seeing that their efforts were unavailing, remembered that there was a fisherman’s open boat nearly a mile away. He gathered a willing band of volunteers, who with him went for the boat, and by dint of great exertions, they got it to the scene of the wreck.
Father O’Shea put on a lifebelt and called to the crowd for a crew. The men of Ardmore answered the call without hesitation, knowing that to get into an open boat in such appalling weather would have daunted the bravest man. But these gallant men had answered many a call and this was to be no exception. Coastguards Barry and Neal, Constable Daniel Lawton of the Royal Irish Constabulary, William Harris, keeper of the Ardmore Hotel, Patrick Power, a farmer, John O’Brien, a boatman and Cornelius O’Brien, another local farmer, formed a crew.
With the crew of seven men and Father O’Shea in command, the little boat put to sea. These brave men were at very great risk – the risk on one hand of the heavy sea running and the rocks, and on the other of being dashed against the ship – but they succeeded in boarding the Teaser. Two of the crew were, however, beyond all aid, and the other man succumbed soon afterwards despite everything possible being done for him, both on board the wreck and later ashore. Father O’Shea administered the last rites to them. Whilst the men were on board the vessel, Coastguard Neal collapsed from exhaustion, and artificial respiration had to be used to restore him.
Unfortunately, the gallant and heroic efforts of the men of Ardmore failed as the crew of the Teaser died before they could get them ashore. Doctor Foley and many willing hands onshore did all that was humanly possible for the crew but without avail.
The Lifeboat, journal of the RNLI, Volume XX1, No. 241, August 1st, 1911 reported as follows:
“The efforts made on this occasion were characterised by exceptional courage, and the Committee of the Institution were satisfied that the gallant and continued attempts at rescue were due to the noble example and initiative displayed by Father O’Shea. They therefore decided to award him the Gold Medal of the Institution and a copy of the Vote of Thanks on vellum. They also granted the following awards— To Richard Barry, Petty Officer Coastguard, and to Alexander Neal, Leading Boatman Coastguard, who attempted to swim off to the vessel, and afterwards boarded her at great risk, the Silver Medal and £5 each and a copy of the Vote of Thanks on vellum. To Mr. William Harris, who boarded the vessel at great risk, a binocular glass, and a copy of the Vote of Thanks on vellum. To Constable Law, R.I.C. who also boarded the wreck at great risk, £5 and a copy of the Vote of Thanks on vellum. To Pat Power, Con O’Brien, and John O’Brien, who went out in the boat but did not board the wreck, £7- 10s. each.
When the decision of the Committee of Management was made known, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Aberdeen, very kindly consented to present the various rewards.
Arrangements were made for the men to travel to Dublin, and at Ballsbridge, where an exhibition was in progress, his Excellency, accompanied by Lady Aberdeen, made the presentation in the presence of many hundreds of people. His Excellency, who was cordially received, said they had met there that day to render honour where honour was most assuredly due. To celebrate a deed of valour and heroism was something worthy, and beneficial not only to those to whom homage was offered, but also to those who took part in such proceedings. The story of the event which had brought them there had already been narrated, but they could not too often be reminded of the splendid achievement and the noble efforts which they were there to commemorate and to acclaim. That deed furnished a noble example. But they must remember that such deeds meant more than courage and determination now. They meant that there was the quality and the attitude of the brain, and the good principles of life which were tested in time of emergency. These men were not found wanting but covered themselves with glory and distinction. Those brave rescuers had already been honoured by the King, but they who were assembled there that day were behind none in the heartiness with which they saluted them and asked them to accept the tokens offered by the RNLI as a lasting memento of the feelings of appreciation and grateful thanks for the example and the encouragement given to all those present, who would be stimulated by the admirable conduct of these men. (Applause.)
His Excellency then presented the awards, and her Excellency pinned the medals on the breasts of the recipients. The Rev. Father O’Shea, having expressed deep gratitude on behalf of himself and his companions, paid a high tribute to the men who had assisted him. Lieutenant W. G. Rigg, R.N., as representative of the Institution, cordially thanked Lord and Lady Aberdeen for their kindness, and the ceremony terminated.”
The medal presentation ceremony took place on Monday, May 29th, 1911 at the ‘Uí Breasail’ Exhibition, which was held in Ballsbridge, Dublin from May 24th to June 7th. It was attended during that time by 170,000 people. The Exhibition, with a sub-title of “The Great Health, Industrial and Agricultural Show’ was strongly supported by Lady Aberdeen. The title ‘Uí Breasail’ was taken from a poem by Gerald Griffin of the same name, meaning the ‘Isle of the Blest’. The poem speaks of a wonderful mythical island seen by St Brendan on one of his voyages.
Earlier on May 2nd, 1911, Father O’Shea and the party of Ardmore men were decorated by King George V at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace when he presented them with the Silver Medal for gallantry awarded by the Board of Trade.
The Carnegie Hero Fund Trust awarded its highest award – a Gold Watch to Father O’Shea.
On December 12th,1912, less than two years later, the steel barque Maréchal de Noailles of Nantes in France, departed from Glasgow for New Caledonia, a French Penal Island in the South Pacific, with a cargo of coal, coke, limestone, and railway materials. It was an eventful start to the voyage, with delays and bad weather, and on January 15th, 1913, the vessel was close to Ballycotton, Co Cork, when the wind strengthened. The Master, Captain Huet, fired distress signals; eventually the ship was blown ashore three hundred yards west of Mine Head in County Waterford, not far from Ardmore. Father O’Shea was very much to the fore in the safe rescue of the entire crew by means of Breeches Buoy from the shore. The following month, a letter of appreciation, written by Captain Huet from Morlaix in France was received in Ardmore by Father O’Shea.
At the ceremony held at Buckingham Palace on June 30th, 1924, King George V awarded the honour of the Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.) on each of the seven men present and the absent Father O’Shea.
The King expressed his great regret that Father O’Shea was prevented by illness from being present and handed his medal to Sir Godfrey Baring, a member of the management committee of the RNLI for thirty-three years.
The citation said:
” For his example and initiative in leading very gallant attempts, by means of a small boat, to save the lives of the crew of the schoonerTeaser, which was lost, with her crew of three in Ardmore Bay on the 18th, March 1911, during a whole S.E. gale with a very heavy sea.”
From Carrick-on-Suir, Father O’Shea was appointed Parish Priest of Ballyporeen, County Tipperary. The George Cross was instituted by King George VI on September 24th, 1940 and on October 31st, 1941, Father O’Shea was requested to surrender his Empire Gallantry Medal and attend a function at Buckingham Palace on November 25th, 1941 to receive the George Cross in its place. Due to failing health, Father O’Shea could not attend.
Father O’Shea passed away on September 11th, 1942 in Clogheen, Co Tipperary, aged seventy-one. In accordance with his will, he was laid to rest at the back of the Cross of Calvary in Ballyporeen Churchyard. His George Cross, RNLI Gold Medal and Board of Trade Medals were left to the Cistercian Monks at Mount Melleray Abbey in County Waterford.
Wilson, John THE WRECK OF THE TEASER– A GOLD MEDAL RESCUE. The Life Saving Awards Research Society, Journal No. 30, June 1997.
Walsh, Donal AN ACCOUNT OF THE LOSS OF THE ‘TEASER’ IN 1911 and THE ‘MARÉCHAL DE NOAILLES’ IN 1912 OFF THE WATERFORD COAST. Decies XX1, Old Waterford Society, September 1982.
Details of the Teasermay be found in this archive. The owner is listed as John Hewitt and not Ferguson as recorded in other accounts of the shipwreck.
My thanks to David for this fascinating account of Fr O’Shea and indeed the people of Ardmore in the efforts to assist on both occasions. For a fantastic photo collection of the event take a look at the Ardmore Grange post:
It comes as a source of pride that Waterford has made such a unique contribution to the Irish national holiday. Ireland’s oldest city staged the first parade in 1903, the first year the day became an official holiday. A citizen of the city, TF Meagher, flew the first ever national flag, whilst another, Luke Wadding, is responsible for the day being marked on the Christian calendar. And the connection between both is that of our ancient port and the international connections of trade and commerce.
Luke Wadding was born on the 10th October 1588, 11th of 14 children to the merchant Walter and Anastasia nee Lombard. The Lombard family had come to Waterford as Italian bankers and were highly respected in Waterfords business classes. Walter came from a long line of city notables, high achievers in commerce, international trade, the city’s political life, and the catholic church. Walter was a freeman of the city, a prestigious position for any merchant ensuring preferential tax and customs concessions on the imports flowing into the city from across Europe including French and Spanish wine.
Luke was born into a time of ferment for Catholics in Waterford, the reformation had created tensions and difficulties for people of faith who sought religious freedom. Waterford was at the centre of a movement called the Recusants, and the city was described as containing “the most arrogant papists that live within this state”. His family, though loyal to the crown, played a leading role in the promotion of the catholic faith.
His early education took place in Waterford, but thanks to the business and marriage links of his brother, Matthew, Luke traveled abroad to Lisbon where he attended the Irish College where he excelled academically. He was ordained a Franciscan priest in 1613 and he later moved to Spain where he came to the notice at the court of King Philip III. At 30 he was dispatched to Rome as principal theologian to a deputation of Spanish envoys. There he made such a significant contribution, he was asked to stay, considered by then indispensable to the Franscian curia.
As a theologian and academic he had a stellar career in the Church, being considered for Pope at one stage before his death in 1657. Perhaps now in his native city, he is best remembered as the man who ensured St Patrick’s day was added to the liturgical calendar, ensuring the day is remembered around the world.
He had other things in common with TF Meagher, for example, his statue had once stood where the Meagher of the Sword statue now stands at the entrance to the Mall, but a more interesting comparison is that Wadding was also referred to as the “gun-running priest” such was his support for Ireland during the confederate wars. But that, as they say, is a totally different story.
I prepared this piece in conjunction with a history of Waterford Port, a commission from Johnny Codd of Waterford City & County Council, to complement the Waterford Goes Green initiative and the lighting of the city marina and quay. The edited piece is on the council website, and a sense of the spectacular quays at night is in the video below.
Happy St Patricks Day 2021. Hopefully next year the parade will return.
This piece drew on the late Niall J Byrnes article about Luke Waddings Waterford in Decies #63, 2007. Also an article by my good friend Cian Manning in his recent book Waterford City, A History
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