Recalling the loss of UC 44

It was just about midnight on a calm moonlit night in Waterford Harbour. Aboard the WWI mine laying submarine UC-44, her skipper, Kurt Tebbenjoahnnes, satisfied himself as to their position and gave the orders to start deploying her load.  The UC class of sub were a relatively new design and although they could deploy mines from the surface, secrecy was paramount.  As the night was so clear and they were initially so close to land (at Creaden Head, Co Waterford) Tebbenjoahnnes gave the command to submerge. These mines were stored in chutes in the forward section of the submarine. Each mine was dropped individually and the position carefully recorded.  As the mine dropped out, the sub floated astern on the tide.  As it hit the bottom, a soluble plug held the mine in position, allowing plenty of time for the sub to clear.  Saltwater reacted to the plug, which eventually dissolved and released the mine which floated up to a predetermined height on a wire.

A sketch sketch of the mines deployed

Beneath the mine was a hydrostatic valve that was set to a specific depth which controlled the position of the mine.  Whatever way the tide was running, it maintained the mine beneath the surface making detection much more difficult.  There the mines waited for an unsuspecting ship to pass over and strike the protruding horns which triggered an explosion.

While this operation was ongoing Tebbenjoahnnes remained in the conning tower, checking the boats position and plotting his course for Queenstown (Cobh) in Cork harbour.  Suddenly he heard and felt a loud explosion and his boat lurched downwards and struck the seabed.

Tebbenjoahnnes found himself on the bottom of Waterford harbour in the conning tower and was speedily joined by two other submariners; chief engine room officer Fahnster and a young apprentice named Richter.  Any attempts to raise the submarine were in vain and with no communication with the rest of the crew and waters rising around them they were faced with only one choice, to try for the surface which was 90 feet above. All three emerged from below almost as one, but eventually they drifted apart. Miraculously Tebbenjoahnnes was pulled aboard a local fishing boat later that morning by Dunmore East fishermen. Tebbenjoahnnes was cared for in the home of Mrs Chester and was seen to by Mr Austin Farrell. Later that morning he was turned over to the authorities and began his journey to London and life as a POW.

Removing the remaining mines following salvage. Courtesy of Paul O’Farrell

The rescue of Tebbenjoahnnes would trigger a series of events over the next few days and weeks that would see the death of a crew man aboard the minesweeper Haldon and the dramatic salvage of the submarine that would have a major part to play in the allies winning WWI.

All that was to come however. On that morning of the 5th August, Tebbenjohannes had breakfast before commencing his new life as a POW under escort to London for interrogation.

A story of the salvage and the implications of WWI is subject of a new book by Tony Babb. It makes for an interesting read


Please join me for Heritage week at Cheekpoint from Saturday 24th to Sunday 25th where the focus will be on the three sister rivers and Water Heritage Day

Death sails into Passage East

Introduction

In June of 1832 a ship anchored off Passage East, apparently to await favourable sailing conditions.  However within hours her passengers would be fleeing ashore and the army was called out to exert control.  For the passengers were escaping a deadly sickness that had the country gripped in panic and fear – Cholera.

Cholera 1831-3 outbreak

The Cholera outbreak of 1832 in Ireland was a medical disaster which was compounded by the political and economic situation in the country.  The pandemic had been a long time coming originating in India in 1817 and spreading west, and creating a sense of fear and foreboding as it did so.  The first officially recognised case in Great Britain was in Sunderland in October 1831, and was first reported in the island of Ireland at Belfast on 18th March 1832, arriving in Dublin a week later.[1] 

Thereafter it spread rapidly reaching  Cork by 12 April, Tralee by 28 April, Galway by 12 May, Limerick two days later and Waterford on the 20th May.  By August it was established in Wexford and Derry at opposite ends of the country.[2]  The fact that these are all ports will not be lost on my readers.

Causes of Cholera

The actual cause of Cholera is a bacterium called Vibrio cholera.  When humans ingest cholera bacteria (contaminated water, raw vegetables, shellfish etc), they may not become sick themselves, but they still pass the bacteria in their stool. When human faeces contaminate food and water supplies, both can serve as ideal breeding grounds for the cholera bacteria.  The social, political and economic conditions in Ireland at the time meant that it was a fertile breeding ground for the spread of the sickness.

Passage East during the past week.

Fear spreads countrywide

If you doubt the awareness of the illness amongst the general population or the ability of news to travel in a rural country consider the following:  “The earliest recorded appearance of a popular panic centering on this threatened appearance of cholera came on the night of Saturday 9th June 1832, in the northern part of County Cork….(it) began with the news that the Virgin Mary had appeared on the altar of the chapel at Charleville, and had left there certain ashes which she warned were the only protection against cholera. She ordered that small packages of the ashes should be taken to neighbouring houses, where they should be placed under the rafters. The owner of each house was then to take four parcels of ash out of his chimney and proceed to four other houses that had not already been visited, giving the inhabitants of each the same directions as he had received himself”[4]  Within six days a 19th century version of Chinese whispers had spread almost nationwide with much variation to the original message.  It arrived at 2am on Tuesday 12th June in New Ross  “…carried by ‘enormous bodies of men who came last night from the county of Kilkenny by the bridges of Ross [and] Mountgarret, and the boats along the river which they had in requisition”[5]

The storefront of Howlett & Co of New Ross who had organised the Lord Wellington with thanks to Myles Courtney

A later advert for Howlett & Co in Bassetts commercial directory 1885. Courtesy of Myles Courtney

Passage East situation

Perhaps by now you will have a sense of the dread attached to Cholera.  So when the barque Lord Wellington hove to and dropped anchor off Passage East on Friday 15th June and the cry of Cholera went up there presumably was widespread concern.
The barque under Captain Culleton had departed New Ross for Howlett & Co earlier that week with a disputed number of passengers.[6]  The news was probably brought ashore initially by fishermen or boatmen, or perhaps the international signal, the yellow jack, was raised on the sailing ships mast.  By evening any doubts were cast aside when several passengers came ashore at Passage East weighed down with their belongings and saying they were in fear of their lives and would not re-board.  Many of these set off to return to their homes but some were already ill and slumped to the ground, while another man (John Holahan) succumbed on the road out of the village and was later found lying in a ditch covered in straw.  A local clergyman Rev Paliser was credited with organising the care of the ill and had a temporary fever hospital was set up in the village, Holahan being carried to it from off the roadside.[7]

The Yellow Jack – signalling illness aboard HMS Hazard 1841. Accessed from National Maritime Museum London

Rev JB Palliser had already been proactive however, having written in his position as chairman of a local group proposing the establishment of a local board of health to deal with the impending Cholera pandemic to Sir William Gosset, Under Secretary of State in Ireland at Dublin Castle in May.  The local initiative was not rewarded however.[8]

Dr Gore (a rather unfortunate name for a medic surely) of the Dunmore East dispensary seems to have taken control of the care of the victims housed in the temporary Passage East hospital.  His first patient was described as having been sick when leaving the ship, a 42 year old Wicklow woman, Eliza Murphy, who collapsed after arriving on Passage Quay.  She was not expected to recover (I understand from another newspaper source that she died Monday morning).  The first confirmed death was of John Holahan, the man found earlier in the ditch, who died on Sunday 17th.  A relative of his, Mary Maton, died soon after.[9]

By Sunday an emergency meeting was convened in the village by the Waterford Board of Health.  It issued a warrant for the interment of the deceased, and forbad all unnecessary communication with the temporary hospital.  Alderman Henry Alcock, Mayor of Waterford, and Captain Shapeland Carew Morris ordered a reinforcement of police from nearby Callaghane Bridge, in order to prevent all such communication.  It’s not made clear exactly why…was it fear for the safety of the victims, or fear of contagion?[10]

But what was happening aboard the Lord Wellington?

Meanwhile aboard the Lord Wellington one can only suppose that her Master Captain Culleton (elsewhere Culloton) was busy trying to care for his charges with the limited means at his disposal[11].  Dr Long from Arthurstown had been aboard on Friday evening to administer some care to a cabin passenger named George Cook of Carlow.  However when he boarded on Saturday morning with Dr Mackesy of the Waterford Board of Health they found Cook laid out dead on the deck with a steerage passenger named Martin Byrne from Wicklow.  In a follow up report Mackesy provided the following list of the ill:

  • “James Walsh, aged 25 years, a very fine young man, from Clough, in the County Kilkenny, in the last stage of blue spasmodic cholera—dying.—-{since dead.)
  • William Thompson, a negro, cook of the, ship, native the West Indies—extremely ill—not likely to recover; had been unwell twenty hours.
  • Mary Larkin, of the county Carlow, aged six years, has had hooping cough for the last three weeks.—ls dying of spasmodic cholera.—(Since dead.)
  • Margaret Larkin, aged 15 months, has also had hooping cough. Has been ill of cholera twenty-six hours. —Is better, and is likely to recover.
  • John Kennedy, aged twenty years, from Castlecomer —ill seventeen hours—is better, and is likely to recover.”[12]

On Sunday a deputation from the Waterford Board of Health boarded the vessel. The medical group included Dr. Connolly, Dr. Sheehan, Dr. Gore, and Mr. Reynett, of Waterford apothecary.  That same day the Mayor had dispatched Joseph Watson, one of his city constables, to Passage, to urge the departure of the vessel.  Her orders were to report to the quarantine grounds off Milford Haven where she would have to remain until all illness had passed. She sailed later Sunday afternoon. The outgoing pilot reported that two more deaths had occurred while he was on board.[13]

Aftermath at Passage East

Although the departure of the ship must have brought some slight relief cholera didn’t disappear with her departure.  The local papers that week reported that  “A memorial has been forwarded to Government for the formation of a local Board of Health at Passage. The appointment is expected down on Tuesday”[14] It was obviously founded because by September the secretary of the Board of Health for Passage East William N Clarke wrote to Sir William Gosset, [Under Secretary for Ireland], explaining that one of the Board members, John Spencer, had died from cholera and seeking approval for their nomination of John Cavanagh as a replacement.  In a follow up letter dated April of 1833 Clarke again wrote to Gosset, requesting permission to use the balance of the cholera fund to provide distress for the poor now suffering from typhus fever.[15]  On another side note its worth mentioning that as a consequence of the fears of contagion, shellfish was feared and sales of cockles were almost nil. This must have had a knock on effect too on the village for some time.

I could find no mention of the burials, but I’m sure this would have been done locally. To have transported the bodies back to their home places would be too much of a threat to public health. Eventually a quarantine hospital was set up at Passage East, but it would appear that it was some years following the 1832 outbreak. An exact date still escapes me. 

Back on board the Lord Wellington

Once the pilot left the Lord Wellington Captain Culleton had a relatively short trip to Milford Haven[16], one of three “foul bill quarantine stations” designated as anchorages for ships requiring quarantine at this time and where a hospital ship awaited the sick and dying[17].  The procedure was that the ship would fly a yellow jack to signify illness aboard, and anchor away from other ships.  A doctor would assess the situation. The sick were removed, or if everyone aboard was sick they would remain.  Until the medics decided the ship was free to travel, she would remain at anchor.  The Lord Wellington eventually sailed from Milford Haven on the 29th June for Quebec.[18]

A hospital ship at Standgate Creek (Medway). Public domain, accessed from National Maritime Museum London

According to Lloyds registrar the Lord Wellington had been built at Quebec in 1811 and was an average sized ship of the time 271 tons. I can determine nothing further about her passage except to say that 167[19] passengers were disembarked at Quebec on 13th August.  Undoubtedly she had arrived some days previously and had reported to the Grosse Isle Quarantine Station to be checked and passed as fit to proceed into port.  As yet I haven’t discovered how many actually left Milford for the journey across the Atlantic.[20] One newspaper account reported 300 aboard originally and also reported that up to 100 fled the ship while at Passage East.  The numbers were disputed by Howlett & Co in subsequent reports.  But if true, it suggests 200 aboard when leaving the harbour and that 33 deaths had occurred. I’d suspect the figure was higher.

Grosse Isle had been set up by an act dated February 25th 1832 as a direct response to the threat posed to lower Canada by Asiatic cholera.  Thirty miles below Quebec it was considered far enough away from the town to protect it, but close enough to be provisioned.  On this tiny island a number of wooden cabins were built with beds as an isolation hospital where the sick were monitored and disease such as cholera contained.  Ships could not proceed until they had been passed fit.  In 1832 alone 51,700 emigrants arrived at Quebec, and any sickness had to be contained on the island.  Tents were erected to cope with the numbers and the death toll was high.  Of course as bad as 1832 was, it was not until the wave of the Irish famine broke across it in 1847 that the real horror would unfold.[21]  But that is another story entirely.[22]

Grosse Isle in the 19th C accessed from
https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/lhn-nhs/qc/grosseile/decouvrir-discover/natcul1/b

The impact of Cholera in Ireland

The Cholera had a deep and profound effect on the locality and it was 1833 before the pandemic had finally cleared the country.  I put together the following cases and deaths based on the Cholera Board Observations (Chief secretary’s office, official papers, 1832)

County                              cases                     deaths

Kilkenny                           550                         363

Wexford                           862                         373

Waterford                        879                         482        

However the statistics are subject to debate.  For example “…the 1841 census recorded that 46,175 died from cholera in the period 1832-4. The manuscript returns show that for the year 1832 the number of cases was 51,153 of whom 18,955 died…The difficulty in getting an overall picture arises from the omissions rather than any false returns. Many rural areas, which were affected by the disease, had no boards of health and so made no returns… Some who fled from the cholera infested towns must also have died unrecorded. The reported 46,175 cholera deaths is, if anything, a conservative estimate.”[23]

Myles Courtney of Visit New Ross informed me this week that 11 people were buried in St Marys Cemetry in the town.  For the effects on the county of Waterford and Dungarvan in particular see Patrick C Powers A History of Waterford City & County.

Concluding remarks

The cruel irony of this story is that it is still playing out today.  Cholera is rife in war torn Yemen at present. And migrants fleeing similar scenarios as faced the 19th Century Irish, risk everything to try cross the Mediterranean or the Mexican border in the hope of escaping the grueling poverty, hunger and oppression they experience in their home places.  I’m not so sure that this months blog is heritage as much as it is a perspective on one of the burning issues of our time.  And who’s to say that it won’t get worse.  If you thought it appropriate to criticise or condemn modern migration it might be worth remembering our own, and particularly the conditions that drove them to flee.


I’m indebted to Myles Courtney at Visit New Ross, Brian Cleare, and Kieran Cronin Centre for Newfoundland & Labrador Studies at WIT for assistance with this article

For more on the emigration story visit the Dunbrody Famine Ship experience in New Ross, Co Wexford

Sources drawn on are either hyperlinked in the piece or from:

The ‘Blessed Turf’: Cholera and Popular Panic in Ireland, June 1832.  S. J. Connolly. Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 23, No. 91 (May, 1983), pp. 214-232.  Cambridge University Press

[Fever and Public Health in Pre-Famine Ireland.  Timothy P. O’Neill.  The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. 103 (1973), pp. 1-34.  Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland

Grosse Isle Quarantine Station.  JD Page.  Canadian Public Health Journal. Vol 22, No 9.  September 1931 pp454-458.  Canadian Public Health Association.

Power.P.C. History of Waterford City & County. 1990. Mercier Press. Cork

Waterford Chronical 7th July 1832. 

Ballyshannon Herald – Friday 29 June 1832

Waterford Mail – Wednesday 20 June 1832

Lloyds List.  3 July 1832

For a fascinating and detailed account of famine era migration and the conditions at Gross Isle see Jim Rees book Surplus People, From Wicklow to Canada.  2014.  Collins Press, Cork

For an insight into the living conditions for the city’s poor, which was a breeding ground for the disease, see Niall Byrne, The Waterford leper hospital of St Stephen & Waterford Co and City infirmary. . 2011. Linden publishing. Dublin. Pp27-28 in particular

Join me at Cheekpoint over Aug 24th&25th to celebrate National Heritage Week

Buttermilk Castle, Co Wexford

While out walking in the early morning sunlight last week, I spotted something that I haven’t seen as clear and obvious ever before. The remains of what was once the Norman era tower house that is Buttermilk Castle. I’ve written about it before

But here’s the photo I’m referring to from last Friday morning as seen from the Russianside, Cheekpoint. Taken at about 5.45am. I’ve added the arrow as it might not be so obvious to everyone.

And here’s some other photos taken from the site itself when rowing around the river which is about all an ex fisherman can do anymore around here!

looking at it from the river, facing west
looking at it towards the east

Hope you enjoyed this little visual tour. Next time I might try shoot some video.

Book II – a chink of light

Its been a hectic week since my first blog last Friday in the new monthly format. Readership was well down, perhaps because people were out of the habit after a four week layoff. I don’t know. Will definitely try whet the appetites before the next last Friday in July – a story of people dying on the river and roadside at Passage from Cholera.

As I had also said recently I have the new book to sort out. Funding to self publish wasn’t forthcoming from a grant application I made so I have had to rethink. I received some good suggestions about how to proceed, and I even got a cheque from one long time blog reader (thanks Mark) who suggested I write some letters to see if I could raise further sponsorship. A lovely gesture, followed by a pledge from Carmel & David to support me also. And I might still try it. But for now I have put away Mark’s cheque in the hope that it won’t be needed.

I put last weekend aside to start the long hard struggle to try find a publisher. Following publication of the blog on Friday I set to work on another long arduous process of researching and writing . I had a couple of pleasant interludes however. On Saturday we headed down to the Beat The Ferryman swim in the kayaks, and provided some on water support to the swimmers. One of which was uur youngest Ellen, who was entering for the first time, and finished strongly in just under 17 mins for the 600 meters.

Standing by for the off l-r my son Joel, nephew Keelan and my co-pilot niece Moya

On Sunday I had another lovely interlude, a trip to the Wexford Maritime Heritage event held on the quays, and a wonderful catch up with Brian and John Boyce and Brian Cleare of the Rosslare Maritime Heritage Centre. My only disappointment was missing the model maker Johnnie Walker, whose work I admire, and which feature prominently in the museum.

Brian Cleare (left) and model maker supreme -Johnnie Walker. Photo courtesy of Brian Boyce.

So between these fun events I did a lot of work on the book project. I revisited my old list of publishers that I had researched over Christmas. Strangely enough only 3 of the 9 were open to submissions at this stage and so I dug a little deeper and came up with a list of 5 more making 8 potential publishers. 6 in Ireland, one in UK and one in NI.

The submissions were very disparate. Some wanted the whole book (something that put me off previously) but of the newer ones I found some wanted as little as a paragraph on my bio and a paragraph on the concept! Others wanted a cover letter, a synopsis and a selection of chapters. Some wanted the chapters numbered, some wanted a header or footer with my contact details, some were open to email others by post…ONLY…but if you don’t supply an email, they won’t contact you back….WTF!

For coaching I went to you tube and google and found some good resources. In fairness the writers.ie site was probably my best friend for the few days. I didn’t count the hours, but lets just say that by Sunday night I had submitted four and had three to post by mid week. The downside is that I could be waiting from 6 weeks to 6 months to hear anything. Which is a real bummer.

And so I promised myself that this weekend coming I would look at other options. Andrew Haworth at Lettertec had already sent me a revised quote for a scaled down self publishing option via a sponsorship route. And while at Wexford Brian Cleare told me about a possible option to print in China. Another suggestion was from Tony Babb, who’s new book on WWI salvage (and includes to Dunmore account of UC 44) is wonderful by the way, to check out Amazon and do a print by order system. Now I have to say that I fundamentally disagree with either concept, but it won’t hurt to explore.

But then Tuesday something interesting happened. A publisher (which requested the two paragraphs) replied back on email and a “Submissions Editor” requested a sample chapter. I was on lunch, in work and only had my phone. So I managed to edit a three chapter down to one on the phone. The only issue was that it was a google docs file. Not as straightforward to access as a word file. Jesus, would I be better to wait I wondered. Yet my gut said strike while the iron was hot. Five minutes later she came back and said she liked it, it was different. Would I fill out an Authors Questionnaire which she could bring to a meeting with the publishers sales and marketing team?…

If this keeps going I’ll need to get a colour in my hair

Well the 8 page questionnaire had to wait till I got home. I spent all of yesterday (Thursday) from 6.35am – 4.05 pm, with a breakfast in between, working to finalise the submission. The historical fiction author, Ruadh Butler, generously offered to look over the piece when finished. If the sales and marketing people like it, it will still need to go to an acquisition meeting. I still might end up a dead end. But at least I’m trying.

Anyway, stay tuned, who knows what twists and turns are coming my way. I’ll try not to bore people about it. In fact what I intend to do is to set up a new page on the blog for Book II.  If people are interested they can check in that way.

Hell Hole Horror – wreck of the SS Kinsale

On Saturday evening, 23rd November 1872 the SS Kinsale grounded on the Wexford side of Waterford harbour at a spot known locally as the Hell Hole. It was an appropriate name for the events that were to follow and it resulted in one of the largest losses of life in the harbour. But it made headlines for an altogether different reason, a very untruthful one.

On Friday 22nd November 1872 the steamer SS Kinsale slipped her moorings in Cork and sailed out the River Lee on her return trip to her home port of Glasgow.  Already the weather was turning contrary and her regular 20 man crew realised it was going to be a rough passage early on, at least until the rounded the Tuskar, and more than one of them felt sorry for their 8 passengers, particularly the only lady, now huddled in a corner of the saloon.

SS Kinsale. Used with kind permission of Brian Cleare

The Kinsale was a ship of 383 tons, over 197 ft long and had been launched in 1865 in the Glasgow shipyard of Henderson, Coulborn & Co, Renfrew. She was registered in that city to the Glasgow, Cork & Waterford Steam Navigation Co. Her crew were regulars mostly from her home port and they knew the journey very well.  Although rigged with sails, she rarely used them, preferring instead her reliable and powerful engine lovingly maintained by her chief engineer, Edward Cooke.  Aboard she carried a general cargo including agricultural products such as butter, bacon, sacks of flour and casks of beer.

Once they rounded Roches Point at the eastern tip of Cork harbour the seas broke across her decks and struggled to clear the scuppers before the next wave crashed aboard.  As she continued along the southern Irish coast during that night the weather deteriorated further.  When off the Wexford coast the chief engineer came on deck and advised Captain Stephen Anderson that they needed to find shelter as his engines could not take much more punishment.[ 

Seaman Angus Nicholson reported on deck for his watch at about 3pm on Saturday 23rd and took the helm.  The Kinsale was handling badly and over the howling gale he struggled to hear the orders of Captain Anderson, who directed him to make for Waterford harbour to seek shelter. The navigation was well known to them as Waterford was on their regular three way route and the crew had only left Waterford on the 20th for Cork. Together on the open bridge they struggled to keep the salt spray from their eyes and to pick out the light of the Hook Lighthouse.  They were joined momentarily by the Chief Engineer who communicated hurriedly with the Captain, parts of which were clear to the seaman and did little to provide reassurance.  The engineer had a worried look on his face and although he had tried to nurse the engine as long as possible, it now needed urgent repairs.

By 4pm they had entered the harbour but the sailors could take little solace in his.  Known as the graveyard of a thousand ships, every man aboard knew there was still a way to go, and plenty of danger still.  Almost within line of Creaden Head, where the sight of Duncannon gave a hint of the welcoming safety of the upper reaches there was a sickening crash from below, as her propeller shaft finally succumbed to the tons of pressure forced on it by the sea.  The ship slowly dropped her forward momentum and wallowed in the heaving seas.  By then they were out of sight of Dunmore East and Duncannon was still a distance.

Captain Anderson must have been cursing his luck. He was not due to be aboard at all, his regular ship was in dry dock and he agreed to take command of the steamer on a temporary basis. Now he ordered his men to set the sails, and realising the dangers they rushed to their stations, but each time they tried to fix the canvas in place the sails were ripped away by the unrelenting gale.  It was blowing from the SSW and added to their troubles darkness was coming on.  Each sailor was soaked to the skin, freezing cold and acutely aware of their predicament as the seas and wind carried them relentlessly towards the Wexford shore.

A map of the lower harbour area

In desperation Captain Anderson ordered that the anchor be dropped and simultaneously he ordered the main mast to be cut away, in the hopes of easing the pressure on the anchor chain.  Alas they were still chopping when the chain parted, necessitating the second anchor to be readied.  At this point they were nearly upon the shore.  With the second anchor away and the mast about to drop the men had a moment of hope that there battle with the elements might have ended with victory.  Whether the anchor dragged or the chain parted will never be known, but the short respite was quickly ended as the stern of the Kinsale struck the rocks and the wind and waves quickly hastened her broadside and ashore.  Captain Anderson was seen clutching the rail surveying his doomed ship, resigned to his fate.

Although it was now each man and woman for himself, they were in a practically hopeless situation.  They were aground under a steep cliff on the Wexford shoreline known locally as the “Hell Hole” at Broom Hill.  Each surging sea shook the ship to her core and washed a mountainous sea over them and the cliff face.  To stay aboard wasn’t an option, but the shore held no cover.  In desperation many jumped more in helplessness than in hope, which others tried to negotiate ropes and fallen stays in the hope of reaching the rocks and a sheltered crevice.  Many were washed away in those early minutes.  Depending on where others made it ashore they faced a sheer cliff of rock or a wet and slippery vertical grassy climb, neither option was favourable, but it was better than the sea.  Perhaps they could hope that help was on its way.

Just a sample of the weekends fun in Wexford

Although the ship had been sighted earlier, her fate was not clear to many.  A duty coastguard stationed at the lookout at Dunmore East named Daniel Sullivan had spotted the ship earlier but as the ship was then making her way upriver he didn’t notice anything amiss.  As the Kinsale went further up she was lost in the storm and the gathering gloom.  Soldiers on duty at Duncannon Fort also spotted the ship but reported no concerns for the ship below them in the harbour.  But two local men at Harrylock on the Hook realised the danger the ship was in and one, John Ronan, left on horseback to alert the Coastguard at Fethard.

Other locals also ran to the scene in an attempt to give what assistance they could, but without the necessary equipment they could do little more that act as witnesses to the unfolding tragedy below them on the rocks.  In the dark and fearsome gale, getting soaked by waves and sea spray they reached out with their bare hands and offered what rope they could find in an attempt to assist the people below. 

SS Kinsale aground in the Hell Hole. Used with kind permission of Brian Cleare

The local parish priest described it as follows: “…the poor people of the locality; men, women, and children—risked their lives to save the ill-fated crew and passengers. The men were trying to fish them with whatever bits of rope they could find in the hurry of the moment, but they were found to be useless—too short and too rotten. Men and women leaned over the awful precipice, white with the foam, and drenched with the spray of the angry waves in hope of being able to save some of the sufferers at the manifest and imminent peril of their own lives….”

Realising that their fate was in their own hands, many of the shipwrecked men started to climb the cliff face, reaching out and finding in their desperation some foot hold or crevice in the rock to cling too. Ironically, for perhaps the first time that long day, the gale now played a positive role.  For the force of it, pressed their wearied bodies to the cliff.  In the dark it was impossible to know where each man was or at what point men lost their grip, their foothold or just the energy to keep going.

Three sailors managed to reach below the top of the cliff and found help in the hands of a local woman, Mary Lannon.  She managed to get two over the edge, before being joined by a married couple; Margaret and John O’Shea.  Margaret helped to get the third man over, while John ran for rope which he tried to throw over the cliff.  This was in vain, the force of wind drove it back, and so he unhitched a gate and tied it as a weight.  The rope however, was too short to reach the bottom.  The three sailors were brought to Byrnes farmhouse nearby and several errands were run to the local shop and neighbours houses to try make the men warm and comfortable with clothing and food.

Meanwhile the coastguard arrived on the scene, they had been slowed by a lack of a suitable carriage (it had been damaged previously, reported, but no repairs were forthcoming).  Their equipment was unloaded and efforts were made, but despite this only one other man made it to safety, Angus Nicholson, the man that had come on duty just as the ship turned to Waterford harbour in the hope of safety. He had a broken arm, and had managed to find shelter in a crevice. He reached the clifftop having been hauled up while he held on to a rope ladder.

The four men were reunited in Byrnes home where they were provided with every comfort. It was not until an officer of the Arthurstown Coastguard arrived to interview them that they learned that they were the sole survivors and that it was highly unlikely that any others had made it ashore – at least alive.

In subsequent days the loss of the SS Kinsale became an international sensation.  Despite the efforts of the ordinary people on the Hook that evening, the Freemans’ Journal although acknowledging a lone female, rounded on all the others in an accusation of being wreckers – that they did little to help, being too busy plundering the ship and that for days after were drunk on the spoils of beer casks that washed in on the tide. 

FEARFUL WRECK ON THE IRISH COAST. GREAT LOSS OF LIFE. DISGRACEFUL SCENES OF PILLAGE AND INTOXICATION. GALLANT CONDUCT OF A GIRL.[

Headline from the Freeman’s Journal

A local curate Rev Doyle PP of Ramsgrange took up the pen in response and countered the claims.  But anyone thinking he was just rushing to the defence of his parishioners would have been silenced by the subsequent inquiry held under the commissioners of the Board of Trade.  Witness after witness deposed as to the exemplary conduct of the local population, and their self-sacrifice on the night of the tragedy.

Then as now however, the media had a powerful role to play.  And that initial headline in the Freeman’s Journal created a seed.  Slanderous and damning, it fostered an image of the wreckers, a damnable label oft used by the powerful to pigeonhole the coastal dwellers who looked to the sea for their bounty and thought in natural to collect what washed in, as a gift of fate.  The wreckers of the coast was used to describe many the coastal community in 19th Century Ireland including on the Wexford and Waterford coast.  But that, as they say, is another story.

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This piece this morning is based on contemporary new articles, online searches and written material including: Waterford Chronicle Wed 18th Dec 1872 pp 2-3
Power. John. A Maritime History of County Wexford. Vol 1 1859-1910. P 148-152 Cork Constitution – Wednesday 04 December 1872; page 3 Freeman’s Journal – Monday 25 November 1872; page 3 Wexford People – Saturday 07 December 1872; page 6 Dublin Weekly Nation – Saturday 28 December 1872; page 5 Cork Examiner – Wednesday November 27th 1872; page 3 Freemans Journal – Saturday December 16th 1872; page 3