THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE MUIRCHÚ

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the loss of a very important vessel in Irish maritime heritage and history, the Muirchú and page regular David Carrol has agreed to share the story of the ship and her final voyage with us.

Having been laid-up since late 1946, the Public Armed Ship Muirchú steamed from Rushbooke Dockyard near Cobh out of Cork Harbour on Wednesday, May 7th 1947, and a short time later she was given a farewell salute of twelve sirens from two naval corvettes. The officers of the corvettes lined the bridges as the Muirchú returned the last salute.

This event was not without a certain sense of irony. The recently formed Naval Service had purchased these two former Flower-class corvettes from the Royal Navy, along with a third corvette. These were named Macha, Maev, and Cliona. The famous and historic Muirchú was now deemed surplus to our naval defence requirements and was put up for sale by the Government. The Hammond Lane Foundry of Dublin bought the vessel for scrap.

Irish Press, March 18th, 1947

Daire Brunicardi in his book ‘‘The Sea Hound: The Story of a Small Irish Ship’, described the condition of the Muirchú on her final voyage:

“She was a sorry sight, her drab grey paintwork streaked with rust, dirt and rubbish around her decks from her long lay-up prior to disposal. She presented a sad contrast to those who remembered her before the war, when her sides were painted smart black, picked out with a thin white line, her black funnel gleaming, all the profusion of her brass work polished like gold.”

The final voyage from Cobh to Dublin was to be another dramatic one just like many of the ones it had encountered in a varied and adventurous career since the vessel had been first launched in 1908. The Muirchú had a crew of ten with Captain WJ Kelly of Dún Laoghaire in command. Also on board were three passengers. Two representatives from the Hammond Lane Foundry made the voyage and the other passenger, making a foreboding total of thirteen persons on board, was Brian Inglis a journalist with the Irish Times, who had been asked by his editor, the legendary RM Smyllie, to record and write about the historic last voyage.

‘SPLENDID NEW FISHERY CRUISER BUILT FOR THE DEPARTMENT’ was the headline from the Irish Independent of Monday, May 18th,1908, and the newspaper went on the describe the impressive launching ceremony, witnessed by a large crowd, on the previous Saturday morning of a twin-screw fishery research and protection cruiser built in the Dublin Dockyard and named Helga ΙΙ. Dublin Dockyard had won the contract to build the new vessel for the Fisheries Branch of the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction in open competition with famous Clyde shipbuilders. Helga ΙΙ was 155ft. in length and as the newspaper reported:

“The steamer is modelled on fine lines indicative of speed and sea-worthiness. Her laboratory is fitted up in the most modern style with every requisite for research work. The appointments, fittings, and furniture of the various rooms have been carried out in handsome style.”

The new fishery cruiser replaced an earlier vessel called ‘Helga’. Such was the interest in her design that Canada ordered two ships to be built to the same specifications by Dublin Dockyard. These were HMCS Galiano and HMCS Malaspina.

Helga ΙΙ in 1908
Image courtesy of Cormac Lowth

Helga ΙΙ remained under the control of the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction until she was commandeered by the Admiralty in March 1915. She was now described officially as His Majesty’s Yacht Helga, an armed steam yacht. At this time the ‘ΙΙ’ was dropped from her name. She served as an anti-submarine patrol vessel as well as undertaking armed escort duty in the Irish Sea.

In Ireland, Helga is infamously best known for her part played in the 1916 Easter Rising. On Wednesday, April 26th,1916, according to an extract from her log, the ship proceeded up the Liffey and stopped near the Custom House. Twenty-four rounds were directed at Liberty Hall, headquarters of the Irish Citizen Army, which had been abandoned since the beginning of the Rising. It has been reported that her 12-pound artillery guns had to stop firing as the elevation necessary to fire over the railway bridge meant that her shells were endangering the Viceregal Lodge in Phoenix Park.

Liberty Hall in the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising.
Image courtesy of Cormac Lowth.

In April 1918, the Helga was credited with sinking a submarine in the Irish Sea. While no record of the sinking could be confirmed at the time, for the remainder of her career, she carried a star on her funnel as an indicator of this event.

Later in the same year, on October 10th,1918, in the final weeks of the First World War, the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company steamship RMS Leinster was torpedoed near the Kish Bank and sunk by German submarine UB-123. Current research shows that 569 lives were lost, resulting in the greatest ever loss of life in the Irish Sea and the highest ever death toll on an Irish-owned ship. Helga was fuelling in Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire) at the time. She rescued ninety of the passengers.

Helga after being commandeered by the Admiralty in 1915
Image courtesy of Cormac Lowth.

Helga was released from the Admiralty in March 1919 and returned to fisheries work. She was later used to transport the British auxiliary troops known as Black and Tans around the coast when many of the roads in Ireland were rendered impassable by Irish forces in the War of Independence.

When the Civil War broke out in 1922, the Helga came under the control of the Irish Army authorities and acted as a supply and landing ship to the Government soldiers as they fought the Anti-Treaty forces in Munster.

Helga was handed over to the Irish Free State in August 1923 and was renamed Muirchú, an Irish name that means ‘Sea Hound’. She became one of the first ships in the newly established Coastal and Marine Service, Ireland’s first Navy. However, between February 29th and March 31st, 1924, all officers of the Coastal and Marine Service were either demobilised or transferred to the army. The first Irish Navy had lasted only ten months and twenty-seven days. Muirchú was returned to the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries to carry out her duties of fishery protection, a task that she had originally been commissioned for and had carried out.

Sadly, from 1924 to 1938, there was little interest in maritime affairs in Ireland. The sole official representative of the Irish Free State, on the seas, was the unarmed Muirchú, a situation that was not helping its task of detaining illegal fishing vessels. Permission was sought and granted from the Admiralty in 1936 to carry a gun on the ship.

In 1938 Great Britain handed back the Treaty Ports and control of Irish waters, to the Irish Free State. When the Second World War was declared, Ireland established the Marine and Coastwatching Service and on December 12th,1939 Muirchú was taken over by this Service from the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. The former Royal Navy base at Haulbowline, near Cobh, was reactivated to act as a headquarters for this Service. By 1941 the Marine Service consisted of ten craft. Six of these were motor torpedo boats (MTBs) purchased from Great Britain and another four assorted vessels, one of which was Muirchú. Daire Brunicardi described her new role:

“Muirchú, for the second time in her life, was painted the drab grey of a naval ship. The conversion work was carried out in the same yard as before, but whereas the previous time she was becoming a very small unit in the mightiest navy the world had ever seen, now she was to be flagship of what probably the world’s smallest.”

 The tasks of the Marine Service during the ‘Emergency’, as World War ΙΙ was called in Ireland, included mine laying in Cork and Waterford Harbours, regulation of merchant shipping, upkeep of navigational aids and fishery protection.

During all these years, the Muirchú was widely known in the fishing waters off counties Waterford and Wexford as she valiantly attempted to apprehend the many foreign fishing trawlers who fished illegally inside Ireland’s three-mile fishery limit.  When an illegal boat was apprehended, a court case to prosecute the skipper and confiscate the catch and gear would take place. Looking back on old local newspapers, one can read several accounts of these proceedings. The Muirchú’s master was obliged to attend. Prosecutions were not always successful as some newspaper reports recorded- the offending fishing skipper getting off on some technical issue.  It is recalled that when Breton skippers from France were being prosecuted at Waterford District Court, Major Wilfred Lloyd, Harbour Master at Dunmore East had to be engaged to act as interpreter.   All the while, with the Muirchú being tied up in Waterford or elsewhere for the court proceedings, the rest of the foreign fishing fleet would fish away with impunity.  Rather unfairly, Muirchú became a vessel that was often the butt of jokes and unkind comments made by politicians and its main nemesis was the satirical magazine ‘Dublin Opinion’, which constantly lampooned it.

Dublin Opinion Magazine 1934.

 Quidnunc writing in the Irish Times on May 12th, 1947 put the matter into some perspective:

“As a fishery protection vessel between the wars there was some justification for laughing at her, as she had not the speed to be really effective at her rather ignominious task of chasing foreign fishing pirates. But during the war, on her anti-mine patrols, she did a first-class job, at a time when the loss of a single ship’s cargo might have meant the difference between frugality and really want.”

Muirchú off the Coningbeg Lightship. A fine painting, courtesy of maritime artist Brian Cleare

Just a week short of being forty-years old, the early part of the Muirchú’s voyage from Cobh to Dublin was uneventful. It was raining but the sea was calm. The thirteen persons onboard could reflect on the remarkable fact that they were on a vessel, whose lifetime, 1908-1947, coincided with the most important period in Irish history. It had been present at the birth of a new state and was Ireland’s first fishery-patrol and research ship. Many dramatic events occurred during its lifetime and the Muirchú /Helga was there for many of them.  It had been involved in two World Wars, a Rebellion, a War of Independence, and a Civil War. To this day, Helga’s shelling of Liberty Hall is mentioned in every account of the 1916 Rising.

The Irish Times eye-witness report by Brian Inglis from May 9th, 1947 continues the story:

“It was not until shortly before dawn that the engineers found difficulty in keeping up steam and Captain Kelly discovered that ship was not answering well to the wheel. Investigation showed the forecastle was flooded. At first this was attributed to a smashed porthole.

When the combined efforts of all the pumps failed to keep the water in check it was obvious that the leak was far more serious. The bunkers were flooded and soon afterwards the forward bulkhead gave way and water poured into the stokehold.

There was no radio on board, and despite the risk, the engineers and firemen stuck to their jobs until we came within hailing distance of some trawlers fishing nearby.

The captain ran up the distress signal and as soon as it was acknowledged gave the order to abandon ship. It was then 9.30am.

By this time a heavy sea was running, and it took us all our strength to swing the lifeboat out on the davits. The Muirchú was wallowing broadside to the swell. The boat was on the weatherside and we had no steam to turn so we had to trust luck.

As we were being lowered the stem falls came away, leaving the lifeboat hanging almost vertically by the bows with eight of clinging to it.  The next wave lifted her just long enough for us to cast off, but every time we pushed away from Muirchú a wave would dash back against her hull.

The oars which we tried to fend ourselves off were old and rotten, and one was snapped in two before we scrabbed our way around the stem and round on her lee.

As we pulled away from the Muirchú we realised for the first time how far she had gone, listing heavily to starboard and down by her bows, looking as she might plunge at any moment. For a time, we feared for the safety of the five men left on board, but their dinghy was on the leeward side and they were able to lower themselves into the sea with less difficulty.

Getting on board the trawler, Ellesmere, was unexpectedly easy. They threw us a rope, pulled us alongside and hauled us bodily over the bulwarks. The dinghy crew followed.

There we were uninjured except for a few cuts and bruises, putting away mugs of scalding tea.

The Ellesmere finished her trawl and was just starting back for Milford Haven when she saw our distress flag, so less than an hour after the abandonment she cut loose our lifeboat and dinghy and started for base.

So, we did not see the Muirchú go down. Two hours was that any of the crew gave her, but I would not be certain. Ships have a queer obstinate streak in them.”

The Muirchú had foundered and sank about five kilometers SE from the Saltee Islands off the Wexford coast, a stretch of water that it would have known intimately from her days as a fishing protection and naval vessel. (See chart). The Cork Examiner of May 9th, 1947 reported that a distress call, later canceled, was made to Dunmore East Lifeboat but as Muirchú did not have a radio, this does not sound plausible. What was more important was that everyone had been safely rescued and landed in Milford Haven.

The wreck of the Muirchú lies about 5 km SE of the Saltee Islands.
Position: Latitude: 52˚04, 142’N Longitude: 06 ˚ 35, 113W

Again, there was certain irony as the Muirchú crew were rescued by the same British trawler that it had arrested off Sheep’s Head, County Cork in 1940.
Irish Times Journalist Brian Inglis, who was one of the rescued, writing under the pseudonym of Quidnunc on May 12th,1947, described the Welsh fishermen:

“The crew of the trawler Ellesmere, who picked us up, were a most genial crowd, from their captain, a good-humoured Welshman, inevitably called Jones, to equally inevitable Irishman, Gerald Flaherty, from the Aran Islands. They were much amused at their last haul; looking over at the sinking Muirchú, the Ellesmere’s engineer remarked: “To think of all the times she’s chased us, and now we are picking up her ——- crew.”

Built in Govan on the Clyde in 1903, Steam Trawler ‘Ellesmere’, H767 was registered in Hull in the same year. In 1947, it was owned by the Crescent Trawling Company and the skipper was Fred Jones of Hakin, Milford Haven, West Wales. Image: Courtesy of Tracy Collins, Milford Haven Library, and Information Centre.

The national newspapers on May 9th, 1947 also carried reports that the Wexford schooner Antelope, which was damaged by heavy seas while bound from Waterford to Dublin with 200 tons of wheat, was taken in tow to Rosslare by the Dublin schooner Invermore, confirming the severe weather conditions that prevailed on that fateful day.

The Irish Times of May 9th, 1947 reported the names of all those on the Muirchú on its final voyage:

“There was a pair of fathers and sons among the crew of ten and three passengers on board Muirchú. Captain WJ Kelly in command with his son, James Kelly, chief engineer, both of Dun Laoghaire; and W Roche, bosun, and his son, G Roche, fireman, both of Dublin. The others in the crew were: TA Knott, of Drimnagh, second engineer, HM Taylor, of Ayr, mate; C Plummer, G Lemasney and P Scannell, all able seamen from Cobh; a second fireman, P O’Toole also of Cobh. There were three passengers, Messrs. DJ Flavin, manager of Hammond Lane Metal Company, a subsidiary of Hammond Lane Foundry; J Hodgins and Brian Inglis.”

The wreck of the Muirchú lies in the vicinity of two other Irish vessels that were victims of World War ΙΙ, during late 1940. The SS Ardmore was on passage from Cork to Fishguard in South Wales on November 12th, 1940, but never reached her destination. She had a full cargo of livestock on board, mainly cattle and pigs. A total of twenty-four lives were lost. Her wreck was discovered in 1998 by a group of local divers, off the Great Saltee Island in 183 ft of water. The hull bore evidence of a massive explosion and it is believed that the ship may have hit a magnetic mine. The Irish Lights tender Isolda, while carrying Christmas supplies and relief crews to the Barrels and Coningbeg lightships, was bombed and sunk near the Saltee Islands by a German aircraft on December 19th, 1940, resulting in six deaths.

The following news item appeared in the Irish Press on Friday, January 23rd , 1948:

Result of Inquiry on Muirchú Loss
A finding of the Inquiry into loss of the SS Muirchú on May 8 while proceeding from Cork Harbour to Dublin where she was to be broken up, is that a porthole failed to withstand the impact of the sea and as a result the forecastle became flooded and the bulkhead gave way under pressure. The Muirchú was designed for specific purposes with unusually large portholes very close to the waterline. The vessel had undergone repair before sailing from Cork and had a certificate of seaworthiness. The lights and sound signals were functioning satisfactorily, and the life-saving appliance requirements were fully complied with. The Inquiry held by Capt. H Freyne, Nautical Officer of the Department, on the direction of the Minister for Industry and Commerce, did not disclose any ground for further investigation.

A porthole from the wreck of the Muirchú salvaged by Stephen J Free and presented to ‘Peg’s Bar’, Ballygarrett, near Gorey, where it is on display. Image courtesy of David Doran, ‘Peg’s Bar’.

Many songs and verses have been written about the Muirchú through the years. Much of it has been somewhat uncomplimentary, but one thing that everyone agrees upon is that it had a stubborn streak and was determined not to end her days in a scrapyard. She decided to go to a watery grave instead. James N Healy was a well-known Cork actor, writer, and theatre producer and he wrote a very long ballad about the Muirchú. The last four lines go as follows:

“The good old Muirchú, me boys,
Will never be a slave,
For off the coast of Wexford,
She found a sailor’s grave.”

Footnote: Brian Inglis, having served with the RAF during World War ΙΙ, rejoined the Irish Times and worked as a journalist in the late 1940s. He moved to London in 1953 and became a very famous journalist, prolific writer, and television presenter. He was editor of the Spectator from 1959 to 62. He died in 1993, aged 76 years.

References:
‘The Sea Hound: The Story of a Small Irish Ship’, by Daire Brunicardi, in addition to contemporaneous and other newspaper reports were the main source of information for this article. Included are the following:
Irish Independent May 18th, 1908, May 9th, 1947
Irish Times May 9th ,1947, May 12th, 1947, June 27th, 2014
Cork Examiner May 9th, 1947
Irish Press March 18th, 1947, May 9th, 1947, January 23rd, 1948
Evening Echo March 3rd, 4th, and 5th, 1975 – a series of articles entitled: ‘Birth and Growth of Irish Naval Service’, by Denis Reading.
Wexford People August 11th, 2020
Other sources:
http://www.llangibby.eclipse.co.uk/milfordtrawlers/
https://www.wrecksite.eu/ Report No. 137289
https://coastmonkey.ie/
http://www.irishships.com/helga_11_muirchu.html

Further Reading:
‘The Sea Hound: The Story of a Small Irish Ship’, by Daire Brunicardi, Collins Press, 2001.

Many thanks to Dr Pat McCarthy and Cormac Lowth for their assistance with this article.

Hook Lighthouse gets a makeover

Last month we explored the loss of the American Sailing Ship Columbus, lost on the Hook Peninsula in 1852. The ship was wrecked on the jagged rocks, thanks in no small part to the mistaken belief that the Hook Head lighthouse was actually Tuskar Lighthouse, about 30miles to the east. That error would cause the loss of the ship and 14 passengers and crew. The Master of the Columbus Captain Robert McCerren would later express his opinion that some distinguishing marks to highlight the differences between both lighthouses, which were then both white, might have averted the tragedy.

Columbus under Captain McCerren was sailing in southerly gales and thick weather and as a consequence, the Master could not get a fix on his actual location. On January 6th, 1852 he spotted a lighthouse, and thinking it was the Tuskar he sailed north expecting to find the Irish Sea opening out before him, but instead found Ballyteige Bay!

Ballyteige Bay accessed from https://www.southwexfordcoast.com/monitoring-in-ballyteige-bay/

Discussing the matter with Pete Goulding of Pete’s Irish Lighthouses renown recently, he reminded me that normally complaints were made about the lack of visibility of lighthouses at daytime.  As Pete explained, “…the lights were frequently obscured because they were sited at too high an elevation when they were often shrouded in mist or low cloud – Wicklow Head, Inishmore, Cape Clear, the Bailey at Howth – to name four – all had to be replaced lower down.”

The lighthouses of Hook and Tuskar were both painted white, but had different shapes and showed different lights, but unfortunately for Captain McCerren with the fleeting glimpse he got, perhaps it confirmed what he expected to see, not what the reality was. 

Hook at the time of the tragedy. George Victor Du Noyer sketch.

Although after the wreck the Harbour Commissioners held several meetings in Waterford to discuss the event by the Harbour Commissioners, the matter of the lighthouse error did not seem to arise.  Captain McCerren’s account of the wreck was widely circulated, however, prompting a letter from a Welsh Master Mariner, John Moore of Swansea to the local papers.  The Waterford Chronicle (Saturday 31 January 1852) published his letter in full and at the outset, he reproached any who dared blame the captain for the tragedy “…The vessel, it appears, made the land a few miles to the Northward of where it was expected, or should have done (not to be wondered at after being thirteen days without an observation); and, consequently, mistook the Hook for Tuskar.  From this circumstance, parties, as usual, seem inclined to throw the blame on the unfortunate Captain, who has been a heavy loser by the fatal occurrence.  However, those persons show their utter ignorance of nautical affairs, as it happens that sea is not their business, whether he erred or not in that particular…”

It seems that the RNLI also agreed on the matter of distinguishing the lighthouses.  In a report issued into wrecks and lifesaving operations for 1852 a very detailed account of the Columbus is given and the matter of the confusion, notwithstanding the differences in design and location that some might think apparent, is shown much sympathy.

The Institution demanded some resolution to the potential for confusion.  A distance of 30 miles between lighthouses after a transatlantic journey it reasoned was nothing.  It argued that the lighthouses should be given some distinguishing character – suggesting that the painting of either with vertical or horizontal bands of black and white or indeed any other manner that the Ballast Board could think of.  Indeed the issue had, it is claimed in the report, long been pointed out to the Ballast Board.

Pete Goulding did find another historical reference.  In the Naval Magazine and Nautical Chronicle of 1849 confusion with lighthouse identification appears to be a regular matter of concern. Mr. R Hoskyn (Richard I would imagine who later wrote the Sailing Directions for the Coast of Ireland) writes and offers an experience to add to the cause.  It concerns a West Indiaman sailing vessel which in hazy weather conditions, mistook Hook for the Tuskar and sailed into Ballyteige Bay in exactly the same manner as the Columbus.  A local fisherman received a reward of £5 for acting as a pilot and directing the vessel back to safer waters.

Source: Naval Magazine and Nautical Chronicle of 1849. Clipping courtesy of Pete Goulding

It was 1859 before the matter was finally dealt with, and in the wisdom of the Board, Hook was chosen for a makeover.  As Pete Goulding remarked to me “Took them seven years but that was pretty quick for the procrastinators supreme”

Hook Head Lighthouse with its three red bands. Image courtesy of Liam Ryan.

In autumn 1859 the following notice appeared in a wide range of newspapers both in Ireland and abroad.  (I’m posting it here if full, as I think the details are worth having. Apologies to those who like a snappy version)

BALLAST OFFICE. DUBLIN. Sept. 29, 1859.
Notice to mariners.
IRELAND—SOUTH COAST.
HOOK TOWER LIGHTHOUSE.
The Port of Dublin Corporation hereby give NOTICE, that on (or shortly before) the 1st day of December, 1859. the HOOK TOWER LIGHTHOUSE, on the East side of the entrance to WATERFORD HARBOUR, will, In order to render it a better day mark, be coloured with RED BELTS, and its top also will be coloured RED.
Specification given of position and appearance of this Tower by Mr Halpin, Superintendent of Lighthouses.
Hook Tower Lighthouse is on the outer end of Hook Point, in Lat. 52 deg. 7 min 25 sec N., and long. 6 deg. 35 min. 53 sec. W. The building. 110 feet in height from its base to top of its dome, is cylindrical from the bottom to the lower gallery on which the fog bells are set. The main shaft of the tower will be marked with three horizontal RED BELTS, each 10 feet in height and spaced 9 feet apart; and the lantern dome also will be coloured RED. The remainder of the tower will be coloured WHITE.
The painting of these three red belts will be proceeded with at the same time. The work will commenced at the South-West side of the tower, and will continued from this point around until completed, when the lantern dome will coloured.
Bells are tolled during foggy weather.
CAUTION.—The entrance to Waterford Harbour is marked on its Eastern side by the Hook Tower Lighthouse, a single conspicuous tower. Tramore Bay. the next bay to the westward, is marked by TWO TOWERS on BROWNSTOWN HEAD. its Eastern point, distant 6½ sea miles from the Hook Point; and by THREE TOWERS on Great Newtown Head, its Western point. Mariners are cautioned to avoid the dangerous indraft of the latter bay.
By Order, WILLIAM LEES, Secretary.

But even with three red bands, the Sailing Directions for the Coast of Ireland 1877 – still cautioned about mistaking the Hook for Tuskar. Hook would later lose its 3 red bands for 2 black ones and three white ones. The date that is generally agreed for this is 1933.  Sadly I can’t find any notice of this, however, (snappy readers might rejoice) but it is on the Irish Lights literature, Pete Goulding agrees, and so does my go to guy for all things historical around the Hook, Liam Ryan.

I am not why they thought the change was necessary. But since the publication of this story, I had the good fortune to be loaned a copy of the late John Young’s A Maritime and General History of Dungarvan. On page 35 John describes in terrific detail the loss of the Cirilo Amoros at Stradbally in February 1926 and he wrote that the crew of the steamer which had no sightings for several days got a glimpse of the Hook and thought it was a lighthouse on the Welsh coast.

Now it’s only a historical footnote, but relevant nonetheless to the fate of the Columbus.  What if Tuskar was never built!? Would it have helped our Captain McCerren that fateful January afternoon in 1852? You see in December 1811 the Waterford Chamber of Commerce (at that time the maritime matters of Waterford were managed jointly within this body) wrote to the Ballast Board stating that the Saltee Islands would be a better position for, the then proposed, Tuskar lighthouse.  The Ballast Board disagreed however and Tuskar was built and became operational in 1815.

If you would like to know more about lighthouse makeovers, Pete Goulding has a blog on the topic.

My thanks to the time, expertise and generosity of Pete Goulding and Liam Ryan for this blog post. I can honestly say I would not have been able to bring it together without their assistance. All errors and omissions are my own. For my regulars who want to know the last piece of this story – the blaming of the Dunmore East pilots and the fallout – a story I have researched but might hold off for a while yet before publishing.

Loss of the Stowell Brown

On This Day in 1884 the fully rigged sailing ship Stowell Brown came to grief on the sand bar above Creaden Head, one of several ships caught out in a terrific February storm almost 140 years ago. A regular and popular guest contributor to our page, David Carroll has the story.

The Irish coastline suffered severe weather during February 1884. The Waterford Standard of February 13th, 1884 described the storm on the previous day as being one of the severest that hit the Waterford area for years. The newspaper reported that high tides were experienced, and flooding was widespread. Fields at Kilbarry in Waterford City were underwater. At Tramore, the weather was equally severe, with a considerable portion of the storm wall washing away.

The newspaper also reported that a large four-masted vessel, name unknown, had gone ashore off the Wexford coast and that the steamship SS Waterford, which had passed the stricken vessel was unable to render any assistance due to the severity of the weather. On arrival at Waterford, Captain Pearn of the steamship immediately informed Lloyd’s Agent of the sailing ship’s plight. We now know that this was the Earl of Beaconsfield [which we featured before].

Earl of Beaconsfield following salvage at Buttermilk Castle close to Cheekpoint. Poole. Andy Kelly Collection

The SS Lara, belonging to the Waterford Steamship Company, caused considerable anxiety in the city as she was very much overdue on her passage from Liverpool. The vessel departed from Liverpool on the previous Friday morning and did not reach Waterford until 2 o’clock on Monday, being towed into port by the tug Dauntless. Having been at sea for about nine hours, the ship lost the power of one of its boilers and became disabled.  The Waterford Standard newspaper brought news of the overdue voyage, reporting that a hurricane was blowing at the time and a very high sea ran all day on Saturday followed by a gale on Saturday night. The newspaper went on to extol the intrepidity of Captain Walsh and his crew, reported not to have left the deck during the three days that the perilous voyage lasted.

But that was not the end of the dramatic events at sea during that storm. On the same day that the Waterford Standard was being read throughout the city and environs came news of a further maritime mishap in Waterford Harbour.  The Creadan Head coastline and the nearby notorious Duncannon Bar, a scourge to sailing vessels for many years, was to claim yet another victim; the Stowell Brown.

Stowell Brown was a wooden sailing ship of 1370 tons and over 200 feet in length, built in St Martins, New Brunswick, Canada in 1873 and was registered at St John in New Brunswick. Her master was Captain Alfred Kimble Smith. The Stowell Brown was described as a full-rigged ship. It appears that the name of the ship was in recognition of Hugh Stowell Brown, born in the Isle of Man in 1823, a Baptist Minister, renowned preacher, and social reformer. He was known for his public lectures and work among the poor in the seafaring city of Liverpool.  He died in 1886. A statue in his memory, originally erected in Liverpool, shortly after his death, was restored and re-sited in 2015 at Hope Street in the city.

Baptist preacher Hugh Stowell Brown, Wikimedia Public Domain Image

In early 1884, the Stowell Brown sailed in ballast from Liverpool and loaded a large cargo of coal in Penarth, near Cardiff bound for Rio de Janeiro.  The Waterford Standard, on Saturday, February 16th, 1885, described her ill-fated voyage as follows:

WRECK OF THE STOWELL BROWN

With regard to this vessel which sank at the mouth of the harbour on Wednesday evening, inquiries have elicited that the ship left Cardiff for Rio de Janeiro on the 5th instant, with a crew of 23 hands all told under the command of Captain Smith. After leaving the port , very severe weather was experienced. The wind blowing a very stiff gale from southwest. The ship experienced the full effects of the weather and is reported to have made about two feet of water during the passage. The crew  had great difficulty in managing the ship, the hands being greatly occupied with working the pumps. Seas of a heavy character broke over the ship at intervals and added much to the perils of the crew, who were in occasional danger of being swept away. The weather continued so boisterous and the ship laboured so heavily that the captain at length decided to run for Queenstown Harbour (now Cobh), which he expected to be able to make. On Wednesday morning, however, the Saltees lightship [1]was sighted, and it was then determined to run inside the Hook for shelter. The mouth of the harbour was reached in safety, and the vessel was anchored for some time. It was at this time that the pilot cutter bore down and, it is stated, directed the captain of the Stowell Brown to follow in its wake.  The ship did follow and shortly afterwards ran aground on the Bar. The crew stood by the vessel which did not sink for some time after. Before this happened they were all taken off by a fishing boat. Most of them lost all effects. On arriving at Waterford, their wants were attended to by Mr Edward Jacob, local agent to the Shipwrecked Mariners Society.

The Waterford Standard of Wednesday, February 20th, 1884 carried the following advertisement:

Courtesy of Mr Brian Ellis, Hon. Librarian, National Maritime Museum

At this stage, the Earl of Beaconsfield had been towed to the safety of Buttermilk Point further up Waterford Harbour from where the Stowell Brown had been lost. The two wrecks had obviously created a great deal of local interest. The Waterford Standard, in the same issue,advised its reader about an excursion from Waterford to view the wrecks would take place:

Trip Round the Wrecks: – We observe that the Waterford Steamship Company’s steamer Ida will start for a trip around the wrecks, to Creadan Head and back, to-day at eleven o’clock. The fare charged is moderate, and a good number is sure to avail themselves of the opportunity of viewing the scenes of the recent shipping disasters in the harbour.

Perhaps the busiest person in Waterford at the time was Mr Edward Jacob,[2] Lloyd’s Agent, representative of the Shipwrecked Mariners Society.   An ironmonger by trade and a member of the Society of Friends, Mr. Jacob was from one of the many well-known entrepreneurial Quaker families living in Waterford. Altruistic deeds such as taking care of distressed seafarers would have been very much in keeping with the ethos of his religious beliefs. he same newspaper reported as follows:Shipwrecked Mariners-

The sailors belong to the “Earl of Beaconsfield” and the “Stowell Brown” to the number of fifty-eight, one woman, and one child, had their wants well attended to by Mr. Edward Jacob, hon. Secretary at Waterford to the Shipwrecked Mariners Society, who had them comfortably lodged at Mrs Ryan’s, the Quay, and Mrs Delaney’s, Bailey’s New Street, during their stay in Waterford. On Friday the first batch of them was forwarded to Liverpool and on Saturday another portion of them proceeded to Glasgow. On Friday, Saturday and up to last night, when the last of them left Waterford, parties of the men were sent to Cardiff and Swansea.

A newspaper report, dated February 26th, 1884, headlined ‘CASUALTIES AT SEA’, gave the following information:

London, Monday. – The Board of Trade have requested their solicitor to take steps for holding formal investigations into the circumstances connected with the stranding of the ship Stowell Brown, of St John’s N.B., near Creadan Head, Waterford harbour on the 13th inst.; the abandonment of the ship Earl of Beaconsfield, of Glasgow, off Fethard, County Wexford, on the 13th inst.; the loss of the steamer Emily of Sunderland, on Brigg’s Reef, County Down, on Feb 11.[3]

The Board of Trade Inquiry into the stranding and loss of the Stowell Brown opened on March 7th, 1884 at St George’s Hall, Liverpool with Mr Raffles, the stipendiary magistrate, assisted by two nautical assessors, named as Captains Ward and French.  Mr Paxton appeared to conduct the inquiry on behalf of the Board of Trade, and Mr Squarey (instructed by Messrs Forshaw and Hawkins) represented the master of the vessel, Captain Alfred K Smith. Mr Allingham, clerk to the Waterford Harbour Commissioners, watched the inquiry on behalf of that body.

The following reported evidence has been extracted from the Liverpool Journal of Commerce, dated March 8th, 1884:

She left Liverpool on the 8th of January and went to Cardiff, where she loaded a cargo of 2,094 tons of coal, and sailed on the 6th of February, bound for Rio de Janeiro, with a crew of 22 hands. Some days afterwards the weather became extremely stormy, and on the 10th, whilst wearing, a heavy sea broke on deck, smashing two of the boats and doing other damage. The captain then decided to run into Queenstown, but finding the wind heading him he changed course and ran for Waterford Harbour, thinking to shelter there until the storm abated, and to proceed to Queenstown afterwards. He anchored about three miles from the bar of the harbour, with two cables down, and, according to his own evidence, whilst so at anchor a pilot boat came up and warned him not to remain there, but to slip his cables and run into the harbour. Having doubt in his own mind as to whether there would be water sufficient to enable him to cross the bar, he asked the pilot boat particularly on this point, and received an answer that there was plenty of water, and that his vessel and all on board would be lost if he remained where he was. Upon that assurance, he slipped his cables and ran for the harbour, but before properly reaching the bar itself the vessel touched the ground in the “dip” of a heavy sea, and ten minutes afterward went hard aground, where she speedily became a wreck. No lives were lost.

The master was the only witness examined yesterday, and it was intimated that his evidence as to the statement alleged to have been made by the pilot boat would be contradicted by the pilots themselves.

The inquiry concluded on Monday, March 10th, 1884 and the following is extracted from the reported judgement delivered by Mr Raffles:

The Court considered that the master, having made up his mind to go into a port, committed an error of judgement in not attempting to get into Queenstown, being within so short a distance, the wind being fair and the night clear. The anchorage at the mouth of Waterford Harbour was too exposed to be safe or proper with a gale from the southward or westward, and, unless the last resorted, the master should not have attempted it. The Court considered that the master of the pilot cutter, under the circumstances, might have been quite justified in refusing to send a pilot on board the Stowell Brown as she lay at anchor. He led her up the harbour and sent a pilot on board as soon as he could. The evidence at this point was contradictory. The Court was inclined to think that the account of what had passed when the pilot cutter hailed the ship, as told by the master of the cutter and the pilot, confirmed to some extent by the cook and steward of the ship, was more correct than the account given by the master and mate of the ship. It might be that the master did not, in the opinion of the Court, take proper measures in navigating her up the harbour. The Court decidedly thought that he was not justified in refusing the assistance of the tug. On a careful review of the whole evidence, the court concluded that the ship had not struck when the pilot boarded the vessel and, if so, the master was certainly not justified in refusing his assistance. The Court considered that the errors of the master in the navigation of his ship up to the time when he slipped his cable at the entrance of Waterford Harbour were errors of judgement only, but they pronounced him in fault in not accepting the assistance of the pilot and tug in the navigation of his vessel up the harbour, his anchors and cables being gone. Even if the vessel had taken the ground, as the master stated, before the pilot came on board or the tug offered assistance, he was wrong in refusing their offers. The Court suspended his certificate for six calendar months and acquitted the master of the pilot cutter. The master of the Stowell Brown was offered but declined a mate’s certificate during the period of suspension.[4]

That was not quite the last matter to be reported on the Stowell Brown. At the monthly meeting of the Waterford Harbour Commissioners held on April 7th, 1884, it was noted that the pilot committee had received a bill of £240 from the firm of Messrs Jute, Coulson, and Co. for blowing up the Stowell Brown.  The amount was agreed to be paid, minus a 5% discount.[5]


[1]  This lightship was better known as ‘Coningbeg’.

[2]  Mr Jacob, (1843- 1924) who lived at ‘Ardview’, Tramore, was also Honorary Secretary of Tramore Lifeboat. He had a particular interest in the hazards of Tramore Bay, and this led him to make notes and gather news cuttings connected with local shipping. An article based on his records, entitled, ‘Records of Vessels Wrecked in Tramore Bay, 1816 – ’99’’, written by Maurice J Wigham, appeared in ‘Decies’ No 12, September 1979.

[3] Belfast News-Letter, February 26th, 1884.

[4]  Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, Tuesday, March 11, 1884.

[5]  Waterford Standard, Wednesday, April 9, 1884

The Columbus Calamity. Hook Head January 1852

On Tuesday 6th January 1852 the American sailing ship Columbus went ashore to the east of Hook Lighthouse and was wrecked. Despite the efforts of those onshore 14 were lost including three female passengers. It was arguably an avoidable tragedy but as is often the case in these circumstances, the fates seemed to conspire to see the noble ship meet her doom in the graveyard of 1000 shipwrecks.

The aftermath of this incident was felt far and wide but none more so than in the locality. However this story focuses on the event as seen through the eyes of Captain Robert McCerren, Master of the Columbus. Residing in the Imperial Hotel in Waterford for some weeks after, he handled the salvage of the vessel’s cargo of cotton bales and he also provided his own analysis of why the Columbus was lost, appearing before a number of sittings of the Harbour Commissioners and writing to the press.

McCerren was operating for the American company Black Star Line out of Liverpool. In 1848 he had been given command of their new ship Columbus, having previously served as Master on their vessel America. The Columbus was advertised at that time as offering the best in accommodation and care -particularly to those escaping the Irish famine. The company ran as many as 18 ships. The vessels were described as American Packet Ships and the phrase “Queens of the Western Ocean” was coined in recognition of their speed and sailing ability.

I could not find a photo of Columbus unfortunately. But this is another ship of the Black Star line Cornelia

The Waterford Mail of Wednesday 14 January 1852 reprinted a letter written by Captain McCerren into the circumstances of the loss.

Waterford, Jan 10th 1851
Messrs Washington Jackson & Sons, LIVERPOOL.
Gentlemen— lt is my painful duty to inform you of the loss of the ship Columbus under my command, 28 days from New Orleans, to your address ; in consequence of heavy gales from South, and thick weather, I was unable to get an observation after passing long. 13.50 W. and 49.20 N., on the 6th whilst running for Tusker.

At 5 p.m. I made the Hook lighthouse, and from being unable to see the land it had the appearance of Tusker. At half-past 5 saw the light and found that we were embayed. I then hauled to Southward, but could not weather Saltee’s light ship. I then wore and stood to westward and weathered the Hook light, thus having the harbour of Waterford fairly open, stood across the bay to Dunmore, discharging rockets every three minutes for a Pilot, and was seen by many persons from the pier of Dunmore, this being the proper pilot station.

Finding no pilot I was obliged to wear and stand off, and in endeavouring to weather the Hook light was forced by heavy rollers on the rocks ; during the time it was blowing a gale and heavy sea, driving on the iron bound coast I cut away the anchor before striking, to keep the ship’s head to sea. When the ship struck at 9. p.m. 1 was so near that I hailed the people shore, and was answered.

I despatched a boat in hopes of getting a line shore, but she was capsized, and the mate and two men saved and one drowned. In attempting to lower the life boat she was dashed to pieces against the ship. I then cut away the mast, and the ship held together until 5, a.m. when the bottom and top separated soon after broke amidships carrying away the stern frame, and with Edward Simmons, third mate, and two men, who were lost.

The Imperial Hotel, where the current Tower Hotel stands in Waterford. Photo via Simon Dowling from  “Beauty spots in the south east of Ireland ” 1901. Posted to the Waterford History Group Facebook page.

We then secured the ladies to a portion of the wreck. About this time ten persons were near me, the second mate assisting me in holding the ladies—the last piece fell over on us, and but four persons and myself were washed onto the rocks. Of the crew eight seamen, names unknown, Edmond Simmons, of New York, third mate, are lost, passengers, four in number, all lost—names are, Mrs. Falcon, Workington, Miss Clementina Burke, from the Island of Ascension, her way to Portsmouth, two steerage passengers, names unknown.

I feel it my duty to state, that, though no assistance was rendered from the shore, for want of means, to project a line or life boat, by which all could have been saved, as the ship held together for eight hours, every was made at the risk of life, by the people on shore, assisting all who reached the rocks, and immediately carried them to the houses, and bestowed every care and attention that could he given. I must mention, particularly, Mr. Harwood, of the coast guard, Doctor Hamilton, of H. M. Cutter, the Sparrow, Mr. Breen and Mr. Carroll, keeper of the light, and his assistant. More active benevolence could not have been exercised—the warmth of feeling and hospitality will ever he remembered by me.
Yours respectfully,
Robert McCerren
P.S. —To add to the distress of all on board the moon became totally eclipsed at the moment of breaking up.

McCerren also wrote a letter to the Editor of the Waterford Mail:

Sir —Permit me, through the medium of your paper, the privilege returning thanks the Rev. Peter Dunn. of Templetown, for his untiring exertions, in his clerical capacity, in restoring lost property, preventing plunder from the wreck of the ill-fated vessel commanded by me.
With much pleasure I publicly mention an extraordinary act honesty the part of James Breen, of Herrylock, a poor boy, who picked up, unperceived, a small bag of American gold, which he returned to me in the presence of his pastor, the Rev. Mr. Dunn.
By the insertion of the above, you will do an act of justice, and oblige
Your obedient servant.
Robert McCerren,
Master of the late US. ship Columbus.
Commercial Hotel Buildings,
January 13, 1552.

The Mail added this paragraph to the Captains letter:

“The following is, we understand, a list of the persons lost the Columbus: 3 ladies, passengers, 2 Irish sailors; 2 Dutch sailors; 2 Scotch sailors; 3 American sailors; 1 English sailor, and two steerage passengers (male and female)”[AD This was an error in the report as far as I can find out, one of the lady passengers mentioned above, from Waterford, elsewhere named only as Mary was in steerage, as was her nephew who she had travelled to America to bring home] “one of whom was on his passage home from California to the neighbourhood of Waterford.”

Aftermath

There’s a lot in this story to digest. You can’t help wonder is this a case of what is described as getting your own version out into public before other accounts emerge. McCerrens original miscalculation with the lighthouses seems to have cost him his job, however. In 1853 he was on the Defiance [A rather appropriate name given his personality?!] where he was involved in an altercation with the Peruvian Navy while collecting a cargo of Guano from the Chincha Islands.

In subsequent weeks the events associated with the wreck were foremost in many people’s minds and the results were far-reaching. The conduct of the pilots was a matter of investigation by the Harbour Board with a war of words in local papers too. But the reality was that having sailed into harbour near low water on a spring tide, there was little the pilots could do for a sailing ship of this size, and this would be bourn out – despite the fact that the pilots were generally the whipping boys of both the Board and the press in that era. The matter of the confusion between Hook and Tuskar would also be considered but would take several more years to resolve. The reaction and the impact are something I will return to at a later stage to explore.

Bestic and the bombing of ILV Isolda

In a follow up to an earlier article on the life and times of Irish Master Mariner Albert Bestic, author David Carroll affords a second installment of Bestic’s career -the tragic sinking of the Irish Lights Vessel Isolda on 19th December 1940. Take it away David:

Earlier this year I wrote about Captain Albert Bestic and his survival from the sinking of RMS Lusitania in 1915. Twenty-five years later, he was again involved in another tragic sinking of a vessel. This time it was off the Saltee Islands, while he was Master of the Irish Lights Vessel ‘Isolda’.  My father considered Captain Bestic a heroic figure and held him in the highest esteem. My interest in his story, therefore, was sparked at an early age.

Albert Bestic aboard the ILV Alexandra in 1922. Source Kicking Canvas – Evans Publishers

“The seas off the south-east and south coast of Ireland remained the location for German attacks through the winter of 1940.”

‘Guarding Neutral Ireland.’ [1]

The south-east of Ireland had certainly seen the viciousness of the war throughout 1940.  On August 26th, the peace of the small village of Campile in County Wexford had been shattered, when a lone German bomber appeared without warning and dropped four bombs on the creamery of Shelburne Co-op, which employed approximately 150 people. Sadly, three young women lost their lives.  Guarding Neutral Ireland records that on July 28th, the SS Rockabill, the Clyde Shipping vessel that was much regarded in the Waterford area, was attacked by an aircraft off the Saltee Islands. Because it was outside Irish territorial water, the British registered vessel was able to open fire with her own anti-aircraft gun.  The bombs missed and the Rockabill made it safely into Waterford. The German aircraft continued to circle the area and then attacked the Belfast registered SS Carnalea, a collier, outward-bound from Waterford but without success.

The SS Ardmore was not so lucky. She was on passage from Cork to Fishguard in South Wales on November 12th, 1940, but never reached her destination. She had a full cargo of livestock on board, mainly cattle and pigs. A total of twenty-four lives were lost. When her wreck was finally discovered in 1998, it was found that the hull bore evidence of a massive explosion and it is believed that the ship may have hit a magnetic mine.

In addition, off Co Cork coast, the Irish-registered SS Kerry Head was attacked off Kinsale while on a voyage from Swansea to Limerick on August 1st. The Kerry Head escaped damage in this attack but was not so lucky on October 22nd. Coast Watchers on Sheep’s Head, Co Cork could only look on with horror as a German aircraft dived low over the ship. An immediate explosion was followed by a big cloud of black smoke. The plane was not seen again. The ship sank in a few minutes. There were no survivors from the crew of twelve.

The Weekly Irish Times of December 28th, 1940 carried the following report:

GERMAN CLAIM TO HAVE SUNK SHIP OFF WEXFORD

On December 20 The German High Command communiqué stated: – The German Air Force yesterday carried our armed reconnaissance flights over Great Britain. In St. George’s Channel south of Carnsore Point, (Wexford, Eire), a ship of 1,200 gross registered tons received a direct hit and sank’’.

The report was accurate.  The ship was the Irish Lights tender SS Isolda, which on the morning of December 19th 1940, left Rosslare Harbour at 08.50hrs, with a crew of twenty-eight and seven relief men for the Barrels and Coningbeg lightships to provide them with crews and Christmas provisions. After placing the first crew at the Barrels lightship, Isolda then headed towards the Coningbeg lightship. But she didn’t make it very far, as three miles out, Isolda was attacked from the air by a German Condor aircraft and sank with a loss of six men.

Kenneth King’s iconic painting of the bombing of the Isolda. Image courtesy of Cormac Lowth.

Irish Lights, operating the lighthouse service, was considered neutral during World War ΙΙ and Isolda had ‘Lighthouse Service’ clearly painted in large letters on both sides of the hull. Royal Irish Academy historian, Dr Michael Kennedy has stated that the Isolda was carrying buoys, which viewed from the air may have been mistaken for mines. [At a recent online lecture Elleesa Rushby (granddaughter of William Rushby) discussed several theories, and seemed to lean more towards the fact that Isolda, registered in the UK was flying the blue ensignit is now published online by the National Maritime Museum and is highly recommended viewing]

In command of the Isolda was Captain Albert Bestic, the same person who was Junior Third Officer on RMS Lusitania, torpedoed off the Old Head of Kinsale on May 7th, 1915.  Captain Bestic had entered the service of the Commissioners of Irish Lights on November 24th, 1922, and was appointed 2nd Officer of the SS Alexandra.  September 1934 saw him being appointed 1st Officer of the SS Ierne and in 1939, he became 1st Officer of the SS Alexandra.[2] These lighthouse tenders maintained, supported, and provided supplies to the lighthouses and lights vessels around the Irish coasts and facilitated crew changes.

In 1935, Captain Bestic was granted three months leave from Irish Lights to accompany the salvage ship Ophir as it attempted to find the wreck on the Lusitania. Also, aboard was another survivor of the disaster, Mr Robert Chisholm, formerly second steward of the Lusitania. A newspaper report stated that Captain Bestic was familiar with every passage and deck on the lost liner and knew exactly where on the Lusitania to find the thirty-two-ton safe where passengers deposited their valuables and money on the ship’s last voyage and his knowledge would save divers much time in searching the wreck.[3]

A large crowd had witnessed the Isolda being launched from the Dublin Dockyard on January 26th, 1928. Amongst those in attendance was Captain Bestic, who recalled in a newspaper article in the Irish Independent on June 26th, 1946:

“I saw the Isolda, gay with coloured bunting, launched at Dublin in 1928. Little did I think then that, thirteen unlucky years later, I would be jumping into the water from her deck as, crippled and burning, she disappeared into the insatiable maw of the sea. Never will I forget those appalling ten minutes before she went to her doom— those annihilating explosions, the deafening roar of the plane as it zoomed overhead almost as low as the mast trucks, a veritable zoom of death.”

ILV Isolda, built at Dublin Dockyard and launched January 26th, 1928. She was 198ft in length and 734 tons. Image courtesy of Irish Lights.

Captain Bestic, who was a prolific contributor of articles of maritime interest to Irish newspapers and periodicals, continued to give a personal and graphic description of the sinking:

It was the 19th, December 1940. The weather was perfect. The sun sparkled on a blue and undulating sea and everybody on board was in good spirits for to all appearances we would be back in Dún Laoghaire for Christmas. Ahead of us we could see the Coningbeg lightship, whose leave party awaited our arrival to take them ashore. On our starboard beam less than three miles distant, lay the Saltee Islands, off Co Wexford.

Coningbeg’, the lightship that Isolda never reached on December 19th, 1940.

The Coningbeg lightship was established in 1824. It marked the rocks of the same name off Wexford’s Saltee Islands. Despite several efforts, Coningbeg confounded attempts to build a permanent structure there. It was replaced by a “superbuoy” with a 14km radius light and several smaller navigational aids in 2007. It was one of the last of an original fleet of eleven lightship stations moored around the coast.

Photo: Courtesy of Brian Cleare

About 11, as I was sitting in my cabin, a messenger from the bridge suddenly appeared at my doorway; “There’s a ‘plane in sight, Sir,” He said.

‘Planes, those days, should they have any hostile intentions, did not leave much time for deliberation. Although, I did not anticipate any attack, as we were in neutral waters, I snatched up my cap and hurried on to the bridge.

The ‘plane, about a quarter of a mile distant, was cruising in the same direction as ourselves on our starboard beam, and not more than fifty feet above the surface. Apparently, he was taking stock of us to see if we were armed. Having satisfied himself to the contrary, he prepared to attack.

Accelerating, he encircled our bows until he was on the port beam with the sun directly behind him— and then came straight for us. His intentions were now unmistakable.

Take cover!” I yelled and with one accord, the Chief and Second Officer, the lookout and myself dived into the concrete bullet-proof shelter, better known as the “funkhole” which had been erected on the bridge in case of emergency. This house also protected the helmsman.

Like some diabolical bird that had escaped from an evil world, the ‘plane roared over the bridge and above the noise, I heard two hard thuds. “He’s hit something up aloft” I shouted to my companions. He had made a hit all right, but not in the place I thought, for the thuds were bombs and about five seconds later their explosion seemed to lift the ship about half a foot out of the water.

I stepped out on to the bridge to survey the damage. To my consternation, I saw that the ‘plane had turned and was racing towards us for a second attack. Once again, the dreadful roar as he passed over our heads—to be followed by the ominous thuds as the bombs hit us. I held my breath. Crash!

The ship jumped like some wounded animal, and almost immediately developed a list to starboard. The list, together with the roar of escaping steam from the engine-room as well as volumes of smoke, told me the worst—the ship was finished.

Realising that nothing could be done to save her, I passed the order to abandon ship. The men sprang to the falls and were lowering the boats when that portentous roar I had grown to dread increased again. The ‘plane was coming back.

Once again, a repetition of the fearful ordeal. The order to” take cover,” the darting into the “funk hole”, the same significant “thud, thud”, another nerve-wracking upheaval – death, destruction— and a heavier list.

The survivors, realising that the ship was making water fast, sprang to the boats, lowered them away, and tumbled in. Our troubles were not over yet over. Even as my companions and I prepared to follow, I saw that the ‘plane was sweeping round to bomb us from a stem to stern angle.

Diving for our “funk hole” was becoming quite a routine and once more we sought the shelter of this well-tested refuge. The bombardment which followed seemed to me to be more devastating than any of the previous ones, as the bombs hit us just in front and just behind the bridge. The subsequent explosion was terrific. The bridge seemed to bound furiously up and down and then subside piteously.

Blinded by smoke and fumes, we instinctively staggered aft— to emerge suddenly into clearer atmosphere. To us it breathed a hope of life anew. We could see our boats standing some distance off, but we knew that nobody in them could hope that anybody on the bridge had survived the last fearful bombing.

Time was precious. The ship, fast settling down in the water, felt as though she might take her last plunge at any moment, and were a boat recalled, it might become engulfed in the vortex. Under the circumstances, we decided to get the remaining boat away ourselves but alas, it filled directly as it reached the water.

A boat awash, however, is better than none and we tumbled in—only to find her sinking. To add to our predicament, the funnel, owing to the vessel’s list hung precariously over our heads.

Keen eyes in the motorboat, however, had spotted us despite the smoke and steam. Quickly she sped towards us, and, with her coming, we abandoned our hazardous craft and swam towards her. Within minutes, willing hands had hauled us aboard.

Then came the roll call. Six had been killed outright, while six*, who had been wounded, were with us in the boats. Realising that nothing further could be done we sadly made for Kilmore, our nearest landing place, and, in a couple of hours were receiving that wonderful hospitality which is always accorded to the shipwrecked sailor.

Observers in the lookout post, LOP 14 at Carnsore Point, and crewmen on the Limerick steamer Lanahrone, only eight miles away, witnessed the massacre.  RNLI records show that both the Kilmore Quay and Rosslare lifeboats were launched.

At 10.45hrs, the Kilmore Quay lifeboat was launched after information was received by the coxswain Jack Walsh that a ship was on fire southeast of the Saltee Islands. The coxswain had heard the bombs exploding and saw an aeroplane over the Saltees, but the disaster was behind the small island and not visible from Kilmore. In the meantime, the survivors of the Isolda were heading to Kilmore Quay on a course that would take them west of the Saltees, thus missing the lifeboat.[4]

The lifeboat crew continued and found wreckage in the area but no sign of life. On learning that the survivors had made their way to Kilmore Quay, they returned to the station.

The six crew members of the Isolda who were killed were all from Dún Laoghaire.  There were very harrowing scenes at the railway station in Dún Laoghaire as families and loved ones waited for the survivors to return from Wexford by train. The men lost were; William Holland, Patrick Shortt, Jimmy Hayden, William Rushby, Paddy Dunne and Patrick Farrell.

The Coningbeg was serviced for the remainder of the war by William Bates of Kilmore Quay who provided crew exchanges and supplies in his fishing boat Saint Joseph. James Bates provided the same function to the Barrels with his boat the Pride of Helvic.[5] For more information on the rescue and immediate aftermath at Kilmore Quay consult John Powers “A Maritime History of County Wexford Vol II” pp326-330

Later, while serving as 1st Officer on the Irish Lights vessel SS Alexandra, Captain Bestic was seconded to Royal Naval Reserve as Lieutenant from April 28th, 1942 – January 1st, 1945, when he re-joined Alexandra as 1st Officer. He retired in 1949. This remarkable and distinguished mariner died in Bray on December 20th, 1962. [6]

Sam Williams was the last surviving member of the crew of the Isolda. He was only 18 years of age when the vessel was sunk. He died on August 26th,2014 and had been coming to the annual commemorative service in Kilmore Quay, every year up until 2013, to lay a wreath for his six lost comrades.

Kicking Canvas was a memoir of Bestic’s first trip to sea on the SV Denbeigh Castle. It’s still available to buy online, and I can highly recommend it.

REFERENCES:

  1. Guarding Neutral Ireland, Dr Michael Kennedy, RIA, Four Courts Press 2008.
  2. Information on Captain Bestic kindly made available by Irish Lights.
  3. The Irish Times, Tuesday, July 9th, 1935
  4. ‘When tragedy struck twice off the Saltees’, by Elaine Pepper, Wexford People, August 11th, 2020.
  5. Details provided by email correspondance with Dick Bates
  6. Bray People, April 29th, 1999, ‘Looking Back’ by James Scannell.

*All articles, read by this writer, relating to the loss of the Isolda give seven as the number of crew members that were injured. Captain Bestic in the 1946 newspaper article gives the number as six.

A fitting tribute and short video, narrated by Dr Kennedy, commissioned in December 2020 by the Commissioners of Irish Lights to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the loss of the Isolda, may be accessed on this link:

I would like to thank Niamh Collins, Archivist at the Commissioners of Irish Lights, Maritime Historian Cormac Lowth and Marine Painter Brian Cleare for their assistance with this article.