A heart-rending finale. The loss of 5 Dunmore East Coastguards.

On a blustery Thursday afternoon, January 28th 1869, five Coastguard men said goodbye to their wives and children before leaving their homes in Dunmore East and traveling to Waterford city.  The purpose of the journey was to collect a new lifeboat to be used on their station on the dangerous approach to the ports of Waterford and New Ross.  Two days later, on Saturday 29th those same families rushed down to the quay at Dunmore on the arrival of the pilot boat in a vain hope of news of the coastguard men.  A local paper described the scene as a heart-rending finale to a terrible tragedy[i].  For rather than providing a new element of rescue for stricken sailors, the five men had become part of the statistics themselves in a harbour area rightly described as a graveyard of a thousand ships.

The Coastguard presence in Ireland dated from 1822 with the amalgamation of several services into a single body under the control of the Board of Customs. Their role was principally to combat smuggling, but it also provided a life-saving element to seafarers from shipwrecks and attempted to protect the ships and the cargo too. For some interesting accounts of such rescues see David Carroll’s new book on the Dunmore East RNLI; Dauntless Courage[ii].

The Dunmore East Coastguard cottages at Dock Road. Although in Dunmore from the foundation of the service, the Buildings of Ireland website states that these cottages were built circa 1870. If accurate the Coastguards and their families were most likly renting in sorrounding houses. Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Family Collection.

I’m afraid I have no background information on the origins of the new lifeboat to be used, but I am sure it was as a consequence of the many rescues performed on the station since the foundation of the service in the village.  The new boat arrived in Waterford aboard the London steamer Vesta on the Saturday previous.[iii] (Elsewhere, Coastguards worked alongside rescue services such as the RNLI which was founded in 1824. Ironically enough a lifeboat station was founded later in 1869 at Duncannon, Co Wexford, very close to where the accident occured. The RNLI would eventually come to be based at Dunmore in 1884)

The coastguard station (Circa 1820) at Dunmore East
and boathouse where the lifeboat would have been based?

A description of the lifeboat was garnered from a number of newspaper accounts.  A sharp fore and aft craft, 25-28 feet long, very beamy, painted white, four oared and elsewhere mention of a tiller for steering.  The boat was built at Cowes, Isle of Wight.

Need an image of a similar craft if anyone could assist?

The five crewmen who departed Dunmore East that day in 1869 were John Scott, Chief Boatman.  William Rogers, Carpenter.  John Baldwin, Commissioned boatman.  Edward Nash and Henry Stewart, Boatmen 

They left Waterford Quay later that afternoon with their lifeboat in tow aboard the Duncannon paddle steamer Tintern but at Arthurstown, Co Wexford the men decided to stay the night due to the weather.  The wind was then blowing from the SE and darkness was setting in.  Because of a combination of heavy rain, wind and spring tides, flooding occurred throughout the harbour that night, and in Waterford city, it was said to be the worst seen in 30 years. The lifeboat was hauled out and no doubt the crew got a warm welcome from their colleagues on the local station.

Arthurstown, Co Wexford. Where the men stayed overnight, and where another Coastguard Station was located. Photo courtesy of Liam Ryan.

On Friday morning, 29th January the weather was described as very unsettled with the wind WSW.  At 10am the five men set off aboard the open lifeboat for Dunmore.  The tides must have been bulling, it was half ebb, the tides were spring, and the rivers were swollen with fresh.  The officer in charge at Arthurstown, Matthew Shea later gave evidence that he had tried to stop the men leaving but was overruled by John Scott.

A very short snippet showing the location at Arthurstown Quay and the estuary below. Its a calm morning in the video, far from the conditions the five Coastguard men set out in. At the end of the video Creaden Head, Co Waterford can be seen in the distance.

The next time the men were seen, it was when they were mistaken by the pilot launch Seagull as shipwrecked sailors.  The lifeboat was about a half-mile off Templetown on the Wexford shore, in a very dangerous spot.  (Another account states that they were closer to Creaden Head, but although that course would make sense, it is hard to tally with some accounts of the pilots of the attempted rescue).  The Seagull set a course for the vessel, while the crew of pilots readied a tow rope.

As the waters were shallow, and the pilot cutter had only sails for propulsion extreme caution was required in getting alongside.  The Seagull drew ten feet of water, and any misjudgment could cause her to strike the bottom.  Getting as close as they dared, they hailed the coastguard men, well known to them as they were all based in Dunmore.  The coastguard men, however, refused their offer of assistance and waved them away.  Evidence was later given that they banged the side of their boat in a show of confidence in the lifeboat’s ability. 

Given the weather and the shallow draft, the Seagull had to move off.  However having only traveled a short distance, a wave struck the lifeboat and two of the crew were propelled into the sea.  The Seagull came around in a vain effort to reach the scene.  As she approached she was struck by several seas and half-filled.  At around the same time, the lifeboat overturned and the three others aboard were lost to the sea.  It was as much as the Seagull and her crew could do to get themselves back out of danger. Arriving at Passage East later, the Pilot Station communicated the news by telegraph.  On Saturday 30th John Scott’s body was found washed up on Duncannon strand by a young man named Furlong and was later interred at Killea, Dunmore East.

An image of the pilot cutter Seagull, via Richard Woodley.

The inquest into the discovery of Scott’s body was held in Duncannon on Monday 1st February.  The hearing was led by coroner Mr RB Ryan and a jury of which Captain Samuel D Bartlett was foreman. (Bartlett was captain of the PS Tintern, and owned a local hotel)  Scott’s body was identified by Matthew Shea, the acting Chief Officer at Arthurstown.  He described the morning of departure and how he had tried to prevent the crew from setting out but was overruled by Scott who pointed out that he was Chief boatman in charge with 18 years experience and “knew his business”.  Shea also clarified that the men “…appeared to him to be perfectly sober and steady at the time” Patrick Rogers of the Seagull gave evidence of the pilot’s interaction which although more cautious in its description, is close to much of the reportage of the newspapers of the event.  The jury found that Scott had used bad judgment in proceeding that morning to Dunmore East, and also for refusing the help of the pilots.  They also found that the men should have been provided with cork life vests before boarding the vessel.[iv]

It would be March before two other crew were washed ashore.  John Baldwin’s body would be found at Bunmahon, while the body of Henry Stewart was washed up at Ardmore.  From what I could glean from the account it suggests that Baldwin was brought back to Dunmore for burial while Stewart was interred at Ardmore.[v] 

Meanwhile the public were asked to make subscriptions to help the bereaved families and most of the leading business and civic leaders of the city and county lent their names to the campaign.  All had left behind families.  John Scott left a widow and daughter, William Rogers left a widow and three children, Edward Nash left a widow and two children, Henry Stewart left a widow and one child. John Baldwin had left a widow and eight children.  His unnamed wife was said to be pregnant and soon expecting a ninth child.[vi] 

Post Publication Pete Goulding sent this snippet on. John Baldwins wife was named Mary Ann, and her unborn son was later named Fredrick William Baldwin.
Waterford Mail - Wednesday 10 February 1869; page 2
An article appealing for public subscriptions to assist the widows and children on the Coastguard men. Waterford Mail – Wednesday 10 February 1869; page 2

The men of the coastguard service were very often veterans of Royal Navy service.  At this stage, the Coastguards (Which had come under the command of the Admiralty from 1856) were also acting as a naval reserve that sought to attract local fishermen and seafarers. This might account for some very familiar surnames amongst the dead. These men were surely used to the sea, to boats, and to dealing with weather extremes.  But the sea can never be taken for granted.  We can never know what was in their minds in choosing to set out that morning, but it was foolhardy indeed to reject the help of the pilot men of Seagull.  Whatever their motives, they lived only a short while to regret them, another five victims to the graveyard of a thousand ships and of countless innocent souls.

Delighted to say that I will be talking on the theme of local maritime heritage at the Ports, Past & Present
FISHGUARD PORT FEST 2021. 14 May 2021. 10 a.m – 1 p.m. Tickets free through Eventbrite

I want to thank David Carroll, Brendan Dunne, Michael Kennedy, Walter Foley, and Liam Ryan for some observations and assistance with this story. All errors and omissions are my own.

I had to blend a number of accounts into one paragraph to try to make the story coherent and as such, I struggled to reference all the various details. The story comes from the references identified and also.  Wexford Constitution – Saturday 06 February 1869; page 2&3.  Waterford Mail – Friday 29 January 1869; page 2 & Waterford News – Friday 29 January 1869; page 2


[i] Waterford Mail – Monday 01 February 1869; page 2

[ii] Carroll D.  Dauntless Courage: Celebrating the history of the RNLI lifeboats, their crews and the maritime heritage of the Dunmore East Community.  2020. DVF Print & Graphics.  Waterford. Pp21-24

[iii] Waterford Standard.  Saturday 30 January 1869; page 2.  I searched numerous newspapers for this detail, and most mention the London Steamer whilst others mention that she arrived earlier that week, or many that she arrived on Thursday 28th.  It’s just an interesting snippet that I was keen to capture, but offer with caution.

[iv] Wexford Independent – Saturday 06 February 1869; page 2

[v] The Standard and Waterford Conservative Gazette – Saturday Morning, 20 March 1869

[vi] Waterford News – Friday 19 February 1869; page 6

Review of Decies 2021 – Celebrating a rich maritime tradition in Waterford

Decies is the Journal of the Waterford Archaeological and Historical Society and is published in November each year.  This years edition, #76, is packed with the usual high quality content but for those with a maritime history interest, it’s a particularly rich edition.

The Waterford Archaeological and Historical Society organises a series of lectures from September to May and a series of outings to places of historical interest during the summer months. The Annual Subscription is €25. This fee entitles the member to admission to the lectures and outings as a copy of the annual journal.

Front cover of this years Decies, a streetscape by artist Ken Smith
Contents page of this years Journal

To be honest, because Waterford was such an important sea port and has been so heavily influenced by the sea, it could be argued that almost every article is either directly, or indirectly associated with a maritime connection.  Pat Deegan’s synopsis of the Russian Canons in the Peoples Park for example highlights the international connections between the city and the realm in the 19th Century, the man who secured the canon, John A Blake, went on to play a significant role in British parliament including the fishery portfolio.  Denny meats owed its very existence to the export and provisioning trade based in the city and is very comprehensively captured by John M Hearne.

Others of course are very directly associated with the maritime sphere.  The wonderful energy and vitality of Christina Knight O’Connor explores the Viking age around Dungarvan through an examination of placenames, while Ivan Fitzgerald gives a very comprehensive and readable account of the siting of the Metal Man at Tramore and the pillars on Newtown Head and Brownstown.  My good friend and History Press stablemate, Cian Manning gives us a review of Mary Breen’s fine work: Waterford Port and Harbour 1815-42 giving a fascinating insight into the founding or the Harbour Commissioners and the early years of development.

UC 44 at Dunmore East 1917

But I suppose my favourite article must be Conor Donegan’s 1917: U Boats on the Waterford Coast.  It’s not just that Conor is a young man, still studying and finding his way in the world.  And not just that he is a fellow harbour native, from Dunmore East.  And not that he has guest blogged for us before.  All this of course and more.  For his account runs for almost 20 pages and gives a detailed and fascinating insight into the life and times of the harbour in an era of immense conflict and terror. He showcases the intrigue and barbarity of that particular year, locates Waterford as a central factor in the story, and does a great service to his native county in doing so. 

Waterford and our maritime heritage deserve a wider understanding and appreciation and this year’s Decies certainly does that task some service.  Peigí Devlin and her team of young and enthusiastic shipmates deserve great praise.  Well done to all involved.

Copies are available for €20 online through the Book Centre in Waterford.

Back issues of Decies are available online

My appearance on RTE Seascapes

On Friday 16th April I appeared on Seascapes, the RTÉ Radio 1 maritime programme with Fergal Keane. Fergal very kindly interviewed me about my book Waterford Harbour Tides and Tales. We covered the background to my blogging and writing, discussed the importance of Waterford as a port, and finished with the story of the Portlairge. If you would like to listen back the link is below.

https://www.rte.ie/radio/radioplayer/html5/#/radio1/11298779

Back as normal on the last Friday of the month.

The Minna and the Circassian, Irish blockade runners

This month’s blog comes from the pen of my cousin James and gives a fascinating glimpse into an era of history that many will have a general idea of and the Irish involvement. However, what was a surprise to me was the scale of Irish participation in the blockade running and the many Waterford connections too.

At the onset of the American civil war the Southern states faced a major predicament, theirs was mostly an agrarian economy based primarily around cotton. The Confederacy lacked major manufacturing capacity and after losing access to the steel mills and ironworks in the North of America by necessity they turned to foreign suppliers of the material of war. Cotton became currency and European merchants started to capitalise on the southern state’s desperation and the soaring price of cotton.  Irish merchants weren’t immune to this new business opportunity and one of the best-known examples is Peter Tait of Limerick who manufactured over 50,000 uniforms for the Confederacy.

Peter Tait and other merchant adventurers faced one major obstacle; the Union blockade. The North quickly moved to close the ports of the Southern states with their superior naval forces. Initially, this blockade was fairly loose but became more complete as the war progressed. European merchants with the aid of Southern agents started to break this blockade and even constructed purpose-built blockade runners with a focus on speed and stealth.  Low, dark painted hulls with telescopic funnels to reduce silhouettes these ships were nearly impossible to spot at night as they dashed at speed through the Union blockade. This article will focus on an unusual encounter between two vessels with Irish connections both involved in the blockade of the South.

Title: Federal Vessels Driving Back the Iron-Plated Rebel Steamer Yorktown, which attempted to Run the Blockade. Creator(s): Balling, Ole Peter Hansen, 1823-1906, artist. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. USA. Public Domain Access. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/ppmsca.22590/

Sometimes the tortoise catches the hare and this was certainly the case on the morning of the 9th of December 1863 when the USS Circassian captured the blockade runner Minna. The Circassian was a hybrid vessel carrying both sails and a steam engine and nearly twice the size of the Minna a modern screw driven steamer capable of higher speed.

Image courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command. Original Creator: Painted by Erik Heyl.
https://www.history.navy.mil/our-collections/photography/numerical-list-of-images/nhhc-series/nh-series/NH-63000/NH-63870.html

The seizure of the Minna was a major blow to the Confederate states and made international news with papers as far away as England carrying the story of the “capture of the celebrated blockade runner Minna, splendid barkantine steamship of Waterford, undoubtedly one of the finest prizes of the war”[i]

The same newspaper that described the Minna in such tones of admiration also provides some insight into how the Circassian came to capture the Minna. It described the arrival of the vessel Ocean Wave into New York harbour and reported how it had lent assistance to the Steamer Minna of Waterford which had developed a leak whilst bound for the Confederate port of Wilmington[ii]

On the morning of the 9th of December, the Minna didn’t try run from the Circassian which was the usual tactic of the faster blockade runners which used speed to get themselves out of trouble.  Whether the Minna simply couldn’t run if it was leaking or whether it was taken totally by surprise is hard to tell. Another contributory factor to her quick surrender was that the Circassian mounted a 30-pound canon and Captain Upon of the Minna decided discretion was the better part of valour and ordered the Minna to stop and strike her colours.

As per standing orders, Upton ordered the Minna to be scuttled to avoid falling into enemy hands.  Anticipating such a move a boarding party from the Circassian was sent across with orders to save the vessel. The boarding party was led by a young engineer Theodore F Lewis who wrote home to his uncle to tell of his exploits. His proud uncle had the letter published in the Vermont Record explaining how Mr. Lewis and the executive officer of the Circassian “worked hard with a Colt revolver at the head of Minna’s engineer and succeeded in keeping the vessel afloat”.  The article also mentions the value of the Minna being set at $250,000 and bonus for the prize crew that seized the vessel; they were entitled to a one tenth share of the value. [iii]

A less fortunate fate awaited this blockade runner – Sullivan’s Island, S.C. Wreck of blockade-runner near the shore. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. USA. Public Domain Access. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2018666904/

Although physically very different vessels the Minna and the Circassian had a lot in common.  Firstly both were built in Britain; the Circassian on the Clyde and the Minna on the Tyne. Both vessels also shared strong Irish connections, Minna was built for the Malcomsons of Portlaw and registered in Waterford. In 1863 the Minna was sold to MG Klingender and later to CK Prioleau [iv] although she remained registered in the port of Waterford.  Klingender and Prioleau wouldn’t be your usual Waterford names and were both based in Liverpool working for a law firm called Fraser Trenholm, agents of the Confederate States of America.

The time period of the American Civil War was devastating to the Malcomson commercial empire, as the blockade of Southern ports by the Union navy tightened, their cotton factory in Portlaw started to run low on southern cotton and the Malcomsons financial fate rested on the outcome of the civil war. Additionally, William Malcomson head of the family at that time had started to diversify with varying degrees of success and was a major shareholder in the Galway Steamship company which owned several ships, one of which was the steamer Circassian.

As if a cotton shortage wasn’t bad enough, through a series of ill-advised business moves the Galway steamship company encountered heavy losses and it is estimated that William Malcomson personally lost nearly one and a half million pounds[v]. One of the other major shareholders in the Galway steamship company was John Orrell Lever, who had a shared interest in cotton manufacture and shipping. In 1861 Lever organised the sale of  the Galway Steamships companies paddle steamer Pacific to Fraser Trenholm  (a firm he also had a financial interest in) and the Circassian began its career as a blockade runner soon after. [vi] 

An 1862 Harper’s Weekly engraving of captured blockade runners: The ‘Circassian’ is in the right foreground (Naval History and Heritage Command)

The Circassian had a short career as a blockade runner, she was encountered by the USS Somerset in broad daylight under full sail and steam in May of 1862. She initially ignored calls to stop but a live round fired through the rigging from the Somersetconvinced the Circassian tosurrender[vii].  She would enter union service as the USS Circassian soon after.  

Another unusual feature of the encounter of the Circassian and the Minna was the freight being run. When the Minna was towed into Fort Monroe on the 14th of December it was reported that she carried a mixed cargo of spices, quinine, rifles, powder, vitriol, wines & liquors, agricultural tools, hardware and general merchandise[viii].  The report also mentioned the Minna carried a valuable marine engine probably destined for one of the new home made iron clad fleet adopted by the Confederacy. Part of the general cargo was a large consignment of Bibles printed in England and destined for the south.  What the desperate confederate soldiers might have thought of valuable space on a blockade runner being taken up by bibles is anyone’s guess.

The extent of involvement of Irish merchants in blockade running into the Southern states is difficult to estimate as it was a clandestine activity with union agents watching European ports for the departure of vessels bound to run the blockade. One strategy used to circumvent the blockade was transhipment. Large shipments were sent to ports such as Nassau and Havana with legal bills of lading, if these ships were intercepted mid journey by the Union navy they had committed no crime. Once landed the goods would be unloaded and ran at night into Southern Ports. 

Island Queen, owned by Curran & Co of Dungarvan was involved in the South American trade, and at one point took on a lucrative consignment of rifles and war materials which was freighted from Le Havre to the confederacy.  Having successfully out manoeuvred the blockade she was escorted to Fort Fisher near New Orleans by a Southern battleship and berthed amidst loud cheers from the quayside.[ix]

Despite the huge profits to be made, blockade running it was a risky business; the ships involved were only expected to make a handful of runs before being captured. As a consequence of this expected short life span some shipbuilders started to cut corners and the sea worthiness of some vessels was questionable. An example of this which also offers a insight into the makeup of a typical blockade running crew was the paddle steamer Hattie.  The vessel was launched on the Clyde in August 1864 and left in the depths of winter for the Atlantic crossing. The Hattie suffered storm damage and put into Waterford for repairs she left on the 15th of December and was never heard from again. After the disappearance, a crew list was published which revealed a crew of 26 of which 6 were Irish with only one American crew member; the master of the ship [x].

Peter Tait of Limerick’s blockade running activities are well established with his ships such as the Evelyn leaving Foynes to run his uniforms into the south for the confederate army.  The Circassian and the Minna were both controlled by Fraser Trenholm of Liverpool and Charleston but the purpose of their sale must have been known by their previous owners.  At the conclusion of the war complex legal arguments ensued between Great Britain and America concerning the legalities surrounding the running of the blockade and seizure of blockade runners.  One ship called the Alinehad arrived in Liverpool in June of 1865 as the war drew to a close. The American government launched a legal case to seize its cargo and some of the names mentioned in the cases prove insightful. One of the defendants listed was CK Prioleau of Fraser Trenholm a William Greer Malcomson and an Andrew Malcomson were also listed in the case[xi]. These Malcomsons were cousins of the Waterford branch of the family and were based in Liverpool.

Another vessel with a Waterford connection the PS Denbeigh, not alone called for fuel but was repaired in Malomsons Neptune ironworks. Photo sourced from https://nautarch.tamu.edu/PROJECTS/denbigh/

Legal action between Britain and America came thick and fast after the war with claim and counter claim, a look through some of the legal actions reveals some more interesting Irish connections.  Another Waterford connection is Captain John Read of Tramore, Master of the bark Science (built at Waterford by Whites Shipbuilders in 1836, originally brig rigged) which was seized by the Union on the 5th of November 1863 sailing from the south with a cargo of cotton bound for London[xii].

Legal papers also reveal that the Waterford vessel the Queen of England in July of 1861 was turned back from the Southern coast by an armed Union vessel. The Queen of England had sailed from the port of Waterford and was due to collect tobacco from Richmond for a Dublin based distributor. The owners of the vessel launched legal action after the war in an attempt to recover loss of earnings[xiii].

Another facinating Waterford link is the number of vessels that actually called to the port or the outlying villages such as Passage East where fuel for the crossing was taken on. A practice that certainly raises some interesting questions, as does the common way this event was reported. Source: Waterford Chronicle; Friday 16th September 1864; page 2

The American Civil War had far reaching economic impacts with fortunes made and lost by merchant families across the globe. Some reliant on Southern exports backed the Confederacy out of necessity whilst others hoped to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the conflict. The Irish participation in blockade running is a topic worthy of further research.

For anyone with an interest in the Irish participation in the American Civil War I would thoroughly recommend following the work of Damian Shiels who has worked tirelessly over the years to explore this topic https://irishamericancivilwar.com/

I would like to thank James for this fascinating account on a story that has opened my eyes to another area of Waterford’s rich maritime heritage which I was unaware of.  There must have many more twists and turns to be unearthed in such activities  If you have any other information to share with James he can be contacted through twitter on his very popular Irish Smuggling site @IrishSmuggling


[i] Greenock Advertiser 29/ 12/1863

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Vermont Record 01/01/1864

[iv] www.tynebuiltships.co.uk

[v] Bill Irish, Shipbuilding in Waterford.  2001.  Wordwell Books

[vi] The Galway Line in Context: A Contribution to Galway Maritime History Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society Vol. 47 (1995)

[vii] Official records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion Harrisburg, PA : National Historical Society, 1987.

[viii] Perthshire Constitutional & Journal

[ix] Irish. P40

[x] Clydebuilt , Eric J Graham Birlinn publishing 2006

[xi] The Morning Advertiser 27/07/1865

[xii] British and American Claims, British Claims No. 1 to 478 Memorials, Demurrers, Briefs, and Decisions Available at https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=wklHAQAAMAAJ&hl=en_GB&pg=GBS.PA1

[xiii] Ibid

Ardmore’s Fr O’Shea to the Rescue

A guest blog by David Carroll

In 2024, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution will be celebrating two hundred years of saving lives of sea.  The Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck was founded in London on March 4th, 1824 by Sir William Hillary. On October 5th, 1854, the name was changed to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution – the RNLI – as it is still known today and still adhering rigidly to the same noble principles since 1824.

In 1924, there were eight men alive who had received Gold Medals in the first century of the Institution for gallantry and conspicuous service in saving life from shipwreck. Of the eight, five of them were English, two Irish and one Welsh. The eight were invited to attend the Centenary Dinner and other celebrations in London, as the guests of the Institution. Seven of the eight were able to attend. The one person unable to attend, due to ill health, was Reverend Father John O’Shea, who was at time was a curate serving in the parish of Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary. Father O’Shea was from Lismore, County Waterford. He was educated at Mount Melleray Abbey, on the slopes of the Knockmealdown Mountains, near Cappoquin. His census returns in 1911 showed that he had been born in Australia.

On St. Patrick’s Day, Friday, March 17th, 1911, the wind freshened from the South East and soon it was blowing a full gale. Teaser, a schooner, registered in Montrose, Scotland of 79 tons register, owned by a Mr. John Hewitt of Connah’s Quay, Flintshire, North Wales, left Swansea on Tuesday, March 14th, 1911. She was bound for Killorglin in Dingle Bay with a cargo of coal and called in at Milford Haven which she left on Thursday, 16th, March. The Teaser had been built at Perth in Scotland in 1864.  She carried a crew of three: Master Thomas Hughes, from Connah’s Quay, a mate called Fox and an ordinary seaman Walsh.

Photo of Fr O’Shea courtesy of https://www.ardmorewaterford.com/heroes-of-the-teaser/

On Saturday morning, March 18th, Teaser got into difficulties and was unable to shorten sail and was soon driven ashore on the Black Rocks at Curragh (to the east of the village of Ardmore, Co Waterford).

The Gold Medal of the RNLI, which is a much-coveted distinction, only bestowed for deeds of exceptional valour, was awarded to the Reverend Father John M O’Shea, curate at Ardmore, who, with others, made a noble attempt to save the crew of the ill-fated Teaser. Attempts were promptly made to summon the nearest lifeboat, stationed at Helvick but owing to the storm the telephonic communication failed, and by the time the boat reached the scene all that was possible had been done by a gallant band of men at Ardmore.

As soon as the local Coastguard observed the vessel, the rocket apparatus was dispatched to the nearest spot. The coastguards, with skill, succeeded in throwing rocket lines over the wrecked vessel. The crew were, however, so exhausted by exposure and so numbed with cold that they could not make use of the lines.

Seeing that the unfortunate men were unable to help themselves, Petty Officer Richard Barry, and Alexander Neal, of the Coastguard, regardless of the danger which they ran, plunged into the icy sea, and attempted to swim to the vessel, but the heavy seas were too much for them, and they were beaten back to the shore.

The Teaser on her beam end after the tragedy. Photo courtesy of Andy Kelly.

It was then that Father O’Shea, seeing that their efforts were unavailing, remembered that there was a fisherman’s open boat nearly a mile away. He gathered a willing band of volunteers, who with him went for the boat, and by dint of great exertions, they got it to the scene of the wreck.  

Father O’Shea put on a lifebelt and called to the crowd for a crew. The men of Ardmore answered the call without hesitation, knowing that to get into an open boat in such appalling weather would have daunted the bravest man.  But these gallant men had answered many a call and this was to be no exception. Coastguards Barry and Neal, Constable Daniel Lawton of the Royal Irish Constabulary, William Harris, keeper of the Ardmore Hotel, Patrick Power, a farmer, John O’Brien, a boatman and Cornelius O’Brien, another local farmer, formed a crew.

With the crew of seven men and Father O’Shea in command, the little boat put to sea. These brave men were at very great risk – the risk on one hand of the heavy sea running and the rocks, and on the other of being dashed against the ship – but they succeeded in boarding the Teaser. Two of the crew were, however, beyond all aid, and the other man succumbed soon afterwards despite everything possible being done for him, both on board the wreck and later ashore. Father O’Shea administered the last rites to them. Whilst the men were on board the vessel, Coastguard Neal collapsed from exhaustion, and artificial respiration had to be used to restore him.

Unfortunately, the gallant and heroic efforts of the men of Ardmore failed as the crew of the Teaser died before they could get them ashore. Doctor Foley and many willing hands onshore did all that was humanly possible for the crew but without avail.

The Lifeboat, journal of the RNLI, Volume XX1, No. 241, August 1st, 1911 reported as follows:

“The efforts made on this occasion were characterised by exceptional courage, and the Committee of the Institution were satisfied that the gallant and continued attempts at rescue were due to the noble example and initiative displayed by Father O’Shea. They therefore decided to award him the Gold Medal of the Institution and a copy of the Vote of Thanks on vellum. They also granted the following awards— To Richard Barry, Petty Officer Coastguard, and to Alexander Neal, Leading Boatman Coastguard, who attempted to swim off to the vessel, and afterwards boarded her at great risk, the Silver Medal and £5 each and a copy of the Vote of Thanks on vellum. To Mr. William Harris, who boarded the vessel at great risk, a binocular glass, and a copy of the Vote of Thanks on vellum. To Constable Law, R.I.C. who also boarded the wreck at great risk, £5 and a copy of the Vote of Thanks on vellum. To Pat Power, Con O’Brien, and John O’Brien, who went out in the boat but did not board the wreck, £7- 10s. each.

When the decision of the Committee of Management was made known, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Aberdeen, very kindly consented to present the various rewards.

Arrangements were made for the men to travel to Dublin, and at Ballsbridge, where an exhibition was in progress, his Excellency, accompanied by Lady Aberdeen, made the presentation in the presence of many hundreds of people. His Excellency, who was cordially received, said they had met there that day to render honour where honour was most assuredly due. To celebrate a deed of valour and heroism was something worthy, and beneficial not only to those to whom homage was offered, but also to those who took part in such proceedings. The story of the event which had brought them there had already been narrated, but they could not too often be reminded of the splendid achievement and the noble efforts which they were there to commemorate and to acclaim. That deed furnished a noble example. But they must remember that such deeds meant more than courage and determination now. They meant that there was the quality and the attitude of the brain, and the good principles of life which were tested in time of emergency. These men were not found wanting but covered themselves with glory and distinction. Those brave rescuers had already been honoured by the King, but they who were assembled there that day were behind none in the heartiness with which they saluted them and asked them to accept the tokens offered by the RNLI as a lasting memento of the feelings of appreciation and grateful thanks for the example and the encouragement given to all those present, who would be stimulated by the admirable conduct of these men. (Applause.)

His Excellency then presented the awards, and her Excellency pinned the medals on the breasts of the recipients. The Rev. Father O’Shea, having expressed deep gratitude on behalf of himself and his companions, paid a high tribute to the men who had assisted him. Lieutenant W. G. Rigg, R.N., as representative of the Institution, cordially thanked Lord and Lady Aberdeen for their kindness, and the ceremony terminated.”

The medal presentation ceremony took place on Monday, May 29th, 1911 at the ‘Uí Breasail’ Exhibition, which was held in Ballsbridge, Dublin from May 24th to June 7th. It was attended during that time by 170,000 people. The Exhibition, with a sub-title of “The Great Health, Industrial and Agricultural Show’ was strongly supported by Lady Aberdeen. The title ‘Uí Breasail’ was taken from a poem by Gerald Griffin of the same name, meaning the ‘Isle of the Blest’. The poem speaks of a wonderful mythical island seen by St Brendan on one of his voyages.

Earlier on May 2nd, 1911, Father O’Shea and the party of Ardmore men were decorated by King George V at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace when he presented them with the Silver Medal for gallantry awarded by the Board of Trade.

The Carnegie Hero Fund Trust awarded its highest award – a Gold Watch to Father O’Shea.

On December 12th,1912, less than two years later, the steel barque Maréchal de Noailles of Nantes in France, departed from Glasgow for New Caledonia, a French Penal Island in the South Pacific, with a cargo of coal, coke, limestone, and railway materials.  It was an eventful start to the voyage, with delays and bad weather, and on January 15th, 1913, the vessel was close to Ballycotton, Co Cork, when the wind strengthened. The Master, Captain Huet, fired distress signals; eventually the ship was blown ashore three hundred yards west of Mine Head in County Waterford, not far from Ardmore.  Father O’Shea was very much to the fore in the safe rescue of the entire crew by means of Breeches Buoy from the shore. The following month, a letter of appreciation, written by Captain Huet from Morlaix in France was received in Ardmore by Father O’Shea.

At the ceremony held at Buckingham Palace on June 30th, 1924, King George V awarded the honour of the Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.)  on each of the seven men present and the absent Father O’Shea.

The King expressed his great regret that Father O’Shea was prevented by illness from being present and handed his medal to Sir Godfrey Baring, a member of the management committee of the RNLI for thirty-three years.

The citation said:

” For his example and initiative in leading very gallant attempts, by means of a small boat, to save the lives of the crew of the schooner Teaser, which was lost, with her crew of three in Ardmore Bay on the 18th, March 1911, during a whole S.E. gale with a very heavy sea.”

From Carrick-on-Suir, Father O’Shea was appointed Parish Priest of Ballyporeen, County Tipperary.  The George Cross was instituted by King George VI on September 24th, 1940 and on October 31st, 1941, Father O’Shea was requested to surrender his Empire Gallantry Medal and attend a function at Buckingham Palace on November 25th, 1941 to receive the George Cross in its place. Due to failing health, Father O’Shea could not attend.

Father O’Shea passed away on September 11th, 1942 in Clogheen, Co Tipperary, aged seventy-one.  In accordance with his will, he was laid to rest at the back of the Cross of Calvary in Ballyporeen Churchyard.  His George Cross, RNLI Gold Medal and Board of Trade Medals were left to the Cistercian Monks at Mount Melleray Abbey in County Waterford.

References:

Wilson, John      THE WRECK OF THE TEASER– A GOLD MEDAL RESCUE.                         The Life Saving Awards Research Society, Journal No. 30, June 1997.

Walsh, Donal    AN ACCOUNT OF THE LOSS OF THE ‘TEASER’ IN 1911 and THE ‘MARÉCHAL DE NOAILLES’ IN 1912 OFF THE WATERFORD COAST.                                                Decies XX1, Old Waterford Society, September 1982.

‘Introducing How a Group of Ardmore Men Became Guaranteed Heroes Overnight.’ – Ardmore Grange Heritage Group              https://www.ardmorewaterford.com/heroes-of-the-teaser/

http://www.vconline.org.uk/john-m-oshea-egm/4589402913

The Lifeboat – Journal of RNLI, Volume XX1, No 241 August 1911

The Lifeboat – Journal of RNLI, Volume XXV, No 282 November 1924

1911 Census    http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/

https://collections.mun.ca/digital/collection/mha_mercant/search

Details of the Teaser may be found in this archive. The owner is listed as John Hewitt and not Ferguson as recorded in other accounts of the shipwreck.

My thanks to David for this fascinating account of Fr O’Shea and indeed the people of Ardmore in the efforts to assist on both occasions. For a fantastic photo collection of the event take a look at the Ardmore Grange post: