Hell Hole Horror – wreck of the SS Kinsale

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

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

SS Kinsale. Used with kind permission of Brian Cleare

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

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

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

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

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

A map of the lower harbour area

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

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

Just a sample of the weekends fun in Wexford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Headline from the Freeman’s Journal

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

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

Several people have suggested over a long period of time that some of my blog readers would like to support my research costs. I don’t know that it’s feasible but I put together a short survey, totally anonymous, which I’d love you to consider completing.  The system I’m researching is an online platform called Patreon, which allows patrons to make a monthly donation to an artist, writer, etc that they enjoy. A patrons donation can be discontinued at any point, the amount reduced or increased. The survey is to help me decide if its worth researching the option and can be accessed via the link below

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/TKG9H79h

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

7 Replies to “Hell Hole Horror – wreck of the SS Kinsale”

  1. Sad story and one that is going to be troubling me for a while – the truth is lost there somewhere and we will undoubtedly never know what happened on that fateful night.

    1. I’ve tried to piece it together from mostly newspapers which can be misleading, confusing and sometimes just wrong. The “officials” side of the account seems off to me. But there were many claims and counter claims, and perhaps if I had the board of trade report I could gleam more. These stories generally stick with me too, once written, or even drafted, they become a goal to try to more fully understand. I have 9k words gathered on this alone and even after a month I’ve still got dozens of questions. I’ll probably never fully answer them all

      1. As you say Andrew the official line is suspicious.
        The is definitely a backstory here of apportioned blame, money and God knows what else. Alas the lack of a time machine doesn’t help.

    1. Thanks Redmond, I found it desperately sad to research, and maddening to hear how locals who went to help were covered by several newspapers. The sailors fate makes me appreciate modern communications all the more.

    1. Hi Dermot, named after Kinsale head and lighthouse, a tradition with Clyde Shipping, to choose names associated with lighthouses, headlands or lightship. I double checked this with Brian Cleare today just to be sure

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *