Reimagining Henry II’s route to Waterford Oct 1171

After a busy month of activities, I was relieved when Damien McLellan offered a guest blog arising from last week’s two-day event exploring the arrival of Henry II at Passage East in 1171 – 850 years ago this year. Damien, like so many others who attended, was buzzing with questions and speculation, and his enthusiasm led to today’s blog entry. I think you will enjoy the virtual journey. Over to Damien.

We know for a fact that King Henry 11 of England arrived in Waterford Harbour on October 17th, 1171, and that on the following day, October 18th, 1171, together with a huge army of knights and soldiers, he journeyed to Waterford City to conclude what we now know as the Norman Invasion.

Last week, on Saturday, October 23rd, Barony of Gaultier Historical Society organised a fully booked public event in Passage East to mark this internationally significant event. An absorbed audience (Covid compliant, of course) heard from a distinguished panel of experts fascinating opinions, figures and facts about those two extraordinary days and subsequent events. The next morning, Sunday October 24th, about 30 of us walked from Passage East to Waterford City on the route believed to have been taken by King Henry and his army. We were welcomed at the Bishop’s Palace by Cllr. Joe Kelly current Mayor of the City and County of Waterford.

Michael Farrell, Chair of the Barony of Gaultier Historical Society leads off the walk

What struck me was the lack of consensus among experts and locals about exactly where the landing took place and about the route taken to the city. I have for long been nurturing my own theories about both issues and I am grateful to Andrew Doherty for giving me the space here to share them and for his skill in assembling the maps and photographs needed to support them.

If as many as 400 ships were needed to carry the men, horses and considerable supplies, a substantial safe landing area was required. I understand that ships of the time arriving in Waterford Harbour, there being no ports then, would not be able to land on a safe beach until close to Crooke on Passage Strand.

The strand leading downriver from Passage East towards Crooke and Woodstown

It makes sense to assume that the forward party would have signal fires ready to light at the first sight of the fleet to guide them onto the safe landing area. Each ship would have to run up on the strand on the incoming tide until all 400, propped and secured, stretched along the strand from Crooke to Passage East, nearly a mile of ships. So, where did Henry 11 himself land, Crooke or Passage or in-between?  The answer must be where his ship landed in what could have been a melee of ships manoeuvring for position and avoiding collisions.

The landing in 1066 of William the Conqueror’s army at Pevensey in Sussex. Except for the dramatic sea, and if ships had not significantly evolved over the intervening years, this may have been something like the scene on Passage Strand on October 18th, 1171. Painting by Charles Edward Dixon (1910) sourced from https://mercedesrochelle.com/wordpress/?p=390
Although this is an image of preparation for departure to the Battle of Hastings, I find it useful in terms of the organisation, and I think it may help get our minds around the estimated 400 ships at Passage and Crooke and the spectacle it would have made. (Andrew) Accessed from https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/

Standing and looking round today on the breakwater at Passage East it is obvious that here must have been the mustering area, because of the space available. Here the vast army may have camped for the night, with guards strung all down the strand towards Crooke to watch over the ships. It is fun to speculate that where the present children’s playground is, perhaps the king’s royal tent was pitched and where reputedly the most powerful man in the world at that time had his first night’s sleep in Ireland.

Patrick C Power (1990) also wondered whether “The people of Waterford and especially the merchants may have heard of how a great war-king travelled and equipped his army and retainers and here in front of their very eyes was a great display of power and wealth on the road from Passage to the city of Waterford the like of which they had never seen” (p.20). But which road from Passage?   

Last Sunday we walked up to the church at Crooke to take a right turn at the school and the traditional route to Waterford. My walking companion, Michael Fewer, and I, impatient to be walking, had gone ahead and somehow missed Strongbow’s Bridge (but not Jack Meade’s!). I enjoyed the walk, but all the time sensed (and possibly nagged Michael) that it was not the historic route.

I now believe that it goes up the street known as The Brookside (in the centre of Passage East), becomes the Wet Hill after St Anne’s Well, reaching the present main road opposite Brook Villa, now an abandoned farm. Then into the city via Cowsheen Bridge, Strongbow’s Bridge (avoiding the marshy area) and on to Halfway House.

The Brookside, Passage East. Is this street part of the footprint of the route?
The Wet Hill, and the Well (St Anne’s Well) beyond which the path is overgrown
Brooke Villa (aka Murray’s Farm)

The path today is impenetrable after the Well. But I also started down from the top and found what I fancied was a drove road, very familiar to me from Galicia, and seemingly marked as a wide road on the 1925 OS Edition.

The Drove Road?

Michael Fewer had wondered aloud on the walk how all the produce and livestock that came across the river from Wexford in medieval times got to Waterford. Perhaps up this lost road?

This week I talked to a local man, born in Passage, who remembered from his childhood the farmers who lived in Brook Villa, known as Murray’s Farm, using a horse and cart on this same road to collect coal from the Quay in Passage. Incidentally, he also said it was a family tradition that King Henry 11 had taken this road to Waterford. And I understand that the late Cllr John Carey had a passionate interest in having the Wet Hill reopened and restored to how he remembered it as a boy.

A map of the area from the OSI historic series (Historic 25″) shows a very clear roadway leading up from the village, through the valley between Passage Hill and Carraickcannuigh (large arrow points to this. It turns rights at Murray’s and then veers left towards Knockroe from where there is almost a straight run to Strongbow’s Bridge. For a clearer image and to view the entire roadway click into https://webapps.geohive.ie/mapviewer/index.html

Therefore, it does seem logical to me that as this road was in plain sight of where the army was mustered and if it was as negotiable then as it was in living memory, why would King Henry, and before him Strongbow, not use it?

If I can impose on Andrew’s space a little longer, I would like to address the popular belief that the origin of the phrase ‘By hook or by crooke’ is attributable to Oliver Cromwell (it came up at the panel discussion). According to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1990) it comes from the medieval manorial custom “which authorised tenants to take as much firewood as could be reached down by a shepherd’s crook and cut down with a bill-hook”. He offers a line from Edmund Spenser’ s The Fairie Queen, which was published in 1590, 9 years before Cromwell was born: “In hope her to attain by hooke or crooke”.

Finally, I offer these thoughts on the landing and journey to Waterford of Henry 11 in the hope that they might inspire others much more learned than me in these matters to continue this research and perhaps result in informative plaques being erected at some of the key sites mentioned.

Ivor H Evans (Ed) (1990) Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable London: Cassell

Patrick C Power (1990) History of Waterford City and County Cork & Dublin: The Mercier Press

A new book will be launched in the coming weeks celebrating some of the historical aspects of the Barony of Gaultier. For more information and to reserve a copy you can email thegaultierstory@gmail.com

I want to thank Damien for his thoughts on this. I have written my own theory on it previously. What struck me about last weekends successful gathering was the interest, the searching questions and the many remaining areas we have yet to fill in about the arrival of Henry II and the changes it meant for the locality as well as the country. Why Passage? Did any of the vessels sail to Waterford city? Is there any substance to a story I shared before of a chain based defence of the city? What kind of ships were used? (My own reading suggests that the design of horse transport had moved on and the Tarida were being employed carrying up to 30 horses). And so many more. Hopefully last weekend was only the start of what might be a regular event. The Barony of Gaultier Historical Society deserves great recognition for their efforts in these challenging times of Covid and the financial pinch this creates for voluntary committees such as our own.

Captain Albert Bestic remembered – surviving Lusitania

I would like to thank David Carroll for this guest post on Captain Albert Bestic who served aboard the RMS Lusitania which was torpedoed on this day, May 7th 1915. Third Officer Bestic was one of those that survived. Over now to David for his account.

Growing up in Dunmore East during the 1950s and 60s, I was constantly regaled by my father, a Master Mariner, of stories of shipwrecks, great exploits and heroic deeds by seafarers and explorers.   Names that were always to the forefront and that were given tremendous respect were Sir Robert Falcon Scott, and Irish Antarctic explorers Sir Ernest Shackleton and Tom Crean, a member of three expeditions to Antarctica.  It is sad to think and an indictment of the lack of respect shown to Ireland’s maritime heritage that it is only in recent years that the latter two and other Irish explorers have received the proper recognition and celebration that they deserve in their native land.

Another name that kept cropping up during my childhood was Captain Albert Bestic, who was Junior Third Officer on RMS Lusitania, torpedoed off the Old Head of Kinsale on May 7th, 1915.  My father had served with Irish Lights for a short period before World War Two and would have known Captain Bestic on a personal basis.  I can still remember the excitement that followed when my father received a copy of Captain Bestic’s book, Kicking Canvas’, an autographical account of his maiden voyage as an apprentice aboard a sailing ship called the Denbigh Castle in 1908.  The Denbigh Castle sailed from Cardiff and its destination was Peru. The ship had a treacherous crossing and endured many storms. The ship was feared lost until it finally sailed into Freemantle, Australia and then proceeded to its destination of Peru, a voyage that had taken over a year to complete. This traumatic voyage did not deter Bestic and he continued to work his way up the nautical career ladder to become a professional deck officer in the Mercantile Marine.

Albert Arthur Bestic was born on August 26th, 1890 and grew up in South Dublin. Bestic is not a name of Irish origin, his family descended originally from Huguenots in the Normandy region of France. He was the second child of Arthur and Sarah Stephenson. He had an older sister Olive who was born in 1888. He was educated at the Portsmouth Grammar School and St. Andrew’s College in Dublin.

Captain Bestic as a young Officer.

As a boy on holidays in Scotland, he had seen the Lusitania in the Clyde.  “If I could sail on a ship like that,” he had thought, “I’d go to sea.”  He added: “To me she was my dream ship. I saw her first when in her regal beauty she sped along the surface of the Clyde upon her trials. My boyish heart went out to her in admiration.”

Later, while in the service of the Denbigh Castle, he once again saw the large liner sweep by.  As he looked up at the liner, he saw, “a photographic impression of four big funnels, tiers of decks, fluttering handkerchiefs, the name ‘Lusitania’, in gold letters, and a roaring bow wave.” When the ship “streaked by”, it created a large wave that sent all the men into the lee scuppers. The sailors began cursing at her, but not Bestic. He vowed one day that he would stand upon the bridge of that ship! 1

In early 1915, Albert married Annie Queenie Elizabeth Kent, originally from Belfast but by then living in England. He sailed to the United States as an officer aboard the Leyland liner, SS Californian,  that is best known for its inaction during the sinking of the RMS Titanic  in 1912 despite being the closest ship in the area. To Bestic’s great surprise, he was informed that his next assignment would be as the junior third officer of the Lusitania– his dream ship!  With many officers, joining the Royal Navy for the war effort, Cunard’s recruitment policy had altered.

The RMS Lusitania had been launched on June 7th, 1906 at the shipyard of John Brown & Co, Clydebank, Glasgow.  The ship, and her sister ship RMS Mauretania had been built because of negotiations between the British Government and the Cunard Line with a view to being capable of taking back the prestigious ‘Blue Riband’ for the fastest Atlantic crossing. She was the first British passenger ship to be built with four funnels, with a gross tonnage of 32,500 tons and an overall length of 785 feet, and with seven decks for the use of passengers.

RMS Lusitania on the Clyde

On September 7th, 1907, after the completion of her trials, she sailed from Liverpool on her maiden voyage to Queenstown (now Cobh) and New York, watched by a crowd of 200,000 spectators. On her second voyage, in more favourable weather conditions, she did achieve the distinction of taking the ‘Blue Riband’, a record that would stand for the next twenty-two years.2

Crowds gather in New York to welcome Lusitania on her maiden voyage.

Lusitania completed her last peacetime voyage from New York, arriving in Liverpool on the day Great Britain declared war on Germany, August 4th, 1914. Lusitania was not requisitioned by the Admiralty but continued to sail for Cunard once a month to New York. Between December 16th and March 13th, 1915 four more successful round voyages were made, although these were not without incident.3

The waters around the British Isles were dangerous places for Allied shipping, and in April 1915, the German Embassy in the United States published warnings in the New York newspapers that passengers, travelling on Allied ships, travelled at their own risk.  At the time, the Lusitania was taking passengers on board at Pier 54, New York, for the homeward voyage, departing on Saturday May 1st, 1915, with 1,266 passengers, including many wealthy and notable Americans, and 696 crew aboard, including Junior Third Officer Bestic, making his first voyage on the ship.

`A contemporary advert

On Friday, May 7th, 1915 at 11.00hrs, Lusitania broke through the fog into hazy sunshine on its voyage from New York to Liverpool. To port was an indistinct smudge, which was the Irish coastline. But there was no sign of any other ships. Captain William Turner, Master of the Lusitaniahad expected to see HMS Juno, which would have acted as an escort. There was no sign of Juno.

At 11.55hrs, Captain Turner was informed of U-boat activity off the southern Irish coast. At 13.40hrs, Captain Turner saw a landmark as familiar to him; a long promontory with a lighthouse on top of it, which was painted with black and white horizontal bands- the Old Head of Kinsale. To avoid reported U-Boat activity in the area, Captain Turner was instructed by Vice Admiral Coke of the British Admiralty to change course and head for Queenstown.

Captain Turner

However, at 13.20 hrs, the German U-Boat U-20 under the command of Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger spotted the smoke from a steamer with four funnels astern approximately 12-14 miles away. Once the U-boat closed into its target, it fired a single torpedo.

At 14.10hrs, the torpedo struck the ship with a sound which Turner later recalled was “like a heavy door being slammed shut.” Almost instantaneously there came a second, much larger explosion, which physically rocked the ship. A tall column of water and debris shot skyward, wrecking lifeboat No. 5 as it came back down. On the bridge of the Lusitania, Captain Turner could see instantly that his ship was doomed. He gave the orders to abandon ship. He then went out onto the port bridge wing and looked back along the boat deck. The first thing he saw was that all the port side lifeboats had swung inboard, which meant that all those on the starboard side had swung outboard. The starboard ones could be launched, though with a little difficulty, but the port side boats would be virtually impossible to launch. 4

At 14.11hrs the Lusitania has started to send distress signals from the Marconi room. “SOS, SOS, SOS, COME AT ONCE. BIG LIST. 10 MILES SOUTH OLD KINSALE. MFA”. The last three letters were the ships call sign.

An extract from Lusitania website describes vividly the drama and mayhem that unfolded:

“At the port No 2 boat station, Junior Third Officer Bestic was in charge. Standing on the after davit, he was trying to keep order and explain that due to the heavy list, the boat could not be lowered. Suddenly, he heard a hammer striking the link-pin to the snubbing chain. Before the word “NO!” left his lips, the chain was freed and the five-ton lifeboat laden with over 50 passengers swung inward and crushed those standing on the boat deck against the superstructure.  Unable to take the strain, the men at the davits let go of the falls and boat 2, plus the collapsible boat stowed behind it, slid down the deck towing a grisly collection of injured passengers and jammed under the bridge wing, right beneath the spot where Captain Turner was. Bestic, determined to stop the same situation arising at the next boat station, jumped along to No. 4 boat, just as somebody knocked out its link pin. He darted out of the way as No. 4 boat slid down the deck maiming and killing countless more people, before crashing into the wreckage of the first two boats. Driven by panic, passengers swarmed into boats, 6,8, 10 and 12. One after another they careered down the deck to join 2 and 4. The sea was now swirling over the bridge floor. Then the stern of Lusitania began to settle back, and a surge of water flooded the bridge, sweeping Captain Turner out of the door and off the ship. As the Lusitania sank beneath the waves, that same surge of water swept Junior Third Officer Bestic out through the first-class entrance hall into the sea. The Lusitania was gone, and with her had gone 1,201 people.  It was now 14.28 GMT, on Friday May 7th, 1915.”

Another extract from website continues with the story of Bestic’s ordeal:

“He was still at his post on the port side of the ship when he saw the last wave charge up the deck.  Without a lifebelt, he jumped over the side and tried to swim clear of the ship but was still “dragged down with the ship.”  He tumbled in the water and noticed the water getting lighter as he was pushed upwards.  He swam upwards for what felt like minutes, and when he burst to the surface, he realized that he was inside an overturned lifeboat.  He made his way under the gunwale and felt a hand as Seaman Thomas Quinn pulled him by the collar to the top side of the boat.  When Bestic surfaced, he only saw wreckage and people struggling in the water where the great ship had been.  He could hardly bear the sound of hundreds of men, women, and children crying out in the water, “the despair, anguish and terror of hundreds of souls passing into eternity.”

Fearing that the capsized boat that he was on would soon be overwhelmed, he struck out on his own, swimming towards land miles away.  A current carried him off by himself but could still hear the cries of children in the water.  The cries soon stopped.  He lost his sense of time and place, imagining that he was a young boy seeing Lusitania sail by again.  Then Bestic found his own collapsible and hauled half of himself over the gunwale into the boat, the other half of him still in the water.  He soon realized that this boat was taking in water.  Bestic struggled to keep afloat by plugging his collapsible boat with any flotsam that was around him.

Bestic soon sighted a young, dark-haired man swimming in the water and called out to him.  After the young man got himself on the boat, he quipped, “I suppose it’s no use asking you for a cigarette.” “I’m sorry,” Bestic apologised, “Mine have gone rather soggy.”

The two men rowed and bailed water from their boat to keep warm and came across the body of a young girl.  They then came across a woman in a lifejacket, seemingly in shock.  Her heavy, soaked garments required that both men pull her out of the water and into their boat.  She asked them, “Where is my baby?” “I’m sorry,” Bestic answered, “we haven’t seen any babies.” To their horror, the distraught woman threw herself overboard.  The young man grabbed the woman and lied, “Your baby is safe.  I saw it taken into another boat.”

The woman allowed herself to be helped into the boat again.  Bestic chided himself for not thinking of the lie.  The small, waterlogged boat picked up a dozen or more survivors before they could not take on anymore.  Hours passed and Bestic feared that it would be dark before help came for them.  He found a watertight tin of biscuits and passed them out to everyone in his boat, “Chew these biscuits.  You’ll find that working your jaws keeps you warm.”  He had learned this from experience when he had sailed around Cape Horn.  The lifeboat was quiet as all on board busied themselves with chewing instead of making conversation.

Four hours after Lusitania sank, their collapsible was picked up by the trawler Bluebell.  If help had come any later, the skies really would have been dark. In the messroom of the Bluebell, Bestic saw Captain Turner alive, sitting by himself.  Bestic went up to him and said, “I’m very glad to see you alive, sir.” “Why should you be?”  Turner asked.  “You’re not that fond of me.” “Fondness doesn’t enter into it, sir.  I’m glad to see you alive because I respect you as my Captain and I admire you as a seaman.”

Amongst the 1,191 who lost their lives were 786 passengers and 405 crew, and the trawlers Bluebell and the Wanderer from Peel, Isle of Man rescued most of the 771 survivors. In all, only 289 bodies were recovered, 65 of which are never identified. The bodies of many of the victims were buried at either Queenstown, where 148 bodies were interred in the Old Church Cemetery, or the Church of St. Multose in Kinsale. The bodies of the remaining 885 victims were never recovered.5

Courtmacsharry RNLI received news of the disaster and the lifeboat Ketzia Gwilt under the command of Coxswain Timothy Keohane (Father of Antarctic explorer Patrick Keohane) was launched and set out to row the 12.6 nautical miles to the casualty, as in calm conditions the sails were of no use.

An extract from Courtmacsharry RNLI Return of Service log states: “We had no wind, so had to pull the whole distance- on the way to wreck, we met a ship’s boat cramped with people who informed us the Lusitania had gone down. We did everything in our power to reach the place, but it took us at least three and half hours of hard pulling to get there- then only in time to pick up dead bodies.”

The Courmacsharry Lifeboat then proceeded in picking up as many bodies as they could and transferred them to the ships on scene tasked with transferring bodies back to Queenstown. The final entry from the log stated: “It was a harrowing site to witness- the sea was strewn with dead bodies floating about, some with lifebelts on, others holding on pieces of rafts- all dead. I deeply regret it was not in our power to have been in time to save some”. 6

Included amongst the lost passengers was Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, one of the richest men in the world. Yet he showed himself willing to sacrifice his own life for the sake of others. He was travelling with his valet to Britain to conduct a meeting of the International Horse Breeders’ Association. He refused to save himself. He gave his lifejacket away and used the critical moments as the ship was sinking to put children into the lifeboats. He showed, according to a report in the New York Times, “gallantry which no words of mine can describe”. His body was never found.

Another famous person that drowned was Sir Hugh Lane, the Irish art dealer and nephew of writer Augusta, Lady Gregory of Coole Park. He is best known for establishing Dublin’s Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, but his famous collection, the ‘Lane Bequest’ has proved to be a controversial issue with ownership being disputed for almost a century between Britain and Ireland until an amicable arrangement was agreed.

There were harrowing scenes in Queenstown as survivors and bodies were brought ashore. The casualties of the Lusitania included 128 Americans, leading to outrage in the United States. President Wilson later dismissed the warning printed in the paper on the day of the ship’s departure, stating that no amount of warning could excuse the carrying out of such an inhumane act. However, it would not be until April 1917, before he went to a joint session of Congress to request a declaration of war against Germany.

In May 1915, a wave of anti-alien rioting spread throughout many English cities, particularly in Liverpool where the local Echo newspaper reported in May 2015: “Almost 600 people with Liverpool and Merseyside connections alone were on board the RMS Lusitania when it was torpedoed and sunk off the coast of Ireland 100 years ago this week. At least 145 local crew members are recorded as losing their lives.”

As news of the attack on the Lusitania spread around the world, emotions and opinions became polarised. Britain and Germany each advocated for the justness of their side. The sinking became a powerful propaganda tool in the build-up to America joining the war and closer to home, many propaganda posters appeared that advocated for more men to join the war effort.

A year after the sinking of the Lusitania, Albert Bestic’s wife gave birth to their first child, Desmond. At that time, he was serving in the Royal Navy aboard minesweepers. His second son, George was born in Scotland in 1919 and his third son, Alan was born in England in 1922. Alan became a well-known journalist, initially with the Irish Times, and later as a prolific writer.  One of his sons Richard, a name that many readers may recall, was an outstanding international correspondent with Sky News, broadcasting from around the world.

In 1922, Captain Bestic joined the Irish Lights Service. On December 19th, 1940, he was master of the lightship tender SS Isolda, which was bombed and sunk by the Luftwaffe off the Wexford coast. Sadly, six crew members, all from Dun Laoghaire were lost on that occasion. Relating this part of Captain Bestic’s maritime career must wait until another time.

Albert Arthur “Bisset” Bestic died in Bray, Co Wicklow on December 20th, 1962, aged seventy-two years. He is buried at St Michan’s Church in Dublin. The nickname “Bisset” had been given to him by Captain William Turner.

All images are courtesy of Maritime Historian Cormac Lowth, whose assistance with the article is very much appreciated.

References:

  1. https://www.garemaritime.com/lest-forget-albert-arthur-bestic/
  • Ibid.
  • Information kindly provided by Cormac Lowth.

Recommended Further Reading:

The Lusitana: Unravelling the Mysteries by Patrick O’Sullivan

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:

Venus B – a tragedy long remembered

A guest blog by David Carroll tells the tragic loss of the barque Venus B on Feb 21st 1885 at Ballymacaw and how it lived long in local folklore

From 1937 to 1939, the Irish Folklore Commission enlisted more than 50,000 schoolchildren from 5,000 schools in Ireland to collect folklore in their home districts. This included oral history, topographical information, folktales and legends, riddles and proverbs, games and pastimes, trades and crafts. The children recorded this material from their parents, grandparents, and neighbours. The scheme resulted in the creation of over half a million manuscript pages, generally referred to as ‘Bailiúchán na Scol’ or ‘The Schools’ Collection’. Schools in the Barony of Gaultier took part in the project during the 1930s and by a remarkable coincidence, two girls, from two different schools living a few miles apart wrote about the same shipwreck from information received from older people living in the locality and the legends and folklore associated with the tragic events of February 1885.

Bad weather hit Ireland in February 1885. The Waterford Standard on Wednesday, February 24th reported that the severest storm of the winter blew on Saturday night in the Irish Channel and shipping due in Dublin was badly delayed. The weather along the South East coast was also severe. There were reports of ships having to put into Passage, one a sailing ship ‘Crusader’ with two boats smashed, three sails carried away and bulwarks damaged. Also, a steamship bound for Liverpool from Norfork U.S. put into Passage short of coals, having lost an anchor and 50 fathoms of chain off Creadan Head.
A headline in the same paper read as follows:

THE STORM
WRECK OF VESSELS TRAMORE AND
BALLYMACAW – ALL HANDS LOST

“The storm which swept over the country on Saturday has proved a most disastrous one, many accounts of shipping disasters being at hand. A wreck which took place at Tramore is particularly sad…[for] of the entire crew, not one was saved…….”

The vessel in question was the Camilla, a schooner from Cork with a cargo of coal that was wrecked close to the Brownstown Head side of Tramore Bay with all crew lost, despite valiant and courageous efforts made by the lifeboat in Tramore to rescue them.

The report continues as follows:
“Another shipping disaster occurred at Ballymacaw early on Sunday morning. A large barque, which had been ascertained to be the Venus B of Fiume, bound to Rio Janerio from Liverpool with a general cargo, Captain Sablich. When the vessel was observed it was between one or two o’clock in the morning, and shortly afterwards she was dashed on the rocks at Long Cliff, under the cottage of Mr Kiely. It was blowing a very stiff gale at the time, and the sea was washing with considerable force over the vessel. The coastguards hastened to render assistance, although it was conjectured from the fact that no lights were shown that the vessel had been abandoned, and this supposition was borne out by the fact that there was never any exhibition of life on board. Nothing on this head is however certain, as owing to the hour when the vessel struck, and the consequent darkness, but little knowledge could be gleaned as to her belongings. When day broke she was found to be the barque already named, and to be of 650 tons register. Portions of the cargo and wreckage continued to be washed ashore during the day, and it was then seen that she had been laden with railway iron, household utensils, crockery, ware etc. Some traces of blood, which were observed to be on the figure head, would lead to the supposition that some of the crew had received injuries of a more or less serious nature. The scene was visited by a large number of people on Sunday, when the most eager inquiries were made as to most probable fate of the crew, who must all have perished. The sea, which continued to break over the vessel, rendered her total breaking up a question of time. On Monday, it was reported that she had all gone to pieces, and on the same day a body, probably that of one of the ill-fated crew, was washed ashore.”

Source: nzhistory.govt.nz
1863 wreck from New Zealand (HMS Orpheus)- a fate similar to that of the Venus B.
On March 18th 1885, the following notice appeared in the Waterford Standard:

Readers may wonder as to how a sailing ship from a land-locked country such as Austria could come to be wrecked off the Irish coast. The answer is that prior to 1918, the political landscape in Europe was completely different. In 1885, Austria-Hungary was an empire, the largest political entity in mainland Europe. It spanned almost 700,000 square kilometres and reached down to the Adriatic Sea. Fiume, home port of the Venus B is now called Rijeka, a major port and industrial city in western Croatia.

Source: www.pinterest.com The port of Fiume c. 1890, the home port of the barque Venus B.

The two pupils from the Gaultier Barony that participated in the Irish Folklore Commissions ‘Schools Collection’ in the late 1930s were Mary Flynn from Portally and Kathleen Gear from Ballymacaw. Mary Flynn was a pupil at the Convent School in Dunmore East and transcribed information passed to her from her grandmother Mrs. Power of Portally, described as being over 70 years. Kathleen Gear was a pupil at Summerville school in Corballymore and recorded the story of the Venus B as told to her by her father Patrick Gear, aged 60 years.

While there are a number of small errors made in the stories as regards the correct name of the ship and the actual year, both accounts are fascinating and colourful to read and give us much more anecdotal information that we fail to get in newspaper accounts. We are told that the first person to see the ship in distress was Jim Gough. The 1901 Census lists Julia Gough, a widow aged 64 years living at Graigue, Rathmoylan with her son, Michael. It is probably correct to say that Jim was Julia’s husband. His name also appears in Griffiths Valuation – Waterford 1848-51.

Both scribes tell us that all the bodies recovered from the shipwreck were buried in Rathmoylan graveyard. The actual number of crew members has been difficult to ascertain. Kathleen tells us that many people in Ballymacaw got in new floors from the timber salvaged from the wreck. I wonder if any of those floors still remain? Both Mary and Kathleen also refer to the location of the shipwreck as being called the ‘wrack hole’.

Mary Flynn wrote that a man who came from Waterford to buy crockery fell down the cliff and was killed. She also writes that the shipwrecked vessel was then called the ‘Phantom Ship’ by older people in the district as it was always seen sailing up from Ballymacaw to the ‘old ship rock’ in Port Leanaibhe before a storm. Kathleen Gear also relates that following the shipwreck, the lights of the Venus B could be seen sailing into the ’wrack hole’. She writes that many people saw them.

As a young lad I spent some wonderful times during school holidays in the 1960s with Paddy Napper Kelly lobster fishing and also catching mackerel with Nicko Murphy along this picturesque but rocky coastline. There was always a forlorn and eerie feeling around Falskirt Rock with all the seabirds present as well as the incredible rock near the shore that looked like an old sailing ship and was so named. In stormy weather with poor visibility, I have no doubt that a person could easily mistake the rock for an actual sailing ship. But what about the lights? How do you explain that?

Coastline near Ballymacaw with Falskirt Rock visible in the distance. Photo credit Neville Murphy

Maybe the answer lies with the famous Irish folklorist Lady Gregory – a close friend of WB Yeats, who had a fisherman explain to her over a hundred years ago: “The fairies are in the sea as well as on the land. That is well-known by those that are out fishing by the coast.”


Thanks to David for that facinating account. David is of course author of Dauntless Courage, Celebrating the History of the RNLI Lifeboats, their crews and the Maritime Heritage of the Dunmore East Community which was published in December 2020. The book is almost sold out, but some copies are still available. More details from the project website

References:

The Waterford Standard, February 24th 1885
The Waterford Standard, March 18th 1885

1901 Census.

The Duchas.ie ‘The Schools Collection’ contains many transcriptions of stories about shipwrecks and other maritime stories from pupils living on both the County Waterford and County Wexford sides of Waterford Harbour.