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:
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.”
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.
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?
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
The Waterford Standard, February 24th 1885
The Waterford Standard, March 18th 1885
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.