Saturday 6 May 2023

Shipwrecks on the River Shannon & Beyond


lost on approach to the Shannon Estuary, 1907

Shipwrecks on the River Shannon & Beyond (5/xi/2013)

In the days when sails and wind were the chief means of propelling large vessels, sailing ships were very much at the mercy of the weather. A severe storm could spell disaster and small coastal craft were well advised to hug the coast and run for shelter at the approach of a storm. However, despite skill and experience at the tiller, and much advice from retired mariners, ships continued to get caught in storms, some because they took unnecessary risks and others because they were caught unawares. We will look at a few examples of shipwrecks that occurred in the general area of Beigh Castle and mention a couple of emigrant ships, which, though wrecked nearer the North American coast, were carrying passengers from the Shannon-side area. The first shipwreck we will mention happened in 1827 and involved the deaths of thirteen people from Ballysteen. The following extract is taken verbatim from The Limerick Chronicle, of 1827:

Drowning at Beagh Castle, 1827

Twenty-five persons embarked in a sail-boat, near Beagh Castle, in this river, on Wednesday to collect sea weed, in the neighbouring islands, for the purpose of manure. When heavily laden, and about to put off, several of those on board took alarm at the angry aspect of the waves, which, ruffled by the tempest, lashed the surrounding shore with unsparing fury. As all-wise Providence prompted the idea of danger, they disembarked and left their ill-fated companions (eleven men and two women) with a determination to encounter the passage home. The frail vessel was so overloaded, by the anxiety or avarice of the owners to secure a large cargo, that she absolutely foundered in the coming tide, which, rushing like a torrent, overwhelmed her in an instant, within a few yards of land, leaving a wild blank, diversified by the evanescent prospect of thirteen human beings struggling between this world and the next.  The agonising cries of the wretched sufferers were hurried on the blast towards the shore, where their distracted friends, unable to afford assistance, gazed intently on the spectacle of life and death. But the a0most intolerable suspense existed for a moment only – idle was the context of weak mortality, when an immense surge choked the last effort of aspiring nature. In the space of fifteen minutes, their bodies, borne on the bosom of the sullen waves, rolled slowly and heavily to the nearest shore, where the receding waters left them without a spark of life, to be vainly clasped in the fond embrace of despairing friends and kindred, whose bitter cries not even the howling blast could smother.

This deplorable record of calamity has plunged many families into the depth of sorrow and distress; in one instance, nine children have become destitute orphans. The boat was the property of a man, named Grady. Two sail boats foundered in the same gale at Kilydysart, but the crews were fortunately saved. On the above day, also, a sail-boat foundered near the mouth of the Askeaton (Deel) river. The crew took to the mast head, where they clung, though frequently washed by the wave, until a boat observed their danger. They were rescued and conveyed in safety to shore.  (LC 1827) 

Lug Sail Boat, 1837

The Limerick Chronicle of 20 December, 1837, describes the wreck of a small boat near Beigh Castle as follows:  

A melancholy catastrophe occurred on the river (Shannon) on Thursday evening near Ballysteen, where a small oat-carrying lug sail swamped in a squall and the pilot, John McElligott, his apprentice, Michael Magrath, with a boy named John  Hanrahan, were thrown upon the merciless waves. The two first, after a short but desperate struggle, sunk into the arms of death, but Hanrahan fastening upon an oar, floated towards shore, and was taken up, though with scarce a spark of life. The bodies of McElligott, the pilot and Magrath were found yesterday and brought home to their distracted relatives in this City. The former has left a wife and children. (LC 20/12/1837)

Wreck of Herring Boat, 1917

Gerald Moran (1872-1940) in the National Folklore Survey, Askeaton NS of 1937-1939, relates a story of the wreck of a fishing boat from Askeaton at Beagh Castle. On 30 October, 1917, three fishing boats left Askeaton to fish for herring on the river Shannon. A fierce storm arose, but because the fishing was good, and the men felt that they had some shelter from the pier in Beigh, they were slow to head for the shore. Eventually, two of the boats made it to shore, but, when the third boat tried to go towards land, a combination of wind and nets, loaded with herring, caused the boat to capsize and two men, John O’Sullivan and John Sheehan, were drowned. O’Sullivan’s body subsequently came ashore in Aughinish and was found, but that of Sheehan was never found. ( GM, NFS, A NS

The Sabrina (1890)

On 6 November, 1890, the Sabrina, a 95-ton sailing ship was wrecked off the Beeves Lighthouse and all crew were drowned. The ship subsequently moved with the tide and finally ran ashore off Barrett’s Point, in Countbrowne. The owner, Mr Hugh Pritchard of Carvarvon, Wales, instructed his agents to put the wreck up for auction and this was done by John Bernal, Auctioneer, Thomas Street, Limerick, on Tuesday, 25 November, 1890. The only person to turn up at the auction was John O’Shaughnessy of Courtbrowne, Askeaton. The ship, built in 1864 at Pwllhili, Wales, was listed as being 63 feet long, with a beam of 18 feet and a depth of 13 feet. The gear from the ship, including one square sail, one main sail, one top gallant sail, two foresails, one boom and one flying gib, together with hawsers, warps, anchors, rigging and blocks, were sold separately. When the time for auctioning the schooner came, there was only one bidder. This was John O’Shaughnessy, who bid £1. There being no other bids, the ship with its cargo of oats was sold to John, who, with the help of his neighbours, salvaged the cargo and timbers, leaving the hull stuck in the estuary mud to rot away slowly. Tradition says that, with painstaking care, John was able to dry a good deal of the oats retrieved from the hold and sell it at a handsome profit. (LC 22/11/1890)

Treenaglass, 1883

The Treenaglass was an iron steamship which foundered on Bridges’ Bank, on the Shannon, near Ringmoylan in 1883. The boat was relatively large, with a capacity of 1,513 tons and she was loaded with maize and bound for Limerick.

Fatal Trip to Kilrush, 1882

In the summer of 1882, four men from Askeaton went for a day out to Kilrush, Co. Clare, in a rowing boat. They had a pleasant evening in the local public house and delayed their return until near dark. On the return journey, one of the men, who was severely intoxicated, suddenly stood up in the boat, lost his balance and fell into the water. His three companions immediately crowded to the side of the boat to look for him. However, this caused the boat to capsize, throwing all three men into the water. Sadly, none of the four survived. Their surnames were listed as McMahon, McDonnell, Hartigan and Collins. (NFS, A NS, 203-204)

Nameless Wreck, 1778

In Castletown cemetery, near Pallaskenry, there is a stone slab, donated by John Thomas Waller of Castletown, in memory of five of his tenants who gave their lives to rescue 60 passengers from a sailing ship that foundered in a storm on the Shannon on 2 October, 1778. The five men were part of a group of volunteers who went to the aid of the stricken ship in small boats. The five who died were Edward Lynn O’Connor, Stephen Mahony, Daniel Hickey, John McGrath and Thomas Hayes. The plaque commemorates the bravery of the men who died while rescuing others who survived.

The James, 1834

While the wreck of the James occurred off the Great Bank, Newfoundland, in April, 1834, all her passengers had embarked in Limerick, the port from which she sailed on 8 April, 1834. A large sailing ship, with 250 passengers and 11 members of crew, most of whom were lost off Great Bank, Newfoundland. The ship was bound for Quebec and the newspaper report of the tragedy emphasised that the majority of the passengers were from the local farming community, especially county Limerick and surrounding areas. The names of those lost and the home addresses they had given when signing on were listed. Among the passengers were many children, both male and female. The places they came from included Limerick city, Pallaskenry, Kildimo, Castletown, Kilbreedy, Rathkeale, as well as places in Clare and Tipperary. The Captain was William C Laidler, while the ship’s surgeon was Henry A Downes, both of whom were saved. It appears that not all the life boats were launched because of the condition of the sea.

According to a letter, which Dr Downes wrote to the Quebec Gazette, when the ship began to take in water, the pumps were tried, but these failed because potatoes from the passengers’ personal stores, which were afloat in the swamped ship, blocked the pumps.  It was strange, however, that, while  virtually all the passengers and most of the crew were drowned, the ship’s Captain (Laidler) and the ship’s surgeon (Dr Downes), together with a small number of others, managed to escape in a separate boat. (LC 28/6/1834)

Wreck of Astrea, May, 1834

Another sailing ship, the Astrea, which sailed from Limerick for Quebec in May, 1834, was wrecked off Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada. This was a large ship, with 271 passengers and crew, all of whom were lost, save 3 people, including the ship’s surgeon, Dr Jeremiah O’Sullivan from Rathkeale, whose father was also a doctor in that town. According to O’Sullivan’s testimony, most of the people drowned were from county Limerick and were from the farming class. While the names of the passengers, who were lost, are listed in the report in the Limerick Chronicle, their home addresses are not. Among them, however, were several Palatine names from the Rathkeale area (LC 11/6/1834)

John M Feheney

Acknowledgment: Special thanks to Kay Naughton for archival research.