seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Sinking of the HMS Wasp

hms-waspHMS Wasp, a composite screw Banterer-class gunboat of the Royal Navy, is wrecked off Tory Island, County Donegal on September 22, 1884 with the loss of 52 lives. There are six survivors.

The Banterer class is designed by Nathaniel Barnaby, the Admiralty Director of Naval Construction. The keel of the HMS Wasp is laid at Barrow Iron Shipbuilding as yard number 71 and she is launched on October 5, 1880. She is commissioned on December 1, 1881 and is rigged with three masts, making her a barquentine-rigged vessel.

On her final voyage, HMS Wasp, under the command of Lieutenant J.D. Nicholls, is sailing from Westport, County Mayo, in the West of Ireland, to Moville in Inishowen, County Donegal, in Ulster, to pick up a party of police, bailiffs and court officials. These are to be transported to Inishtrahull, an island off Malin Head, to carry out evictions for non-payment of rents. Ironically, the ship had delivered urgently needed supplies of seed potatoes to the same islanders the previous year.

In the early morning of September 22, 1884, HMS Wasp is near Tory Island. The weather is cloudy with occasional squalls and rain showers. The commanding officer and most of the crew are in their bunks. The lieutenant navigating the ship is relatively unfamiliar with the area in which the ship is sailing. At 3:55 AM HMS Wasp runs aground on a reef. The initial shock breaks the hull of the ship and she begins to rapidly fill with water. The commander orders the ship’s boats lowered but HMS Wasp hits the reefs again, sinking so quickly that the boats cannot be launched. HMS Wasp sinks within fifteen minutes. Six crewmen manage to cling to one of the gunboat’s spars and they wash ashore on Tory Island and are found by islanders. The other 52 crew aboard drown.

A court martial is held for the survivors. The finding is that the cause of the wreck was a lack of care taken with the vessel’s navigation, but the survivors are all exonerated. The wreck is sold to the Cornish Salvage Co. in November 1910.

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The Catalpa Rescue

catalpaThe whaling ship Catalpa is given a tumultuous welcome as it sails into New York harbor on August 19, 1876. She has no whales on board, but a far more valuable cargo, six Fenian prisoners from the British penal colony of Western Australia.

Clan na Gael‘s John Devoy, with the help of his friend John Boyle O’Reilly, a Fenian who had once escaped from Australia himself and editor of the Boston newspaper The Pilot, plan the escape. Somehow maintaining the secrecy of the mission, the two arrange to buy and crew the whaler Catalpa, purchased in New Bedford, Massachusetts, for the attempt.

The Catalpa sets out in April 1875 with most of the crew unaware of their actual mission. They reach western Australia in March 1876.

The first intended day for escape from the penal colony is April 6, but the appearance of HMS Convict and other Royal Navy ships and customs officers quickly lead to a postponement. The escape is rearranged for April 17, when most of the Convict Establishment garrison is watching the Royal Perth Yacht Club regatta.

Catalpa drops anchor in international waters off Rockingham and dispatches a whaleboat to shore. At 8:30 AM, six Fenians, Thomas Darragh, Martin Hogan, Michael Harrington, Thomas Hassett, Robert Cranston and James Wilson, who are working in work parties outside the prison walls abscond. They are met by Fenian agents John Breslin and Thomas Desmond and picked up in horse traps. A seventh Fenian, James Kiely, is left behind. The men race 12 miles south to Rockingham pier where Captain George Smith Anthony awaits them with the whaleboat. A local named Bell he had spoken to earlier sees the men and quickly alerts the authorities.

As they row to the Catalpa a fierce squall strikes, breaking the whaleboat’s mast. The storm lasts until dawn on April 18 and is so intense that Anthony later states that he did not expect the small boat to survive. At 7:00 AM, with the storm over, they again make for the Catalpa but an hour later spot the screw steamer SS Georgette, which has been commandeered by the colonial governor, heading for the whaler. The men lay down in the whaleboat and it is not seen by the SS Georgette. The SS Georgette finds the Catalpa, but in Captain Anthony’s absence the First Mate refuses to allow the colonial police to board as the ship is outside the colony’s three-mile limit. The steamer is forced to return to Fremantle for coal after following the Catalpa for several hours.

As the whaleboat again makes for the ship a police cutter with 30 to 40 armed men is spotted. The two boats race to reach the Catalpa first, with the whaleboat winning, and the men climbing aboard as the police cutter passes by. The cutter turns, lingers briefly beside the Catalpa, and then heads to shore.

Early on April 19 the refuelled and now heavily armed SS Georgette returns and comes alongside the whaler, demanding the surrender of the prisoners and attempting to herd the ship back into Australian waters. They fire a warning shot with the 12-pounder cannon that had been installed the night before. Ignoring the demand to surrender, Anthony raises and then points towards the U.S. flag, informing the SS Georgette that an attack on the Catalpa will be considered an act of war against the United States, and proceeds westward.

Governor William Cleaver Robinson has ordered the police on the SS Georgette not to create an incident outside territorial waters. After steaming around threateningly for about an hour, the SS Georgette heads back to Fremantle and Catalpa slips away into the Indian Ocean.

The Catalpa does its best to avoid Royal Navy ships on its way back to the United States. O’Reilly receives the news of the escape on June 6 and releases the news to the press. The news sparks celebrations in the United States and Ireland and anger in Britain and Australia, although there is also sympathy for the cause within the Australian population. The Catalpa arrives in New York Harbor on August 19, 1876. Clan na Gael and the Fenians achieve one of their greatest victories over the British Empire.


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The Hull of the RMS Titanic is Launched

titanic-launch-at-belfast-1911The hull of the RMS Titanic, is launched at 12:15 PM on May 31, 1911 at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Northern Ireland in the presence of Lord William Pirrie, J. Pierpoint Morgan, J. Bruce Ismay and 100,000 onlookers. Twenty-two tons of soap and tallow are spread on the slipway to lubricate the ship’s passage into the River Lagan. In keeping with the White Star Line‘s traditional policy, the ship is not formally named or christened with champagne. The ship is towed to a fitting-out berth where, over the course of the next year, her engines, funnels and superstructure are installed and her interior is fitted out.

The construction of RMS Olympic and RMS Titanic take place virtually in parallel. The sheer size of the RMS Titanic and her sister ships pose a major engineering challenge for Harland and Wolff. No shipbuilder has ever before attempted to construct vessels this size. RMS Titanic‘s keel is laid down on March 31, 1909. The 2,000 hull plates are single pieces of rolled steel plate, mostly up to 6 feet wide and 30 feet long and weigh between 2.5 and 3 tons.

Some of the last items to be fitted on RMS Titanic before the ship’s launch are her two side anchors and one centre anchor. The anchors themselves are a challenge to make with the centre anchor being the largest ever forged by hand and weighing nearly 16 tons. Twenty Clydesdale draught horses are needed to haul the centre anchor by wagon from the N. Hingley & Sons Ltd. forge shop in Netherton, near Dudley, United Kingdom to the Dudley railway station two miles away. From there it is shipped by rail to Fleetwood in Lancashire before being loaded aboard a ship and sent to Belfast.

The work of constructing the ships is difficult and dangerous. For the 15,000 men who work at Harland and Wolff at the time, safety precautions are rudimentary at best. Much of the work is dangerous and is carried out without any safety equipment like hard hats or hand guards on machinery. As a result, deaths and injuries are to be expected. During RMS Titanic‘s construction, 246 injuries are recorded, 28 of them “severe,” such as arms severed by machines or legs crushed under falling pieces of steel. Six people die on the ship herself while she is being constructed and fitted out, and another two die in the shipyard workshops and sheds. Just before the launch a worker is killed when a piece of wood falls on him.

(Pictured: Launch of the hull of the RMS Titanic with an unfinished superstructure in 1911) 


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Final Barge Journey on the Grand Canal

barge-51mThe last barge on the Grand Canal makes its final journey to Limerick on May 27, 1960 carrying a cargo of Guinness. The impressive broad-beamed barge carrying the number 51M casts off from Dublin‘s James Street Harbour marking the end of a way of life on the canal which has existed since the construction of the waterway in the early 1800s.

For some 160 years freight barges ply the canal bringing cargoes to and from Dublin, Limerick, Waterford and canal-side villages across the midlands from Sallins to Shannon Harbour. The spine of the waterways system is the Grand Canal which crosses mid-Kildare in a southwest direction from Hazelhatch to west of Ticknevin.

Typically a crew of four men live on the boats on voyages which can take up to four days from Dublin to Limerick. The crew is comprised of the Master or skipper, the Engineman, Deck man and Greaser. Although a seemingly idyllic job the boatmen worked hard in all weather, sometimes sailing through the night.

The canal cargo business is always under pressure from the railways but tonnages of bulk goods (barrels of porter, turf, coal, sand, gravel, and grain and flour) where speed is not important remain high. Competition from the motor lorry in the 1920s and 1930s causes tonnages to fall severely. The canals get a brief respite during the Emergency years (1939-45) when they are pressed into service to transport turf from the Bog of Allen to Dublin city where it is stored in massive clamps at Phoenix Park.

As part of a rationalisation in the post-war decades, the Government brings out the shareholders of the Grand Canal Company and amalgamates its operations with Córas Iompair Éireann (CIÉ), a newly formed semi-state entity with a mandate to take over all transport services in Ireland. CIÉ has enough on its hands trying to keep the railway system viable and it is clear that the days of canal freight are numbered. In November 1959 CIÉ announces that the Grand Canal will close to cargo boats on December 31 of that year.

The Guinness brewery asks for a stay of a few months so it can complete alternative arrangements for road deliveries. The definitive final voyage from Dublin begins on the afternoon of May 27, 1960 when 51M casts off at James Street Harbour bound for the Guinness depot in Limerick.

51M escapes the wrecker’s torch and is kept in service though a succession of canal authorities as a maintenance boat for the canals. In May 2010, fifty years after it carried the last commercial cargo from Dublin to Limerick, the canal boat 51M retraces its historic journey, once again carrying a number of original Guinness casks as its cargo.


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U.S. Senate Inquiry into the RMS Titanic Sinking

william-alden-smithThe April 15, 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic, the trans-Atlantic passenger liner built by Harland and Wolff in Belfast, results in an inquiry by the United States Senate, which begins at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City  on April 19, 1912. Chaired by Senator William Alden Smith (R-Michigan), the inquiry is a subcommittee of the Senate’s Committee on Commerce. The hearings later move to the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. and conclude on May 25, 1912 with a return visit to New York.

Seven senators serve on the subcommittee, with three Republicans and three Democrats in addition to Smith as chair. The other six senators are Jonathan Bourne (R-Oregon), Theodore E. Burton (R-Ohio), Duncan U. Fletcher (D-Florida), Francis G. Newlands (D-Nevada), George Clement Perkins (R-California), and Furnifold McLendel Simmons (D-North Carolina). The composition of the subcommittee is carefully chosen to represent the conservative, moderate and liberal wings of the two parties.

During 18 days of official investigations, punctuated by recesses, testimony is recorded from over 80 witnesses. These include surviving passengers and crew members, as well as captains and crew members of other ships in the vicinity, expert witnesses, and various officials and others involved in receiving and transmitting the news of the disaster. The evidence submitted varies from spoken testimony and questioning, to the deposition of correspondence and affidavits. Subjects covered include the ice warnings received, the inadequate (but legal) number of lifeboats, the handling of the ship and its speed, RMS Titanic‘s distress calls, and the handling of the evacuation of the ship.

The final report is presented to the United States Senate on May 28, 1912. It is nineteen pages long and includes 44 pages of exhibits, and summarises 1,145 pages of testimony and affidavits. Its recommendations, along with those of the British inquiry that concludes on July 3, 1912, lead to many changes in safety practices following the disaster.

The report is strongly critical of established seafaring practices and the roles that RMS Titanic‘s builders, owners, officers and crew had played in contributing to the disaster. It highlights the arrogance and complacency that had been prevalent aboard the ship and more generally in the shipping industry and the British Board of Trade. However, it does not find the International Mercantile Marine Company, an American consortium, or the White Star Line negligent under existing maritime laws, as they had merely followed standard practice, and the disaster could thus only be categorised as an “act of God.”

The inquiry is heavily criticised in Britain, both for its conduct and for Smith’s style of questioning. Many newspapers publish scathing editorial cartoons depicting Smith in unflattering terms. The British government is also hostile towards the inquiry. The British Ambassador to the United States, James Bryce, demands that President William Howard Taft dissolve the committee and refuses to recognise its jurisdiction.

Some British writers, however, applaud the inquiry. G. K. Chesterton contrasts the American objective of maximum openness with what he calls Britain’s “national evil,” which he describes as being to “hush everything up; it is to damp everything down; it is to leave the great affair unfinished, to leave every enormous question unanswered.” The American reaction is also generally positive. The American press welcomes Smith’s findings and accepts his recommendations, commending the senator for establishing the key facts of the disaster.

(Pictured: U.S. Senator William Alden Smith, chairman of the Senate inquiry into the RMS Titanic disaster)


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RMS Titanic Departs Southampton, England

titanic-departing-southampton-dockThe RMS Titanic leaves port in Southampton, England for her first and only voyage on April 10, 1912. Built by the Belfast shipbuilders Harland and Wolff, the RMS Titanic is the second of the three Olympic-class ocean liners — the first being the RMS Olympic and the third being the HMHS Britannic.

Following the embarkation of the crew the passengers begin arriving at 9:30 AM, when the London and South Western Railway‘s boat train from London Waterloo station reaches Southampton Terminus railway station on the quayside, alongside RMS Titanic‘s berth. In all, 923 passengers board RMS Titanic at Southampton, 179 First Class, 247 Second Class and 494 Third Class. The large number of Third Class passengers means they are the first to board, with First and Second Class passengers following up to an hour before departure. Stewards show them to their cabins, and First Class passengers are personally greeted by Captain Edward Smith upon boarding. Third Class passengers are inspected for ailments and physical impairments that might lead to their being refused entry to the United States, a prospect the White Star Line wishes to avoid, as it would have to carry anyone who fails the examination back across the Atlantic. A total of 922 passengers are recorded as embarking on RMS Titanic at Southampton. Additional passengers are to be picked up at Cherbourg, France and Queenstown.

The maiden voyage begins on time, at noon. An accident is narrowly averted only a few minutes later as RMS Titanic passes the moored liners SS City of New York of the American Line and what would have been her running mate on the service from Southampton, White Star’s RMS Oceanic. Her huge displacement causes both of the smaller ships to be lifted by a bulge of water and then dropped into a trough. SS City of New York‘s mooring cables cannot take the sudden strain and snap, swinging her around stern-first towards RMS Titanic. A nearby tugboat, Vulcan, comes to the rescue by taking SS City of New York under tow, and Captain Smith orders RMS Titanic‘s engines to be put “full astern.” The two ships avoid a collision by a matter of about 4 feet. The incident delays RMS Titanic‘s departure for about an hour, while the drifting SS City of New York is brought under control.

After making it safely through the complex tides and channels of Southampton Water and the Solent, RMS Titanic heads out into the English Channel. She heads for the French port of Cherbourg, a journey of 77 nautical miles. The weather is windy, very fine but cold and overcast. Four hours after RMS Titanic leaves Southampton, she arrives at Cherbourg and is met by the tenders SS Traffic and the SS Nomadic which have to be used to transfer passengers from shore to ship because Cherbourg lacks docking facilities for a ship the size of RMS Titanic. An additional 274 passengers are taken aboard. Twenty-four passengers who have booked passage only cross-channel from Southampton leave aboard the tenders to be conveyed to shore. The process is completed in about 90 minutes. At 8:00 PM RMS Titanic weighs anchor and departs for Queenstown on the south coast of Ireland with arrival scheduled late the following morning.

(Pictured: RMS Titanic departing the Southampton docks on April 10, 1912)


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The Sinking of the PS Queen Victoria

ps-queen-victoriaPS Queen Victoria, a paddle steamer built for the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company in 1838, hits the rocks near Howth, County Dublin in the early hours of February 15, 1853 with the loss of more than 80 passengers and crew.

Queen Victoria is built by Wilson shipbuilders of Glasgow, Scotland in 1838 for The City Of Dublin Steam Packet Company. She has a wooden hull, is 150 feet long and is powered by a two-cylinder steam engine.

The Queen Victoria leaves Liverpool on the night of February 14, 1853 with cargo and approximately 100 passengers. As it approaches the Irish coast at Howth it is hit by a snowstorm. It strikes Howth Head around 2:00 AM on February 15. The Captain backs the ship away from the Head in hopes of being able to navigate into the harbor. The damage to the ship is more extensive than the captain thinks and it quickly begins to fill with water. It drifts, dead in the water, and strikes below the Baily Lighthouse. It sinks 100 yards south of the lighthouse within 15 minutes of the second hit. Approximately 83 passengers and crew perish, including the Captain. One lifeboat, with 17 passengers, makes it to shore.

A subsequent Board of Trade inquiry blames the ship’s captain and first officer, as well as the lighthouse crew. A fog bell is supposed to have been installed in the lighthouse in 1846, seven years earlier, but is delayed due to costs of other construction projects. The bell is finally installed in April 1853, as a result of the Queen Victoria shipwreck and the subsequent inquiry.

At least one attempt to raise the ship is made afterwards, which fails, and the ship is salvaged where she lay. The wreck is still in place.

Members of the Marlin Sun Aqua Club, Dublin discover the wreck in 1983. They report their discovery to the authorities, and are in part responsible for having the first Underwater Preservation Order placed on a shipwreck in Irish waters. They also carry out the first underwater survey on such a wreck. The wreck is the first to be protected by The National Monuments Act (Historic Wreck), when the order is granted in 1984, thanks to representations made by Kevin Crothers, IUART, and the Maritime Institute of Ireland.

(Pictured: PS Queen Victoria’s shipwreck as depicted in The Nation)