Riches of Clare: Wreck of a Coffin Ship

Clare Champion, Friday, June 6, 2003

The Riches of Clare exhibition at the local authority-run Clare Museum charts the county’s history. In this article, Elaine Saunders writes about the tragedy of the Edmond, which sailed for America in 1850 packed with hopeful emigrants.

“A report has just reached us as we were going to press that the “Edmond”, an emigrant vessel from Limerick, belonging to the Messrs MacDonald of that city, has been wrecked on the rocks near Kilkee, and that a number of the dead bodies have been washed in upon the coast. We anxiously await particulars of this disastrous event.”

                      Clare Journal – November 21, 1850

The above quotation was the first account of the wreck of the Edmond to reach media sources. The following week, tragic details of this tragic event, which would leave almost 100 lives lost, would unfurl.

The Edmond had set sail from Limerick docks on November 15, 1850. On board were 195 hopeful passengers and a crew of 21. The vessel sailed down the Shannon and lay near Scattery Island until November 17, when she set sail for Carrigaholt where she spent the night. It was on November 18, with the weather looking favourable, that the Edmond set out for America, passing Loop Head and on out into the Atlantic. She had not sailed far when a ferocious storm suddenly struck and the ship was blown back towards the Clare coast. The captain tried in vain to master the sheer violence of the storm. Canvas was blown away, two of the masts were lost and the Edmond was blown back into the dangerous Bay of Kilkee. The vessel came in to the bay at Dugerna rocks. She was miraculously spared from being run aground “by happening to sail through the only little cut in this nearly impassable place”, according to the Clare Journal. The vessel quickly drifted further into the bay until she eventually hit the rocks under Syke’s House, the rocks known to this day as Edmond Point.

On that fateful night, a man named Richard Russell and his family was staying in Syke’s House. The storm was so fierce the windows of the house were rattling and Richard Russell began to fasten them down. The Clare Journal interviewed Mr Russell about what he saw next and he commented “what was my horror to see before me, within a few hundred yards a large vessel aground some distance from the rocks. It was low water; I cannot describe my feeling. I knew and felt that all in her were doomed to destruction and, as I then believed, not a soul would be saved.”

Russell and his servant Henry Likely were first on the scene. At first they believed that no one on board had survived “but as soon as we made our appearance there was one burst of horrid agony for assistance.” They sent for the coastguard. At this stage the captain ordered a mast to be cut to act as a bridge from the wrecked vessel to the rocks and about one hundred reached safety using this route. A crewmember, the ships carpenter John Finn, drowned having earlier helped 15 people to safety. He was the only crewmember to be lost. Many other passengers tried to make it to the rocks but were washed away. Those who remained on board clung to the vessel as it was carried by the tide to the strand. It turned on its side as it drifted. All remaining on board perished.The captain and mate remained on the ship until the end and were flung into the sea with a few others. Incredibly, they both reached the beach in safety.

With the approach of dawn the extent of the devastation was apparent. The length of the beach was scattered with belongings from the wreckage and bodies of the victims were washed ashore hourly. According to the Clare Journal, “the sight of the survivors was a harrowing one, going about with glazed eyes, husbands without their wives, children without their parents searching among the bodies for their missing relatives.”

Early that morning the task of collecting the dead was undertaken. By the end of that day, 47 bodies had been taken from the sea and 50 coffins had arrived from Kilrush. When the emigration agent arrived to begin a roll call, it became apparent that nearly 100 people were missing. Every house in Kilkee was turned into a makeshift hospital, each trying to make the survivors as comfortable as possible.

Looters and beachcombers arrived to search the wreckage for anything they could get their hands on; they even stripped the clothes from the dead and any money they had with them. Beds, clothes and other belongings were taken in the presence of the survivors and in some instances they had to beg to keep their clothes.

On November 26, a complete list of all those lost was issued. It included 11 men, 47 women, 30 children, 10 infants and one crewmember, a total of 99. For weeks after the shipwreck the bodies of the victims were still being washed ashore at Kilkee.

During the famine years, thousands of people were forced to leave Ireland in search of a new life. People left in vast numbers on emigrant ships, which set sail for the New World. Many lives were lost on these voyages due to overcrowding, disease and because many of the emigrant vessels were unseaworthy, leading to the term “Coffin Ships”.One of these ill-fated ships was the Edmond.

A medical chest salvaged from the wreckage of the Edmond is currently on loan to Clare Museum from Kilkee Development Association and serves as a reminder of this terrible human tragedy.

View the Medical Chest washed ashore when the Edmond Ship sank in Kilkee in 1850

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