Riches of Clare: Brave Quilty Fishermen

Clare Champion, Friday, May 9, 2003

The Riches of Clare exhibition at the local authority-run Clare Museum charts the county’s history. In this article, museum curator John Rattigan writes about the Quilty fishermen who went to rescue the crew of the stricken Leon in 1907.

The turbulent coastline of County Clare has for centuries been a graveyard for many ships that attempted to navigate it. Famously, in 1588, the mighty fleet of the Spanish Armada lost four of its vessels to this unrelenting coastline.

On 26 September, 1907, a French Ship, the 3,000 ton Leon XIII, arrived in Cork Harbour from Portland, Oregon. The ship, owned by the Socíeté des Armatuers Nantais, soon set off for Limerick with the intention of delivering wheat to Bannatyne mills.

On October 1, the crew of twenty-two under the leadership of Captain Lucas were making their way past the coast of Quilty, when disaster struck. A ferocious storm had hit the area on the previous night and was so powerful that even the seasoned Quilty fishermen thought it more prudent to stay ashore. However, the French sailors, not realising the ferocity of the storm sailed straight into the high winds and lashing waves. Suddenly, the ship struck a reef just a few hundred feet from the shore. The deadly force of the wind and waves combined to split the ship in two, leaving the stern submerged and the crew at the mercy of the Atlantic Ocean. Before long, a huge crowd had assembled along the shoreline. Almost immediately the local fishermen set out in their currachs in an attempt to rescue the trapped sailors.

What followed has been immortalised in Quilty folklore, and was described in the Clare Journal of 7 October 1907, as “a display of reckless daring such as has rarely been witnessed in Ireland.” At the heart of the furious storm the brave Quilty fishermen drove their currachs as near to the stricken Leon as possible. Approach could only be attempted in a circuitous way through a mile of “raging, boiling water”, and yet the men continued relentlessly.

At the same time the fishermen were battling against the waves, a lifeboat from Seafield station had been sent for. After an abortive attempt by the coastguard to reach the ship, a wire was sent to Admiral King Hall at Cobh requesting a rocket apparatus in order to make contact with the vessel, but due to the weather, this equipment was not available.

With time running out for the crew of the Leon, the fishermen persisted in their endeavour to save the sailors. After many “soul-stirring scenes”, records the Clare Journal, the West Clare fishermen “thrust themselves into the waves”, until they finally reached the vessel. In a bitter struggle between life and death, the Quilty Fishermen eventually won, rescuing thirteen of the twenty-two-man crew to the jubilation of the worried onlookers. The remaining crew members brought safely ashore by the naval vessel HMS Arrogant.

These last sailors to be rescued had remained behind with Captain Lucas, who had broken his leg after been hurled across the deck. Ironically, the fact that his leg was wedged between “two bits” helped save his life for he would have been thrown into the sea if it were not for this accident. After the incident, Captain Lucas spoke of his amazement at the bravery of the Clare fishermen. “They seemed to court death, and to throw away their lives in the endeavour to rescue us”, he said. Louis Boutin, the first mate, articulated the sentiment amongst the crew by saying, “I have been all over the world, but never, never in my life have I seen any action more heroic than the conduct of those Clare fishermen”.

After the incident which lasted almost three days, the crew of the ‘Leon’ were taken to Pat Talty’s hotel (which would later be renamed “The Leon”) and were shown tremendous hospitality. The French Government later honoured the gallant fishermen by presenting them with bronze medals in the former Atlantic Hotel at Spanish Point. The Limerick Chronicle initiated a fund in appreciation of the fishermen involved in the epic rescue.

A memorial church was erected in Quilty to their memory with each of their names (as Gaeilge) over the main entrance. The Church named “Stella Maris” (Star of the Sea) was officially opened on October 11, 1911. Forty-two years later, the bell of the Leon was recovered from the wreckage by Mr. Stephen F Ebrill and was presented to the church on 11 November, 1949, where it can still be seen today.

A lifering bearing the name “Leon XIII” and “Nantes”, previously on display at Beatrice O’Dwyers’ shop in Quilty is now on loan to Clare Museum, where it is on exhibition.

As we approach the one hundredth anniversary of this historic occasion we can still appreciate the importance of what was an amazing act of true heroism.

Ní fheicimid leithéidi na n-iascairi sin o Choillte riamh arís.

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