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The Shipwreck of the St. John

One of the most tragic events to occur during the mass exodus from Ireland in the aftermath of the Great Famine was the shipwreck of St. John and the loss of nearly 100 lives, many of whom were from Ennistymon, Lahinch, and Kilfenora, off the coast of Massachusetts in October 1849.

On 7 September 1849 the St. John, a brig of about 200 tons, sailed out of Galway bound for Boston. She was owned by Henry Comerford of Galway and Ballykeale House, Kilfenora and Captain Oliver from Bohermore, Galway was in command. Aboard were nine crew members and about a hundred passengers from North Clare and Connemara. On Saturday, 6th October the ship came close to land near Cape Cod almost at the end of her journey to Massachusetts Bay. The voyage had been a good one and the captain had a ration of grog issued to the crew and he suggested to the passengers that they might celebrate their last night aboard the St. John. They, too, had every reason for merriment; they had left far behind them a country of starvation, disease and death, the voyage had been less of a trial then they had expected and they were on the shores of the golden land. They hurried to decorate the rigging and decks with candles and "passed the night in song and dance."

At five o'clock in the evening they passed Cape Cod Light and were off Scituate Light at one o'clock in the morning. But already the ship was being driven towards the shore by a fierce north-easterly gale. The captain stood to the northwards to clear the land until daylight, which would normally have come at about quarter to six. By then the gale had become a full storm and the ship was being driven southwards along the Massachusetts coast and was by morning at the mouth of Cohasset Bay. The Captain described the weather as "very thick"; the people who crowded the shore said that the waves "were mountains high". Inexorably the wind drove the little ship towards the shore. The brig came inside Minot's Lighthouse and the Captain tried "to wear away" up to another brig which was lying at anchor just inside the breakers at Hocksett Rock, but the sails were in shreds and the storm too powerful. Both anchors were dropped but they dragged. As a last resort Captain Oliver had both masts cut away but the wind and seas were relentless and the brig was driven onto Grampus Ledge. It was then about seven o'clock on Sunday morning.

Enormous waves lifted the helpless ship and smashed her again and again on the rocks. The impact broke her back and opened her seams. A hole was quickly broken in her hull and those below decks were drowned within minutes. Pounded against the rocks, the brig began to break up. Horrified spectators saw people being "swept in their dozens" into the boiling surf from the crowded decks. Even though they were deafened by the howling of the wind and the thunder of the seas, the watchers were convinced that they could hear the screams of the unfortunates as they were swept to their deaths. And their was nothing that they could do to help; only a lifeboat could have lived in such seas.

The ship was quickly disintegrating…
The jollyboat was hanging by its tackle alongside. The stern rigging bolt broke, the boat fell into the water and was being swept away. The captain, the second mate, two of the crewmen and two apprentice boys jumped into the maelstrom to secure her but about twenty-five frenzied passengers attempted to board the boat and it was swamped. Of the people in or around the jollyboat, only one survived; Captain Oliver grabbed a rope which was hanging from the quarter and was pulled aboard the ship by the first mate, Henry Comerford (believed to be a nephew of the ship's owner of the same name).

When the long boat was got clear, a number of passengers jumped into the water to reach her, but all perished. By now the ship was quickly disintegrating and the water around her was strewn with wreckage to which people clung desperately even though they were again and again buried beneath tons of water as the colossal waves broke over them. The captain, the first mate and the remaining seven members of the crew succeeded in reaching the longboat, but only one passenger. As they made their way to the shore, they met the lifeboat coming out of Cohasset to the aid of another emigrant ship, Kathleen, which was in difficulties at the mouth of the harbour. Blinded by the flying spray and spume and deafened by the waves and wind, the crew of the lifeboat had no inkling of the tragedy so close to them; they assumed that the longboat contained the entire complement of the brig and continued on their mission to assist the Kathleen.

By eight a.m. the ship had completely broken up and the worst horror was over. Eight women and four men had made their way to the shore, almost dead of exhaustion. Some had to have hands prised from the wreckage which had saved their lives. News of the disaster had spread and by early afternoon the shore was lined with people who worked unsparingly to rescue the living and retrieve the dead. They had many stories to tell. Two of the women who had fought their way ashore had each lost her three children. Patrick Sweeney of Galway had perished with his wife and nine children. Many of the bodies were badly mutilated by the jagged rocks, yet Sally Sweeney's "features were calm and placid as if she were enjoying a quiet and pleasant slumber." Mr. Lathrop, in whose house the survivors found shelter, waded into the surf to retrieve a parcel of clothing and found that he had an infant in his arms; some days later the baby was said to be in excellent health.

Time and again the bodies were thrown on the rocks by the breakers only to be swept again into deep water by the backwash. Charles Studley was so determined to bring one such body to the shore that it was only with great difficulty that he himself was rescued.

The American writer, Henry David Thoreau was in Boston when the tragedy occurred and made his way to Cohasset where he met "several hay-riggings and farm-wagons each loaded with three large, rough deal boxes. We do not need to ask what was in them. The owners of the wagons were made the undertakers. Many horses in carriages were fastened to the fences near the shore, and for a mile or more, up and down, the beach was covered with people looking out for bodies, and examining the fragments of the wreck. It was now Tuesday morning and the sea was still breaking violently on the rocks. There were eighteen or twenty of the same large boxes I have mentioned lying on a green hillside and surrounded by a crowd. The bodies which had been recovered, twenty seven or eight in all, had been collected there."

Thoreau further relates that a woman who had immigrated from Ireland in an earlier ship "but had left her infant behind for her sister to bring, came and looked into these boxes, and saw in one her child in her sister's arms, as if the sister had meant to be found thus; and within three days after, the mother died from the effect of the sight."

Forty-six bodies had been taken from the sea…
A newspaper report of the time says that forty-six bodies had been taken from the sea by nightfall, that they were coffined on the beach and, after religious ceremonies on the beach and in the cemetery, were buried in a common grave on Tuesday. Thoreau describes seeing the funeral headed by the captain and the survivors. He ruminates that "on the whole, it was not so impressive a scene as I might have expected. The sight of one body affects us deeply but the sight of so many bodies blunted the sensibilities".

Sixty-five years later a huge granite Celtic Cross was raised over the grave, sited on the highest point of Cohasset Central Cemetery so as to command a view of they bay. The cross bears the inscription: "This cross was erected and dedicated May 30, 1914, by the A.O.H. and the I.A.A.O.H. of Massachusetts to mark the final resting place of about forty-five Irish immigrants from a total company of ninety-nine who lost their lives on Grampus Ledge off Cohasset October 7, 1849, in the wreck of the brig St. John from Galway, Ireland. R.I.P."

This article is compiled from material supplied by Brud Slattery, Lahinch, John Flanagan, Lahinch and Frank Flanagan, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

Ennistymon Parish Magazine 1996

Clare County Library wishes to thank Clare Local Studies Project
for preparation of text for this publication.