|Clare County Library
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 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
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.