|Clare County Library
The year 1850 had been a bleak one for Kilkee. Few parts of Ireland had been so severely stricken by the Famine as the area of the Kilrush Union, which included Kilkee, and the worst effects of that calamity were still all around. To add to the terrible misery of the people a storm in February wreaked havoc all along the coast. The Limerick Chronicle of the 9th February noted.
"There is not a cabin between
Kilrush and Kilkee which is not levelled to the ground or unroofed
Huge rocks were torn from the cliffs and the Puffing Hole was covered over. At the beginning of the holiday season a visitor wrote: "There is in and about that village melancholy trace of wretchedness and starvation". In May the people were warned at Mass that there was fever in the village. Later notices appeared in the Limerick Newspapers announcing that Kilkee was free of fever and sickness. But in spite of efforts to put on a brave face to assure the citizens of Limerick that Kilkee was flourishing the Limerick Chronicle reported on the 20th July that there were 100 lodges vacant in the resort.
Many Limerick people were little disposed to visiting the seaside that year. For those who did come it must have been difficult to dispel the feeling of gloom which prevailed. Some of the gentry tried to brighten up the season and Mr. Dickson of Vermont, County Limerick, owner of Merton Lodge, brought his yacht into the bay. It was gaily lit up at night and brought an appearance of good cheer to the place. A fire-works display was arranged and Mr. Joseph Fogerty of Limerick cleared the Puffing Hole with blasting powder. But in spite of all this the sense of impending disaster seemed to increase as the holiday season drew to a close. In August a young man was drowned while bathing at the West End. In September it was reported that a sea monster had been sighted near Bishops Island, and this was regarded by the superstitious as a certain ill omen. In the following week a Miss Evans, a visitor, disappeared after having been seen walking towards the cliffs.
During all that year the emigrant ships were bringing thousands from Limerick and Clare to America. Week after week pages of advertisements appeared in the Limerick papers offering passage from that port to the United States and Canada. Among the ships which plied to and fro across the Atlantic was the brig, 'Edmond', a three-masted sailing vessel, registered in London, but this year chartered by John McDonnell, a Limerick merchant and member of the Corporation who owned a timber yard in Clare Street. As the year wore on and the weather worsened the passage by sea became more dangerous but the ships continued to cross, carrying full lists of passengers to the New World and returning with cargoes of timber for the Limerick timberyards. Already, on the 4th August, the 'Edmond' had landed 227 passengers safely at Quebec. On the 8th, 12th and 15th October, 1850, the following advertisement appeared in the Limerick Reporter and Tipperary Vindicator:
State, Cabin, Second Cabin and Steerage
950 tons Burthen,
In fact the 'Edmond' did not leave Limerick Docks until Friday the 15th November. By this time there had been a change of captain, the new commander being John Wilson, an Englishman while the first mate was William Thompson. On board were 195 passengers and a crew of 19 in addition to the two officers already mentioned. After sailing down the Shannon she lay to near Scattery Island and then, on Sunday the 17th she sailed to Carrigaholt where she spent the night. On Monday morning, the 18th of November the weather seemed favourable, and the captain weighed anchor and the Edmond passed Loop Head and sailed out into the Atlantic. After sailing all that day and having gone some thirty miles out to sea the storm struck. The ship was blown back towards the Clare coast. The captain tried to direct her towards the Mouth of the Shannon but the gale became so fierce that every bit of canvas was blown away and two of the masts were lost. By Tuesday evening the Edmond was being driven helplessly before the wind. At about 11p.m. on Tuesday night, the 19th of November she was blown into Kilkee Bay. At first she came aground on the reef at the mouth of the bay called the Duggerna Rocks, but as the tide rose she loosened and very quickly drifted further into the bay. Eventually she struck the rocks just under Sykes House at that point which is still called Edmond Point, near what was at that time called the "Churn Hole".
That night, Sykes House was occupied by the family of Richard Russell, a son of John Norris Russell, a prominent Limerick businessman. Richard Russell has left us a vivid account of what happened next. The windows of his bedroom had been rattling, shaken by the storm, and he was trying to fasten them when looking out, he saw, just below him, the stricken ship drifting towards the rocks. Dressing quickly, he called his manservant, Henry Likely, and they both hurried down to the rocks. Before they appeared there had been a frightful silence. As soon as their lights were seen, a despairing cry rose from the helpless emigrants. The anchor had been lowered and the ship was being beaten broadside against the rocks by the huge waves. The plight of those on board was now desperate. The waves were rolling off the spars and rigging and the screams of the women and children could be heard above the noise of the sea and the roaring of the storm. The captain ordered the rigging of the foremast, the only one remaining, to be cut so that it fell across the rock, thus making a kind of gangway for the passengers. Russell had sent word of the ships danger to the Coast Guard and soon he and his servant were joined on the rock by three Coast Guard men, James McCarthy, Timothy Hannigan and Patrick Shannon. All accounts agree that but for the efforts and courage of these five, very few would have been saved. At great personal risk they began to assist the passengers to land. The captain began to guide the passengers across the fallen mast-head. The men on the rock had to lead them, one by one, first to the rock itself and from there to the land under Sykes House. All the time the sea drove mercilessly over them so that it was a miracle that anyone was rescued. Several times the rescuers were knocked down by the force of the waves but they continued their efforts until one hundred of the passengers and crew were brought safely to land.
But now the tide was rising swiftly and it became impossible to land more on the rock. The captain hoped that they could wait, either until the tide receded or the storm abated. But this was not to be. As the spring tide rose higher the power of the waves and the force of the storm grew stronger and the ship began to break up and part amidships. It was at this time that the ships carpenter, John Finn of Limerick, was drowned. He had been helping the passengers to cross to safety and had been personally responsible for guiding 15 of them to the rock. He had just gone below to secure his working chest when the ship broke up and he was lost. It was now about three oclock on Wednesday morning. The agony was drawing to a close. Several others tried to land on the rock but were quickly washed into the sea. As the ship broke in two those remaining on board clung to the afterpart of the vessel which was carried by the tide in towards the strand. As it drifted into the beach it was turned over on its side and all those left in it perished. Their bodies were found in the wreck later that morning when the tide went out. The captain and mate were on the poop deck in the stern part when it was driven shore-wards. They had remained with the ship till the end. They were flung into the sea and with two or three others miraculously reached the beach in safety. One of the others was a woman whom the captain lashed to a plank which carried her safely into the strand.
The prow half of the vessel, held by the anchor, continued to be dashed against the rock until it was ground to fragments which the waves and the storm hurled into the air. All was now over and no more could be done for the unfortunates who had failed to reach the shore. Attention had to be given to those rescued. They were in a pitiful state, exhausted by their terrible ordeal and completely destitute. Russell took 40 of them into Sykes House. He gave all the beds to the women and made the men as comfortable as possible by the fire. Dr. Griffin, Richard Studdert, Francis ODonnell, the coroner for the district, and many others brought some of the rescued into their homes and gave them food and bedding.
With daylight the appalling extent of the tragedy became apparent. The entire beach, from Sykes House in the West End, to Atlantic House in the East End, was stewn with fragments of the wreck, planks, bolts, staves, canvas, boxes and trunks interspersed with the bodies of the victims which were being washed ashore every hour. 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. The melancholy task of collecting the dead was undertaken early in the morning and later that day one woman counted thirty bodies heaped on the grass in front of one of the houses on Marine Parade. By the end of that day 47 bodies had been taken from the sea and Mr. Blair, Lloyds agent, arrived from Kilrush with 50 coffins. Mr. Garrett Fitzgerald, an emigration agent had arrived and called the roll at 3 p.m., when it became clear that nearly one hundred people were missing. Most of the victims already found were women and children and many were buried in Kilfiera graveyard. At an inquest held at Kilkee on Thursday 21st it was reported that 54 bodies had then been found.
When news of the disaster reached Limerick, the Corporation, at a meeting on the Wednesday, set up a Subscription, and collectors were appointed. All the businessmen contributed and John McDonnell, who had chartered the ship, contributed £20 and sent a messenger to Kilkee to help the survivors. These were brought to Kilrush by coach and from there to Limerick by steamer on Friday 22nd. McDonnell returned the passage money to the survivors and also paid them subsistence money. The Lord Lieutenant sent £20 to the Subscription list and contributions came from all over Ireland and from England.
On 26th November, Captain Ellis, Emigration Agent at Limerick, issued a complete list of those lost. They included 11 men, 47 women, 30 children and 10 infants, a total of 98. Of the crew only John Finn, the carpenter was lost. For weeks after the tragedy the bodies of victims were being washed ashore at Kilkee. On the 14th December the Limerick and Clare Examiner reported that the police were still busy coffinning and attending to the burial of the dead.
In January 1851, the Royal National Institute for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck awarded silver medals and £7 each to the three Coast Guard men who had done so much on that terrible night. A medal was also awarded to Richard Russell and an award of £2 was given to his servant, Henry Likely. The ship was a complete loss and the wreckage was auctioned off for £180. Several unfortunates who were caught taking property belonging to the passengers and ship from the beach were given stiff prison sentences and others received fines of up to £20 for concealing property from the wreckage. This was in sharp contrast to the result of the case brought by Captain Wilson against one prominent local magistrate accusing him of being party to the robbery of a large amount of material from the wreck. The case was heard at Kilkee in December, 1850 and the court, which was presided over by Colonel Vandeleur of Kilrush, included two relatives of the accused on the bench. In spite of the fact that clear and conclusive evidence was given incriminating the accused magistrate the court acquitted him and Colonel Vandeleur ended the case by congratulating him on this happy vindication of his character.
Clare County Library wishes to thank Clare Local Studies Project
for preparation of text for this publication.