Tragedy at sea lit the way to safer system of lighthouses

‘Lamentably deficient’ lighting doomed ships off our coast, but led to a proper system of lighthouses, writes Robert Hume.

Fastnet Rock lighthouse, one of 78 lighthouses maintained today by Irish Lights. Picture: Peter Cox

On Monday 18 October 1847, a large, elegant sailing ship, the Stephen Whitney, named after a wealthy American merchant, left New York for Liverpool by way of Cork, on one of its three regular annual voyages. On board were 76 passengers, a crew of 34, and a cargo, which included corn, cotton, cheese, resin, and 20 boxes of clocks.

For the first 23 days of the voyage, nothing untoward occurred. But all this was to change when the Red Star Line packet ship approached Ireland’s perilous south coast.

As the ship rounded Mizen Head on Wednesday 10 November, the weather became “hazy” and the wind strengthened. When the haze turned to thick fog, Captain W Popham from Cork was unable to make out the glow of the Cape Clear light high above them.

Believing that he was already at the Old Head of Kinsale, when he was in reality still at Brow Head, Crookhaven, he began steering towards what he thought was Cork harbour.

At dinner, passengers congratulated officers on a safe journey in difficult weather. All were looking forward to meeting friends and relatives.

According to the Cork Constitution, many had emigrated from Ireland during the winter famine of 1846/47, but being “disappointed in their hopes of settling in America”, were returning home.

Just before 10 o’clock the wind reached gale force.

A cry went out: “breakers ahead!” Suddenly there was a tremendous crash as the ship’s stern struck the western tip of Calf Island, near Skull.

Recoiling from the original impact, she then smashed broadside against the rocks.

After the vessel struck a third time, it was left shaking like a reed.

“All on board were “stupefied with horror and amazement”, declared the Cork Examiner. “It was evident the ill-fated ship was doomed”.

In less than ten minutes, 92 passengers and crew were “hurled into eternity”.

Sixteen of the crew died, drowned or were crushed to death by the ship. They included Popham, a highly respected captain, who was dashed against the cliffs while trying to swim ashore.

Another victim was a local man, Joseph Cleburn of Bandon.

Seventy-six passengers perished. Many of their names were unknown because the ship only carried records of those who occupied cabins, not those in steerage class.

But there were survivors. Among them was a motherless boy, Patrick Patterson of Roscrea, Co Tipperary. Riddled with guilt for not trying to save his drowning father, he had to be restrained from throwing himself off the cliffs.

William Smith from Baltimore, Maryland, a sailor with seventeen years experience, provided a graphic account of what happened: “We had all the necessary boats… but there was no time to get them down”. When the bales of cotton fell overboard, “people began jumping on them, thinking they were rocks, and drowned”.

By chance, others, including Smith, were spared: “A very heavy sea washed us on the rock, and we jumped off, many of us without getting our feet wet… We then crept up the rock till we felt the grass under our feet, and then sat down… We halloaed as loud as we could... but there was no answer… The mate said ‘There’s a house’…” “The people of the house were as kind to us as if we had all been brothers…I had nothing but my shirt on me, and the man of the house took off his own clothes to cover me. They made us some bread, and I believe, used all their own food to make it… They had not any turf or wood, and they kept burning their straw all night to keep us warm…” Some survivors were taken by boat to Schull where people did their best to provide clothes for them.

Meanwhile, the driver of the Skibbereen mail coach took news of the disaster to Cork.

Stephen Whitney (1776-1860) New York businessman.

Next morning, a revenue boat cruising the coast between Crookhaven, Schull and Baltimore in search of lost property from the Stephen Whitney, passed through a “sea of wood” – the remains of the vessel, ground into small pieces by a ferocious tide.

Reports claimed that local people began to flock in thousands to the scene of the wreck to loot its valuable cargo.

During the next few days, bodies were washed ashore: a child picked up at Roaring Water Bay; a richly dressed lady wearing three gold rings; and a sailor with only one shoe, thrown up on the rocks at Calf Island.

One of the crew attributed the accident to the “lamentably deficient state” of lighting, which had led to so many shipwrecks. At Cape Clear the light was too high above sea level to be useful, and was often obscured by mist and fog. “The whole of the south-west coast requires to be properly lighted”, he said.

The year 1847 was a bad one for shipwrecks — there were five others off the Cork coast. But it was by no means exceptional. In 1867, no fewer than 28 ships went down.

But it was the wreck of the Stephen Whitney that resulted in a particularly high loss of life, and highlighted the need for change.

Responsibility for lighthouses, lightships, buoys and beacons around the coast of Ireland was entrusted that same year to the Commissioners of Irish Lights. Its remit was to provide aids to navigation, which ensure the safety of life and property at sea.

Under its auspices, the number of Ireland’s lighthouses has increased to 78 — stretching from Bull Rock, Co Cork, to Buncrana Light, Co Donegal, and Muglins Lighthouse, Dublin.

Irish Lights still operate a system of traditional lighthouses, buoys and beacons around the coast of Ireland. It also provides modern radio aids such as radar beacons and GPS. All play a crucial role in maritime safety today, and might have prevented 92 passengers and crew perishing in a few terrifying moments on that foggy, windswept November night.

Rammings, sinkings, and secret stashes on board

  • Warship HMS Vanguard sank off Wicklow on 1 September 1875 when it was accidentally rammed by her sister ship, HMS Iron Duke. The ships had been invisible to one another in thick fog. The collision tore a 4ft- long rent in the Vanguard’s side, and water poured into the engine room and hold. Lifeboats were lowered, and the crew was calmly transferred to the Iron Duke within 20 minutes. No lives were lost, and the only injury was a crushed finger.
  • RMS Lusitania
  • RMS Lusitania, the largest ship ever built at that time, was lost on 7 May 1915 off the Old Head of Kinsale. The liner was attacked by a U-20 submarine and sank in 18 minutes, with the loss of 1,198 lives. For days afterwards, bodies and clothing, including a baby’s tiny boot, were washed ashore along the Cork coastline. Victims were buried in mass graves in Cobh.
  • MV Plassy
  • On March 8, 1960, Irish cargo ship MV Plassy, sailing from Liverpool to Galway was wrecked in 60m/h winds on Finnis Rock, south-east of Inisheer, the smallest of the Aran Islands. The vessel carried yarn, stained glass and a secret stash of Black & White Scotch whisky. Inhabitants of Inis Oirr rescued all 11 crew from the icy sea. The shell of the rusty ship still stands on the shoreline today.


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