12. Maritime mishaps ...
What have Venice, New Brunswick, Liverpool and Ennis got in common? Well, the answer
is obvious ... Clarecastle or, to be more precise, Clarecastle Quay, the de facto ‘Port of
Ennis’ throughout the 19th century and right up to the 1950s.
Goods came to County Clare from all over the world and Clarecastle was an important
player as one of the main ports for handling these imports—and a smaller volume of
exports of course with ships often leaving the port ‘in ballast’.
As I mentioned a couple of blogs back, the stone bridge crossing the river Fergus at
Clarecastle was effectively the limit of navigation for most craft, though of course goods
could be transferred to smaller, masted and unmasted craft that could continue upstream
as far as the several quays in Ennis. On the Fergus such craft were known as shallops
and could be masted or rowed and had a rudder.
Now let’s get back to Venice, New Brunswick and Liverpool ...
As the barque Blucher set sail from the Port of Venice in 1863 with its cargo of Indian corn
destined for Clarecastle, it was departing from one of the few regions of the Italian
Peninsula that was not yet part of the ‘unified’ Kingdom of Italy. Although unification had
been formally recognised in 1861, Venetia remained part of the Austrian Empire for a
further five years.
Tacking down the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, round the heel of Italy (Apuglia) and between
the toe (Calabria) and Sicily, past a quiet Mount Etna and through the Straits of Messina, it
is unlikely that crew of the Blucher was aware of what was happening on dry land. Not
everyone was happy with a new regime dominated by a northern elite based in Turin.
For southern ‘Italians’ and Sicilians unification was not the beginning of a universal golden
age and there was considerable and concerted opposition to the new order and much
brutal and uncompromising repression of those who didn’t toe the line. Many historians
see strong links between this period of political and social discord and the origins of the
Aboard the Blucher, the serenity of the sea belied the reality of what was happening on the
starboard horizon and in Sicily.
As the crow flies, the 3000 nautical miles voyage took the Blucher west across the
Mediterranean, through the Straits of Gibraltar and out into the Atlantic before heading
north with the Iberian peninsula to starboard, towards and round the south-west fingers of
Ireland and round into the Shannon Estuary, then north into the mouth of the Fergus.
So close, yet so far for, on 21 March, finally heading up the Fergus and with Clarecastle in
its sights, the Blucher ran aground and capsized.
Almost 20 years later, on 21 August 1882, the Sunderland-built, three-masted barque, the
Alfred, left Clarecastle for Limerick en route to Miramichi in New Brunswick, a small
Canadian maritime province sandwiched between Quebec and Nova Scotia.
By 24 October the Alfred had reached Prince Edward Island, almost within sight of the
mouth of the Miramichi river, when, after a day of heavy gales, it struck rocks and was lost.
The largely Irish crew survived, including Patrick Carroll, the son of the ship’s owner,
Ennis-based timber merchant, William Carroll. It is known that Patrick remained in Canada
for a short time afterwards before moving to New York.
Had the Alfred made better time across the Atlantic, not only might it have avoided the late
October storms, but its crew may well have been able to attend the lecture on ‘The House
Beautiful’ given the previous week by Oscar Wilde at the Mechanics’ Institute in Saint
John, at the time New Brunswick’s largest city. But all was not lost on this front for Patrick
Carroll may have got to the final lecture of Wilde’s tour when he spoke about ‘The Practical
Application of the Principles of Home Decoration with Observations on Personal Dress and
Ornaments’ in New York.
The inquiry that followed the loss of the Alfred found that its Master, William James
Stephenson, was in default for careless navigation and his Masters Certificate was
suspended for three months. For Stephenson this was an even more inexplicable mishap
for he was a native of Saint John and presumably knew the waters around Prince Edward
Still, the Alfred had almost completed its 2300-mile voyage, three years earlier a Dutch
vessel, the Vooruit (probably a brig but possibly a single-master galliot), scarcely made it
On the evening of 2 February 1879, the Vooruit left Clarecastle bound for Liverpool with a
cargo of ash pitwood destined for English collieries. Heading down the Fergus towards the
Shannon the ship encountered heavy fog and the pilot decided to drop anchor near the
mouth the Fergus at Islandavanna. The next morning, as the tide receded, the Vooruit
found itself on rocks and with 50cm of water in the hold; twelve hours later, and still taking
in water—over two metres by now— the Vooruit was lying on its side.
The master and pilot decided to abandon both ship and cargo (much of which was
eventually washed up on shore) and they rowed back to Clarecastle. Steam tugs were
later sent to the scene but were unable to shift the ship from the rocks and it was
eventually auctioned off as a wreck.
But all was not gloom and doom for vessels heading to and from Clarecastle and one
more inspiring tale, the story of the brig, Ellen Forrestal, will feature in a future blog.
I am indebted to and acknowledge the research of Clarecastle historian Eric Shaw; his
knowledge about all things Clarecastle and its river is second to none.