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Folk, fables and foibles the guidebook forgot to mention
  • Fergus Manor

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

mafia.

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

Island well.

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

downriver.



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.



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