Did Liverpool scuttle Galway’s Atlantic dream?

 Nora Barnacle and her children on holiday in Galway in the summer 1912.

Nora Barnacle and her children on holiday in Galway in the summer 1912.

If Eamon Bradshaw and his crew think their courageous plan to extend Galway harbour into deep water to accommodate cruise liners is a step into modernity that will bring commercial success to the city on a grand scale, it pales almost into insignificance compared to the stunning ambitions the Galway merchants schemed in the mid 19th century.

An awesome vision took hold of the town. Galway was the nearest point of embarkation to America from the British Isles for the growing transAtlantic trade. Why not build the British/Irish transAtlantic port in Galway Bay (a location off Barna/Furbo was the chosen site ), and bring every passenger to Galway in the comfort of the train, free of charge from Britain, Belfast, Dublin or where ever, and deposit them gently on board ship? Of course they could stay a night or two in Galway, enjoy the shops and refreshment establishments; even, if time and tide allowed, a quick tour of Connemara. Such a plan would be sold as the quickest, cheapest, and most comfortable way to America; and the fastest transport for mail and cargo.

There was already a steam-ship route established between Galway and Hallifax/New York, owned by the ambitious John Orrell Lever. His modest success to date must have irritated the ship owners of Liverpool who had the monopoly of the British route for that time. When they heard of Galway’s ambitions, and Lever’s plans to charter as many as three ships to meet the expected new demand, the wily Liverpudlians must have looked with some anxiety towards the west of Ireland, and talked among themselves as to how they could protect their trade.

Such was the enthusiasm for the plan in Galway, that it was launched before a magnificent new harbour was built, (estimated to cost a mere £152,000 at the time ). Lever proposed that his beautiful steam ship, the Indian Empire, specially chartered for the service, would launch the new concept of the shortest route to America, by sailing into Galway Bay on June 16 1858.

The town went mad with excitement. A dinner for the great and good was organised. Lever would be the guest of honour, and there was to be a spectacular firework display.

It was a clear midsummer evening, when the Indian Empire, with 86 hands on board, steamed majestically into Galway Bay. It took on board two pilots, Henry Burbridge and Patrick Wallace, and continued towards the harbour when, extraordinarily, it ran aground ‘hard and fast’ on the Margaretta Rock, the most obvious danger point in the large bay, surely known to all and sundry, especially experienced pilots.*

Immediately, among the cries of disbelief and astonishment, fears were expressed that the Liverpudlians, jealous of Galway’s plans, bribed the pilots to ram the Indian Empire, to make Galway Bay appear to be unsafe to sail from.

It was probably the story of the century.

Michael Healy

I am reminded of this great story reading Ray Burke’s excellent Joyce County - Galway and James Joyce** where the author intriguingly explores the many influences that Joyce absorbed during his two visits to Galway. He came here, briefly 1909, and more extensively in 1912. Of course, we are aware of his wonderful Galway Nora Barnacle, his muse, lover, and eventual wife. But the artist in him absorbed poor Nora body and soul, her physical and emotional influences, her family, language and landscape. Much of which reappears in his prodigious writings and poetry.

The 1912 visit was the first, and only time, that Nora and Joyce, with their two children, Georgio, and Lucia, enjoyed a holiday together here. They stayed in Michael Healy’s house (Nora’s maternal uncle ) at 18 Dominick Street for four weeks, between mid-July and mid-August, a very short distance from Nora’s mother’s home at 4 Bowling Green. While here Joyce sailed to the Aran Islands, cycled to Oughterard, took the train to Clifden, went rowing on the Corrib, and attended the Galway Races.

At the time Joyce was frustrated that he had still to find a publisher for his finish collection of short stories, Dubliners. He relied on teaching and his articles to various publications for a very modest income. While in Galway he wrote two lengthy feature articles on the Aran Islands and Galway city for the main Trieste newspaper, il Piccolo della Sera, where the Joyce family was living at the time.

Ray Burke tells us that Michael Healy was the Barnacle family member to whom Joyce was closest. He was quite unperturbed that Joyce and Nora were unmarried at the time (in fact they were together for 27 years before they were married ), and wrote to them regularly, even sending them money from time to time. He had a soft spot for Nora. He bought her boots when she was a child, although most children ran barefoot through the streets.

Healy was a highly respected and successful man. He rose to the position of Her Majesty’s Inspector of Custom and Excise, and also Receiver of Wrecks. It is very probable, having seen Joyce’s interest in journalism, that he would have told him the intriguing ins and outs of the mid 19th century aspiration for the major transAtlantic port on Galway Bay.

‘Liverpool interests’

The grounding of the Indian Empire on the Margaretta Rock was a far more serious psychological blow to the transAtlantic project than a physical one. At high tide, two and a half hours later, Captain Courtney, who had immediately resumed control from the pilots, refloated the ship. He brought her outside the port, and dropped anchor.

The pilots and crew were immediately summoned before an emergency meeting of the Galway Harbour Commissioners. An overflow crowd squeezed into the room to observe the hearing. The Galway Mercury thundered: ‘Much indignation was expressed at the conduct of the pilots’.... ‘The general impression was that it was done through design, and that the pilots were bribed. Wallace (one of the pilots ) was hooted by an excited mob, and had to take refuge in the police barracks or he would have been roughly handled.’

The same newspaper suggested that bribes had been paid by ‘certain Liverpool interests’.

Ask her captain, he advised them, how much palmoil the British Government gave them for that day’s work. - Ulysses (16;876 )

January 16 would have struck a bell with Joyce. On June 16 1904 was his first date with Nora, now Bloomsday.

Next Week: The plot thickens....

NOTES: *The Margaretta Rock, 1.75 miles southwest of Mutton Island lighthouse, can be clearly seen from Blackrock and Knocknacarra at very low tide. Its unlit buoy is clearly visible in daylight from Salthill and Grattan Road . Its fog horn was familiar to city dwellers until it was decommissioned in 1977. It is named after a British warship, HMS Margaretta which ran aground on it 90 years before the Indian Empire did likewise.

** Joyce County - Galway and James Joyce, By Ray Burke, published by Currach Press, Dublin, on sale €19.99

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