Galway’s heroic attempt to get into the transatlantic business

Reading through William Henry’s comprehensive digest of the story of Galway * from its original foundation on the banks of the Corrib to the present day, I am reminded that there was an extraordinary burst of optimism and creative energy in the middle of the 19th century despite the ravages of the Great Famine barely a decade before.

In medieval times the city knew no bounds to its wealth and power as a result of its skill and cunning in trade and mastery of the sea; but all that was lost when the Cromwellians, and subsequent invasions, destroyed the commerce of the town, even dismantling its fine cut-stone buildings.

For years the town declined and languished in poverty and decay, until the call of the New World, attracting hundreds of thousands of emigrants from all over Europe, presented Galway with a unique opportunity to step into the ‘huddled masses’, and provide a safe and speedy transport to America on modern paddle-powered ships.

Sixteen ships were provided by the entrepreneur, and MP for Galway, J Orwell Lever, whose Galway Line, boldly offered embarkation from a grandiose harbour, to be built at Furbo, just west of the town, at the end of an extended Dublin-Galway railway line. From Furbo to Boston would take only six days, twenty-four hours less than time taken from Liverpool.

Spearheaded by the energetic Fr Peter Daly, who was both the chairman of the Town Commissioners and the Harbour Board, and supported with high hopes and financial backing from the Galway business community and the railway companies, what could possibly go wrong?

Trust in God

Well, pretty well everything. During its first six years of the difficult and challenging business ferrying passengers, mail, and cargo to Boston (via St John’s, Newfoundland ), and hopefully on to New York, the Galway Line was bedevilled with bad luck. Out of a fleet of 16 ships, six were involved in serious accidents due to ice, fog as well as Atlantic storms; while five made only one trip or foundered on their first crossing. Nevertheless, between 1858 and 1864, a total of 55 return voyages were successful.

These gallant ships were driven by a mixture of paddle-power and sail, and the Galway Line, anxious to show that it offered a speedy transAtlantic service, often put speed before what the design specifications allowed. It was an eerie foreshadowing of the priorities set by the White Star Line when the Titanic made its maiden voyage fifty years later.

In these early days of paddle-steam, any weakness in the hull or superstructure led to breakdowns and delays often in treacherous seas. Yet, without fully understanding the science of the day, both owners of the Galway Line, and its financial backers, were anxious to press ahead. Although their passengers were becoming more concerned for their safety, they generally seem happy to put their trust in God rather than the engineers.

Giant of the sea

In 1860 the Galway Line launched the PS Connaught, an impressive 380ft long, iron-hulled ship, driven by a single steam-engine which powdered two side-paddle wheels. It was among the giants of the sea in its time, and probably its most opulent.

As she steamed into Galway Bay on Sunday June 24 1860 the local Galway Vindicator lavished praise on its long and graceful line: ‘ the masts, funnels and paddleboxes appeared small in relation to her great length, but the overall impression was one of speed.’

When the reporter went below decks, he was ecstatic at what he saw. The first class passenger lounge was ‘fitted in the most elegant and substantial manner. The sides are ornamented with walnut wood and bird’s eye maple panelling of the most exquisite workmanship and finish. Between the panels are beautifully executed views of the finest scenery in Ireland painted in oil….’

‘In the state rooms the panels are painted white; while the mounding is entirely burnished gold….there is a row of loungers in crimson velvet……the ladies retiring cabin with its splendid sideboard, a perfect model of upholstery work…’

On Tuesday September 25 the luxurious PS Connaught sailed out of Galway Bay for Boston with 462 passengers and a full cargo on board.

Next week: The end of the PS Connaught, but a miraculous saving of life.

NOTES: Galway - Walking through History, by William Henry (this marks his 25th book, mainly about Galway’s history and its surrounds ), published at the end of 2020, on sale €20. I am also leaning on Timothy Collins’ essay on The Galway Line, Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, Vol 46 1994.

Memories of the Old Parish

I was terrified of the Pro Cathedral which probably began when I was taken to Mass at a very young age and frightened to death of that terrible painting of The Taking Down from the Cross which hung over the altar.

In primary school we marched to the Pro Cathedral on the First Friday of every month joining with St. Patrick’s for a sermon/Confession and Mass and Communion on the following day. Of course we got gloom and doom from the priest; when a dear classmate died the priest talked of how she was taken so suddenly, and asked if we were ready to be taken so suddenly. He should have been asked if he was ready to be taken so suddenly.

One of my school friends had an acute sense of smell and on entering the Pro Cathedral would announce that ‘there is a dead person in here’ of course it was the varnish of the coffin that she smelt but as with all children her sense of the dramatic got the better of her and then there was the glee of frightening the daylights out of us.

Remember the stone plaques on the walls with the skulls and crossbones? That was also fear inducing to me!

One time a neighbour’s daughter told me of how she and another girl were praying one Winter’s evening in front of the statue of St Therese of Lisieux at the side altar. The statue began nodding its head and opening and closing its eyes; they watched and watched, sure enough the nodding and blinking continued. Being filled up at school with the stories of Lourdes and Fatima once again I was terrified. Of course the nodding and blinking were optical illusions. The church was very badly lit, there were votive candles at the side altar and combined with the draught from the side door opening and shutting with people entering and exiting the optical illusion was created.

In adulthood my mother remarked on how difficult it was to get me to Mass on Sunday; I used accompany her to 9.00am sodality Masses in the Pro Cathedral. I told her of my terror and of the blinking and nodding statue. ‘Why didn’t you tell me’ she asked. ‘You might have said that the two friends were privileged to have had a vision. I was terrified of visions, afraid that if I got one I would have to be a nun; if I kicked up a fuss about Mass, along with my terror then it would take the harm out of it’

‘Mary, you eejit’ exclaimed with the utmost affection.

Happy New Year

Mary (Tralee ).


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