During the last week of October 1860 members of the crew of the Connaught began to return to Galway. On October 28 the first to arrive came by train ‘where a large number of people on that afternoon were at the station to welcome them back.’
The Galway Vindicator described the occasion: ‘It was with difficulty that the railway porters could keep back the people from the carriages ere their swift course had been stopped ..’
One of the first to step out of the carriage was Mr Eyre, the fifth officer on board the ill-fated Conn au, whose reception was ‘quite an ovation, and so it should, for the mail brought news of the part this young Irishman played amid the jarring of fire and water in his unfortunate ship.’ Mr Eyre was surrounded by women ‘whose husbands, sons, and brothers, formed part of the ship’s crew, asking for news, and when they will come home'.
By a directive of the board of trade an official inquiry ‘into the circumstances attending the loss of the Mail Packet Connaught opened at Greenwich, London, on November 22. The report, published shortly after, assured everyone by stating there was nothing to prove, lest there should be any doubt, that the ship was lost through the wrongful act or default of any person holding a Board of Trade certificate.
That said it does observe that ‘it may be thought that a little more intelligence might have been displayed in the endeavour to detect the probable cause of the leak, and to apply the most effectual remedy.’
The board praised Capt John Wilson of the Minnie Schiffer without whose ‘great zeal and intrepidity’ the passengers would have, ‘ in all probability,’ lost their lives.
The report concluded that the ship ‘was abandoned at 10pm, the master, Capt Leitch, being the last person to quit her. ‘The Connaught was last seen about 2.30am, burning terrifically, apparently fore and aft.’
Not surprisingly with such financial losses, and the disillusionment that paddle-steamers from Galway were the quickest way to get to America, the Galway Line, with all its magnificent plans for a deep-water harbour at Furbo, gradually faded from the drawing board.
Yet despite the challenges and bankruptcies, there was, however, a huge demand for a cheap passage to America. Following the Great Famine an estimated one and a half million adults and children added to the surge of people fleeing persecution and poverty from all over Europe. Many Irish landlords paid their passage-fare to have rid of unproductive people.
As a result Galway had a small, but profitable fleet of sailing ships, eager to take on passengers to America, and hopefully return with its holds filled with American tobacco, wheat, corn, timber and farm machinery.
The Persse family, and their contemporaries the McDonaghs, the Delargys, and the Comerfords, exemplified the Galway seafaring and maritime tradition since medieval times.
The Yorke family** owned a number of the largest vessels in the Galway clipper fleet, which offered a fast transatlantic crossing, including The Gladstone, the Joseph Hinsley, The Celt, and the Ocean Child. The Ocean Child was converted from a merchantman to become little better than a ‘coffin ship’, offering cheap one-way passages to the New World.
During the American Civil War (1861 - 1865 ) many Galway boats could not resist the temptation to break through the United States blockade of Confederate ports. If they were successful vast profits could be realised. If captured a ship owner lost his boat, had to pay a hefty fine, and see his crew imprisoned. Yet if a shipowner was lucky there was money to be made.
In fact so concerned was the United States at these transgressions from Galway it appointed its own US Vice-Consulate in the town. In a report to Washington the vice-council stated that ‘Galway streets were full of Confederates.’
But the story of the PS Connaught is not over. Its wreck has recently been discovered by an enterprising American company, The Endurance Exploration Group, which boldly state that its company policy is to ‘endeavour to recover lost riches from ships vanished in the ocean debths.’
Using modern detection equipment the company started its search for the Connaught in earnest last year, sweeping their sonar-scan over 700 sq. miles of ocean floor, approximately thirty times the size of Manhattan.
It claims to have located the 160 years old wreck, which despite its devastation by fire, is easily recognised by its distinctive hull, and paddle-wheel casings.
Mysteriously shortly before the Connaught set off on her return journey from Boston to Galway in October 1860, the sum of ten thousand pounds sterling, owned by the Union Bank, Newfoundland, was loaded on board, and presumably went down with the ship. The Endurance Exploration people now say the ten thousand pounds was in gold coins, and is worth at least $15 to $20 million today.
The saga of this great ship continues….
Next week: Galway has had pandemics before.
NOTES: *Neither passengers nor crew testified at the inquiry. The report was published in the Times December 12 1860.
** The Yorkes were responsible for building the first lighthouse on Aran, at Eochaill on Inishmore, in 1818. To aid the construction of the lighthouse tower, a powerful stallion was brought to the island to drag blocks of limestone up to the site. The stallion so impressed the islanders, who were used to the smaller Connemara ponies, that the colloquialism ‘ Stail Yorke’ entered the vernacular as a byword for enormous strength. Yorke himself married the daughter of the family Wiggins, with whom he had lodged during the construction. They lived on Long Walk, Galway (Tim Collins ).
I have taken the story of the Galway Line from two excellent articles in the Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society: ‘The rescue of the passengers and crew from the Connaught October 7 1860, Vol 63 2011, by James Mitchell; and The Galway Line in Context, Vol 46, 1994, by Timothy Collins. Also ‘Transatlantic Triumph and Heroic Failure’ by Timothy Collins, published by The Collins Press 2002.