In June 1858 Galway town was in a fever of wild speculation and excitement. Its vision for a magnificent transatlantic port off Furbo, reaching deep into Galway Bay, where passengers from Britain, and throughout the island of Ireland, would be brought to their emigration ship in the comfort of a train, now faced being scuppered by the apparent criminal intent of the two local pilots.
The mid 19th century saw emigration to America on a massive scale. During the Great Famine landlords looking to evict penniless Irish tenants would pay to have them shipped to America. In many cases these ships were poorly built, crowded, disease-ridden, short of food, supplies and medical services.
But as the century moved on, the people-traffic to America grew rapidly. People had money to pay their passage, and ships were increasingly better built and well supplied. Crossing the Atlantic, however, was an arduous and at times, a dangerous undertaking. What everyone wanted, was a calm, safe, and easy journey.
The Galway plan was to make that journey as comfortable, and as trouble-free as possible. The Manchester businessman John Orrell Lever* agreed to lease three state-of-the-art steam-sailing ships to launch the Galway project. On a midsummer’s evening, June 16 1858, the first of Lever’s ships, the Indian Empire, sailed majestically into Galway Bay with 86 hands. It took on board two local pilots, Henry Burbridge and Patrick Wallace, to guide them into the harbour. To everyone’s shock and horror, the pilots (whether intentionally or not ), rammed her on to the Margaretta Rock, ** the only rock in the bay, and possibly the best known danger point in the vicinity.
It was a disaster for the Galway transatlantic plan. It appeared that it had come a cropper on its inaugural voyage. In fact the ship was easily re-floated in high tide, but when the Indian Empire came into Galway port (the Furbo harbour was never built ), the pilots were summoned to a special meeting of the Harbour Board. A furious crowd jeered Patrick Wallace to such an extent that he had to take refuge in the police station. Local newspapers printed, what everyone believed, that the pilots were bribed to wreck the ship. It was widely assumed that the Liverpool merchants, afraid that Galway would steal their monopoly on the American route, were the scoundrels behind the plot.
‘Struck on purpose’
When the two pilots were brought to court, they must have correctly feared that a fair trial was nigh impossible. Among the magistrates confronting them were two of the Galway Harbour Commissioners: Anthony O’Flaherty, chairman, and Pierce Joyce, the high sheriff of Galway, and a shareholder in the transatlantic venture. ‘The courthouse was very much crowded,’ opined the Galway Vindicator and Connaught Advertiser, ‘and great interest and excitement seemed to prevail among all present.’
‘Indeed such a feeling seemed to pervade all classes through the town’.
‘The courthouse was filled almost to suffocation and the pressure on the galleries was so great that it was found necessary to send the police to relieve the pressure of the crowd on them.’
While there was no evidence of anyone in Liverpool bribing the two unfortunate men to ram the Indian Empire, the whole town assumed that Liverpool was to blame. Captain E Courteney, the first of four prosecution witnesses, blamed the pilots. He said that if he had not reduced the ship’s speed after entering the bay, she ‘would have broken her back and become a total wreck’ when she hit the rock.
He said: ‘My conviction then was, and now is, that the vessel was struck on purpose and I told the pilots so.’
And added that he would not have steered the course the pilots did, but would have continued to follow the Admiralty Charts, as he had done without incident since leaving Southamption’...
The evidence from the other officers was much the same. Second officer John McDonald said he had never seen pilots conduct a vessel so badly. He had pointed out to Burbridge that there was a buoy ahead (marking the Margaretta Rock ). But Burbridge replied: “That’s impossible. It must be a boat.”
The chairman of the magistrates, Anthony O’Flaherty, who had earlier stated that the captain’s evidence alone was sufficient to send the men forward for trial, said that bail was refused because the ‘prosecution case so convincingly brought home to the minds of the magistrates the guilt of the prisoners.’
O’Flaherty’s opinion was shared by the crowd in the public gallery. ‘The dense crowd which thronged the court seemed highly satisfied with the decision of the magistrates, and evinced their feelings with a loud cheer.’
The prisoners were taken over the Salmon Weir Bridge to prison escorted by a large body of armed policemen to protect them ‘from the infuriated violence of the populace’.
Suicide or murder?
The dinner to celebrate the launch of the transatlantic project went ahead despite its difficult start. One of the principal movers for the whole project was Fr Peter Daly, a notorious character, a member of both the Town and the Harbour Commissioners, a member of the Catholic wardenship of Galway, and a wealthy landlord. He had long championed Galway as a viable port for trans-Atlantic traffic, and had prevailed upon Lever to use his experience as a shipping merchant to realise that ambition.
At the dinner Daly, who was also chairman and major shareholder of the Galway Bay Steamship Navigation Company, naturally lavished praise on Lever, the guest of honour, and vouched that Lever’s ships were safe in Galway ‘If they had no false pilots to deal with.’
Lever, however, was more circumspect. He said that no man should suffer prejudice or injustice ‘without good cause’, but he had to say ‘at the same time there was some undercurrent at work’, adding that he had to thank not only the gentlemen of the Harbour Board, but also the gentlemen of the bench for the satisfactory manner in which they had conducted the case’.
He said he would favour offering the pilots a free pardon if they would make a statement to say if anyone had bribed them’. He was cheered when he offered £200 to either of the pilots, now in prison, if they confessed, and told the names of those who bribed them.
Then further shock horror! One of the pilots, Patrick Wallace, suddenly died. During the inquest that followed on July 24, no fewer than three doctors said the poor man had been poisoned.
Now all hell broke loose. There was consternation throughout the town. Had Wallace been poisoned by some unscrupulous Liverpudlian to stop him talking? Or had he committed suicide?
Next week: The Indian Empire finally sails; and Daly prepares to meet the British prime minister to further Galway’s ambition.
* John Orrell Lever had made a fortune leasing ships to the British government during the Crimea War. I mis-spelt his name last week.
** In an earlier article Dónall Ó Luanaigh reminded me that a Limerick Steamship Line vessel, the Moyalla, was wrecked on, or near the Marguerite (Margaretta? ) Rock c.1946-1947. There was a buoy near the rock which emitted a moaning sound which could be heard on the prom in a south wind. ‘Old Galwegians called this sound ‘Campbell’s (pronounced ‘Camel’s’ ) Calf’. Mr Campbell had been secretary of the Harbour Commissioners’.
I am taking the above story from Ray Burke’s excellent Joyce County-Galway and James Joyce, published by Currach Press 2016, on sale €19.99, and Timothy Collins’ substantial article on The Galway Line, Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, volume 46 1994.
Read more stories from the Old Galway with Tom Kenny on The Old Galway.