The unfortunate collision of the Indian Empire into the well marked Margaretta Rock in the middle of Galway Bay was a blow to the newly established Galway Line. But by no means was it a knockout. Galway’s vaulting ambition to open a new ‘highway between the old and new worlds’ took on an even more determined energy. The exploitation of steam-power, driving ever bigger ships and faster trains, led to wild speculation as to what could be achieved even from Galway, in the middle of the 19th century.
A prospectus proudly proclaimed that ‘first class steam vessels could ply between Galway and the New World in only seven days’. A journey between London and Galway would take only 18 hours, 30 hours from Paris; and it envisaged ‘one complete, perfectly straight and continuous immense chain of steam communication linking St Petersburg, through the British Isles, and via Galway to New York in 15 days or less…’
In these islands Liverpool had the lion’s share of the human traffic to America. It also had lucrative postal contracts, and capacity for cargo on the return passage. Yet at a momentous public meeting held in Galway January 25 1850, it was agreed that the town, located some 300 miles closer to North America than Liverpool, ‘was the obvious location for the reception and transmission of the transatlantic mails’.
A royal commission was set up to establish the viability of Galway, but long before it published its recommendations, Galway assumed that it would be the chosen site.
By the time the Indian Empire sailed into Galway Bay, eight years later, Galway was ready. The Dublin railway had been extended to a new terminus practically in the centre of the town. The transatlantic steamship company had been established, a deep-water harbour had been located at Barna/Furbo, and an experienced Manchester shipping magnet, John Orrell Lever, headed up the company which had substantial investment capital. Rev Peter Daly, a power-driven, ruthless man with all the charm of a fallen angel, had invested heavily in the project. He was a member of the board. He was reputed to be the wealthiest priest in Ireland.
What could go wrong?
High tide quickly refloated the Indian Empire, and despite all the accusations and suspicions of a jealous Liverpool bribing the pilots to sabotage its maiden voyage, it set out for the new world on its first voyage for the Galway Line, under the command of Capt E Courtney on the evening of Saturday June 19 1858. *
The Freeman’s Journal commented on all the preparations and expectations for the maiden voyage. American mail will be dispatched from Dublin the evening before the ship sails. It further noted that the average voyage times from Liverpool by Galway’s arch-rival shipping lines, Cunard and Collins, have been 11 days and twenty-two hours, ‘Six days is considered a first class passage; but the Indian Empire is expected to reach Halifax in only nine days at the utmost, and perhaps in eight’. **
However, the first voyage was disappointing. It carried only 11 passengers and a small cargo. It had begun its journey with one of its four boilers out of commission. Worse was to come, as a piston fractured in mid-Atlantic, leaving the ship to complete the voyage on one cylinder. The result was that it took 12 days to reach Halifax, arriving in the early hours of July 1, before proceeding to New York.
In New York, however, it received a hero’s welcome. Literally. A crowd of well-wishers met the ship and gave a rousing reception which included none other than Thomas Francis Meagher, known as ‘Meagher of the Sword’. Meagher was idolised for his daring escape to America from exile in Australia, and was immediately taken into the bosom of the Irish-American establishment. He lavished praise on the Galway venture. His presence insured maximum publicity from the Irish-American press.
Fr Peter Daly
In the meantime a high-powered Galway delegation met the prime minister Edward Smith-Stanley, Lord Derby, a formidable politician, in Downing Street, to pursue the funds for the new Galway harbour estimated at an eye-watering sum of £150,000 at the time. The delegation, which numbered ‘upwards of seventy members, including the two Galway MPs, William Gregory and Lord Dunkellin, the High Sheriff of Galway, and interested parties.
The Prime Minister had already expressed the view that he would not, on the part of the government, desire to hold out any expectation….that the transatlantic packet station would be established on the west coast of Ireland, or that any preference was intended to be shown in favour of one port over another…’
Undeterred Fr Peter Daly exhibited several beautiful plans of the proposed harbour, outlining the ‘unrivalled capabilities for manufacturing industry’. Given the estimated price at £150,000, the Prime Minister asked what security Galway would offer if such a sum was agreed. Fr Daly boldly stepped forward and said that he himself would stand as guarantor for such a loan.
The Prime Minister (rather unfairly ) said he understood that the Indian Empire had its teething problems, indication that he knew all about hitting the rock in the bay. He was amused by it all.
There the matter ended with the Prime Minister saying that a commission was examining the feasibility for a port in Galway, which had been expanded to also consider Foynes on the Shannon. He would give his answer when that report was published.
If the inclusion of Foynes presented any problem to the delegation, it did not comment. But when, on his return to Galway, Peter Daly reported to a joint meeting of the town and harbour boards regarding his recent mission and the role he played, he was accorded a unanimous vote of thanks ‘for the great disinterestedness shown by him on this, as upon all other occasions, where the promotion of the interests of the people of Galway were concerned.’
Next week : The Commission speaks, and who is the Rev Peter Daly?
NOTES: * What happened to the the two Galway pilots responsible for landing the Indian Empire on the Margaretta Rock? Both Henry Burbridge and Patrick Wallace were released on bail pending court proceedings. During this time Wallace was found dead, and after a post-mortem was found to have poison in his stomach. No details of the poison were given. After which there is little or no news of the pair.
Timothy Collins, one of several Galway historians who have written extensively on the Galway Line, suggests that Burbridge and Wallace were inexperienced pilots, were probably hired cheaply, and rammed the ship on the rocks through ignorance of the bay. It emerged later that both Burbridge and Wallace were barely literate, and unable to read a marine chart. Perhaps Wallace had died from too much bad whiskey.
As for Liverpool’s ‘jealousy of Galway’ Dr Collins says that on examining contemporary Liverpool newspapers, there is no mention of Galway, or of her efforts to secure a transatlantic packet station.
** These steamers required huge quantities of coal. The Indian Empire consumed 52 tons of coal a day. With the increasing demand it was decided to create a stockpile of coal in Galway. On Friday July 13 1859 900 tons of Welsh coal was landed, which was regularly topped up from visiting coal ships, and brought ashore on the James Baines, a dismasted schooner, permanently moored in the roadstead.
Sources include The Galway Line by Timothy Collins, Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, volume 46 1994, The Quest to Establish a Transatlantic Port in Galway, by James Mitchell, JGAHS, volume 67 2015, and the helpful staff Galway City Library.
Read more stories from the Old Galway with Tom Kenny on The Old Galway.