Derry author portrays life aboard the Minnehaha

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Derry author portrays life aboard the Minnehaha

She was the most famous ship owned by local shipping magnates, the McCorkells.

'Off Malin Head': this painting shows the Minnehaha returning from New York to Derry on February 3, 1864, in a record time of 16 days.

'Off Malin Head': this painting shows the Minnehaha returning from New York to Derry on February 3, 1864, in a record time of 16 days.

For twelve years, the Minnehaha carried passengers between Derry and New York where she was known as “the Green Yacht from Derry”.

Built at a cost of $72,000, she was able to cross the Atlantic Ocean in all weathers.

This impressive ship was practically the last great locally-owned vessel to be involved in trans-Atlantic shipping before the advent of steam power which eventually caused the McCorkell Line to close in 1896.

It is the Minnehaha – and the associated story of emigrant passengers and life both on board ship and ashore – which forms the centrepiece of Owen McGonagle’s new book, Minnehaha: The Princess and the Maiden City.

Owen – who retired recently as head of the design department at Letterkenny Institute of Technology – describes his story as a “sailor’s tale”; “a tale of seafaring and of the toils and tribulations of sailors and their ship and its human cargo.”

As a qualified Offshore Yachtmaster Instructor and a former Commodore of Lough Swilly Yacht Club, some would say Owen is perfectly placed to take on the challenging task of tracing a nautical narrative.

His well-researched portrayal of late 19th-century life on board a trans-Atlantic clipper is jam-packed full of detail including technical aspects of sailing and navigation.

The book also includes a sail plan and a glossary of terms, including idioms of the era – always a boon for the ‘landlubber’ reader.

The author likens the book to taking “my digital camera on board the Minnehaha…at the end of August 1870” and “sailing on her for three months across the Atlantic Ocean and back.”

He adds: “The resulting footage could then be edited and reconstructed, with sensitivity, to construct a narrative. This would include an interpretation of the daily lives of the people involved, the day-to-day bricolage of life at sea, under sail: man against the elements and, sometimes, man against man.”

Owen contends that the skills of maintaining, sailing and navigating clipper ships should be recognised as a substantial human achievement while the human cost in lives lost is a “shocking indicator of the risks undertaken.”

He says: “The ordinary sailor depended on the owners, the officers, and, of course, the ship: when all was in harmony, a sailor would labour long and hard without complaint for small return; a typical working week at sea was eighty-four hours on duty with more time required in poor weather, earning a return of about three pounds a month in the mid-nineteenth century.”

Turning to the focus of his book, Owen recounts that the Minnehaha was named after the Native American princess in the poem, Song of Hiawatha, by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and she carried a carved figurehead representing the princess.

At primary school in Derry, says Owen, he can recall his teacher reciting the poem and, afterwards, arriving home to tell his mother about the story of the wonderful ship only to be told that her grandfather had been a member of its crew.

“I was familiar with the half-model he had made of the ship, under full sail, that hung above the range in my grandfather’s house and this model had a special meaning for me. My mother also had her grandfather’s sea chest, a simple box made of eighteen inch planks of pitch pine, now in my possession.”

Owen’s great-grandfather was aged 24 when he signed on as able-bodied seaman on the Minnehaha for the passenger voyage to New York.

“He signed the agreement for three pounds and ten shillings per month on August 24, 1870, and he left his parents, John and Jeenie, at their home at 115 William Street a few days later. An advance of £3 he handed to his mother. A boy with a handcart carried the pine sea chest to the ship berthed on the river, for a fee of two pence, to be saved towards a pair of boots, essential to his chosen profession.”

Owen’s great grandfather was to tragically die at sea in 1891. His body was returned to Derry for burial in the City Cemetery.

Owen says he hopes his book will be seen as a “mark of recognition of the wonderful heritage embodied in the era of the Minnehaha.”

Minnehaha: The Princess and the Maiden City, by Owen McGonagle, was launched recently at Lough Swilly Yacht Club. It’s available to buy from Eason’s, Shipquay Books, Mac’s Buncrana and the Maritime Museum in Greencastle.