Famine despair and the ‘Castle’ of death

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Yesterday marked the 164th anniversary of one of the most horrific emigrant shipping disasters of the Great Irish Famine. More than 200 passengers aboard the ill-fated ‘Exmouth Castle’ set sail from Derry Quay with mixed feelings about the journey ahead - many harboured high hopes for a bright future while also despairing at having to leave their impoverished loved ones and devastated homeland behind forever. However, a brighter future in North America would allude them due to the cruel ferocity of the unforgiving North Atlantic, writes IAN CULLEN

More than 200 passengers aboard the ill-fated ‘Exmouth Castle’ set sail from Derry Quay with mixed feelings about the journey ahead - many harboured high hopes for a bright future while also despairing at having to leave their impoverished loved ones and devastated homeland behind forever. However, a brighter future in North America would allude them due to the cruel ferocity of the unforgiving North Atlantic, writes IAN CULLEN The ‘Exmouth Castle’ set sail for Quebec from Derry Quay on April 25, 1847 as the Great Famine tightened its strangle hold on Ireland. Devastated families of men women and children from Derry, Donegal, Tyrone and farther afield, filed into the great ship with high hopes of starting afresh across the Atlantic.

Four days later, the Newcastle registered vessel - captained by Issac Booth - was smashed to smithereens as the unforgiving swell of the ocean crashed the vessel against jagged rocks located off the Isle of Islay on the North West coast of Scotland.

All souls on board the brig were lost to the raging sea with the exception of three crew members, who would later recall the chain of events leading to the horrific disaster. A memorial now stands on Islay in remembrance of those who lost their lives in the tragedy.

According to reports of the disaster, the Exmouth departed from Derry several days behind schedule due to inclement weather condition. The ship finally began it’s journey to the mouth of Lough Foyle in the early hours of April 25 with conditions adjudged to be more favourable for sailing. Before casting off, the ship had been thoroughly inspected by Derry Port’s Government Emigration Agent, Lieutenant Ramsey, and famous local shipbuilding magnate Captain William Coppin. According to contemporary reports, both men confirmed the ship to be “well equipped for the service in which she was engaged”.

But the stormy weather did not remain at bay for long and the light breeze which carried the ‘Exmouth’ down the Foyle, progressively increased in ferocity to a gale force wind as night closed in. Heavy squalls of rain hammered the vessel as sea conditions deteriorated into Monday and Tuesday.

During Monday, the force of the seas washed away both the long boat and the life boat. But worse was to come as on the following day: the ship’s mainsail and foresail were ripped up leaving the ‘Exmouth’ captain helpless. However, the most significant event in the disaster - according to contemporary reports - was the sighting of a light on Tuesday night. Captain Booth was said to have wrongly identified the light to be that of Tory on the North West coast of Ireland and coaxed the ship inshore hoping to find a safe harbour to repair the sails.

As the ‘Exmouth’ came closer it was discovered the particular light was not the stationary light of Tory but the flashing light of Oransay, off the Isle of Islay - a signal warning seafarers of the dangerous rocks and cliffs ahead.

The course of the vessel had been altered by the weather conditions and it was too late for corrective action.

The ‘Exmouth’ was caught in the breaking waters and dashed against rocks for a first time. The impact broke the maintop and it became lodged in a chasm in the rock, effectively creating a bridge which allowed the three surviving crew members to scramble to safety on the rocks. The backwash then carried the ship off the rocks and the maintop separated from the vessel completely, rendering any hope of further escapes futile. Completely immobilised, the ‘Exmouth’ was thrust against the rocks again and again until it was utterly broken up. The smashed vessel sank beneath the furious waves with its passengers entombed underdeck. The three survivors sheltered in a rock crevice until daylight when they climbed the cliff top and made their way inland. After walking for hours the men found a rural cottage and soon the ‘Exmouth’ catastrophe hit the national headlines.

According to local writer and historian Patrick Durnin, who researched the loss of the ‘Exmouth’, local newspapers were mostly sceptical towards the survivors’ accounts. “They implied that Captain Booth made a miscalculation and misjudgement, the consensus being that whenever the ‘Exmouth’ lost sail it was no longer under the control of the captain.”

In an article on the disaster, Mr Durnin explained: “Recovery of bodies was both a hazardous and horrendous experience for local islanders who precariously hung over the rocks using a grappling hook to snatch the bodies from the raging surf.”

Contemporary reports described the recovered bodies as “dreadfully mutilated, some without faces, others without heads or limbs”.

Mr Durnin added: “The corpses were hoisted to the top of the cliff and respectfully buried in a beautiful spot [Traigh Bha.] - soft green grass surrounded by wild rocks on the Isle of Islay. Two weeks after the catastrophe, 108 bodies were reported to have been recovered and buried.

To put the tragedy into a more human perspective, it was reported there were on board the ‘Exmouth’: 65 women, 74 men, 34 girls and 29 boys all under fourteen years of age, and nine infants under twelve months. Their social class was described as ‘mostly small farmers and tradesmen’ with families varying in size between three and ten members and all travelled steerage with the exception of three female cabin passengers. The emigrants came from all parts of the North West including Kilmacrennan, Letterkenny, Ballyshannon, Stranorlar, Clonmany, Enniskillen, Strabane, Dungiven, Newtown-Limavady, Castlederg, Omagh, Ballymoney and Shanreagh. Only one passenger was reported as coming from Derry.”

The exact number of passengers seems to vary, from source to source.

The local papers, the ‘Journal’, ‘Standard’ and ‘Sentinel’ stated that there were 211 passengers and 11 crew while the an account from the Illustrated London News of May 8, 1847 states that about 240 emigrants and 11 crew were on board. The newspaper further states that the passengers consisted “principally of small farmers and tradesmen, with their families.

Many were females and children going out to join their fathers and protectors, who had already settled in Canada.”

The vessel was registered for 165 passengers but, as two children count as one adult - and as a very large proportion were under age - the survivors of the wreck believed that the total number of ill-fated emigrants must have amounted to around 240.

The memorial, at Sanaigmore Bay on Islay, is dedicated to the memory of 241 Irish emigrants who lost their lives in the islands most horrific shipping disaster.