Vincent’s song about 1847 wreck of the Exmouth in which over 200 perished features in new book
A new song penned by the well-known traditional singer Vincent Strunks about the loss of the Exmouth which foundered off Islay after leaving Derry for Quebec in 1847 has been included in a new book compiled by Wexford-native Rachel Uí Fhaoláin.
‘In the Singing of Songs’ is a compilation of 33 new songs and recordings in the Irish traditional style, which was edited by Ms. Uí Fhaoláin, who is a member of the North Wexford Traditional Singing Circle.
Vincent, from Creggan, was asked to take part in the project and contributed an account of the tragic loss of over 200 lives when the Exmouth was lost after leaving Derry at the height of the Famine.
The Derry-singer explained: “The Exmouth of Newcastle tragedy occurred after the ship left Derry Quay on 1847 for Quebec, Canada. The ship foundered after storms gathered between Derry and Islay and the ship was lost after being wrecked on the coast of Islay.”
Hundreds of passengers – all from Derry and its hinterlands – are known to have perished in the sea disaster.
An account of the terrible tragedy was carried in this newspaper in its edition of Wednesday, May 5, 1847.
Under the headings 'Disasters at Sea - Dreadful gales' and 'Loss of the Exmouth with Passengers' the 'Journal' printed the contents of a letter from a Mr. G.T. Chiene, who was the ‘Factor [a property manager or undertaker for a landlord in the Highlands or Hebrides] of Islay’, to a Captain Ramsay, of the Royal Navy, who was a Government Emigration Agent in Derry at the time.
The ‘Journal’ reported how the Exmouth left Derry on ‘the 24th ultimo with 208 passengers, all from this neighbourhood, and 11 of a crew'.
“She encountered the gale from the South West on Monday, during which all her sails were blown away, and, on Tuesday night, she struck at midnight against one of the rocky islands to the West of Islay, and immediately after she went to pieces.
"All on board perished excepting three of the crew. The passengers were chiefly from Kilmacrenan, Letterkenny, Ballyshannon, Stranorlar, Clonmany, Enniskillen, Strabane, Dungiven, Newtown Limavady, Castlederg, Omagh, Ballymoney and Shanreagh,” the account states.
Mr. Chiene’s letter was dated Wednesday, April 28, suggesting the Exmouth left Derry on Saturday, April 24, ran into difficulty between Inishowen and Islay on Monday, April 26, and eventually foundered on the ‘two rocks of Sanaig’ on Tuesday, April 27.
The ‘Journal’ report quotes directly from the correspondence: “She struck on a bold rocky coast, and immediately must have gone to pieces. The three men saved [John Stevens, a seaman, and George Lightford and William Coulter, both apprentices from South Shields] were on the maintop, and must having fallen towards the shore, they scrambled on the rocks, and succeeded in making good their footing.
"I have just come from the spot, and only eight of the bodies have been washed on shore, three women, four children, and a boy, but so bruised that nobody could have identified them.
“The corpses were decently buried, and the same rites will be performed to any more that may be washed ashore. The vessel and everything in her must have been lashed into ten thousand pieces, and nothing but bits of wool and tattered bed clothes, and men and women's garments, chafed and torn on the rocks, have been picked up on the shore.
“No documents of any kind have been got except one of the sailors' register certificates. Should anything that can be identified, or of the least value cast up, I will not fail to advise you."
An alternative account of the tragedy in the Illustrated London News of May 8, 1847, gave a higher death toll.
It reported that the brig – a former whaler – left Derry on Sunday, April 25, and 240 passengers died. Moreover, a memorial on Islay to the victims states that 241 passengers drowned.
Derry gave freedom of the city to John Borlase Warren who defeated the French at Tory leading to the capture of Wolfe Tone
Vincent has long had an interest in the tragic wreck of the Exmouth. Over 20 years ago he was involved in a project of commemoration to those who had perished.
He explains: “The late Micheal McGuinness, a historian with Derry City Council, was the brains behind the whole project. He contacted myself, as well as the Irish speaker, Seán Ó Tuathaláin, the fiddle player, Brendan Saunders, and the piper Paul Carlin. We were to take part in the unveiling of a monument to commemorate the loss of those lost.
“A memorial was erected near Sanaigmore Bay as a reminder of this terrible tragedy. The English text is as follows: ‘This memorial is dedicated to the memory of 241 Irish emigrants who lost their lives on the 28th April 1847, when the brig The Exmouth of Newcastle out of Derry and bound for Quebec, Canada at the time of the Great Famine, was wrecked on the north west coast of Islay. 108 bodies, mostly women and children (63 under the age of 14, and 9 infants) were recovered and are buried under the soft green turf of Tràigh Bhàn. May their souls rest forever in the Peace of Christ’.
“The monument comprises a rubble-built cairn surrounded by a low wall and was unveiled on June 23, 2000 by Daniel Mulhall [ who was then Consul General of Ireland. The Derry musicians also provided music at the unveiling.”
Now, courtesy of Rachel Uí Fhaoláin’s new collection, Vincent’s song written in memory of the disaster will ensure the memory of those lost lives on.
The book and accompanying DVDs are available to buy. Email [email protected] or ceolmochr[email protected]