Denis O’Shaughnessy tells the story of the loss of almost 100 lives aboard the barque Edmund in Kilkee in 1850
Kilkee, that seaside haven on the West coast of Co. Clare, has been a popular holiday destination for the best part of 200 years. Many famous people have spent their vacations there, including Emily Bronte (honeymooning) and Lord Alfred Tennyson; both have left us accounts of their Kilkee visit, extolling the wild beauty and towering cliffs, not so complimentary on the accommodation and cuisine though.
Kilkee in Victorian times was popularly known as the Queen of the West. Its bracing air, wonderful cliff walks, and most of all its crescent shaped strand, was deemed one of the handsomest in the country. Its sheltered situation made the bay one of the safest in the western seaboard. Just beyond the bay, however, lie treacherous reefs and rocks which in stormy weather were the graveyard of many a sailing ship, particularly mid-19th century.
Strollers traversing the spectacular cliff walk in the West End will pass the scene of many of these wrecks, not least that of the barque Edmond, which foundered on the Duggerna Rocks in the West End on November 19, 1850, with the loss of almost 100 lives.
There was no hint of the tragedy to come when at 8 am on the fateful Monday in November the barque left Limerick Docks en route to New York, with one hundred and ninety-five emigrants and a crew of twenty-one aboard. By far the greatest number of passengers on board were from Co. Limerick, survivors of the Great Famine, and now filled with hope of a new life in New York.
A fine breeze from the south-east favoured the passage of the barque, and after an incident free but slow journey down the Shannon (tides and winds had to be favourable) but as she left Loop Head, the wind veered to the south-west and increased to storm force, one of the fiercest in living memory. The storm blew the barque in a north-easterly direction, almost parallel to the feared Clare coastline and towards the rocky shelf that stands just where the beach ends in the West End in Kilkee.
What happened next was graphically described by an eye-witness, as reported in the Limerick Chronicle. Richard Russell, of the miller firm of J. N. Russell and Sons was awakened by the storm in his bedroom in Sykes House (still extant) situated a short distance from the scene of the shipwreck and was to bear witness to the tragedy that was to follow: “Awakened by the storm, I looked out the window of my bedroom and was horrified to see before me, within about 100 yards, a large vessel aground outside the rocks.
“At first, there was no appearance of any living creature on board,, but as soon as we made our appearance with a light, there was one sudden burst of agony for assistance. I can never forget it, the sound will continue fresh in my ears. I went at once for assistance.
“Where the vessel first lay, there was no earthly chance of saving a soul but as the tide rose with terrific fury she drifted in close to the black rock opposite our house where the men usually bathe in summer. There, the sea made terrific breaches over her. The captain, a noble fellow, ordered the weather rigging of the foremast, the only one still standing, to be cut. By this move, which made a sort of gangway to the rocks, the passengers and crew were afforded some assistance to make dry land.