Two hundred years ago this month the picturesque bay of Tramore in Co. Waterford was to be the scene of one of the worst ever maritime disasters Ireland has ever witnessed, when 363 people lost their lives as the transport ship Sea Horse foundered in stormy seas, writes Ray Cleere
Tramore Bay is the delight of all who love to sojourn on its gold-carpeted expanse of strand. Yet, like the black, gnarled rocks upon its shore, it has a dark and evil side to its nature and the tragedy of the Sea Horse bears witness to the Jekyll and Hyde personality of that bay.
On Friday, January 30, 1816 – 200 years ago – the transport ship the Sea Horse foundered in Tramore Bay with the loss of 363 lives. The unexpected storm force conditions at the time, along with a substandard ship which was overcrowded and which had an inexperienced crew, ensured that the tragedy was recorded as one of Ireland’s worst maritime disasters in the 19th century.
In the 200 years since it happened the Sea Horse was and still remains the only maritime disaster in history which was never commemorated. The catastrophe of the Sea Horse was the greatest tragedy of any description and the greatest loss of life which was ever experienced in the history of Tramore.
The Sea Horse was adopted as a symbol by the town. It has been used as a logo for Waterford Crystal for 60 years since 1955. It became the symbol for many clubs and organisations in Waterford, which is Ireland’s oldest city. It is used on the crest of Tramore Golf Club. It is also used on the crest of Tramore National School.
The story of the tragic loss of the Sea Horse opens a door into a forgotten part of Irish history. It is a story which places at its centre the 363 lives which were lost and the tragic events which led to such a disastrous outcome.
The Sea Horse was a transport ship of 350 tons. It was well-built of Irish oak near or in London in 1782; the Hudson Bay Company were recorded as the owners in 1789. It was originally a three deck, three masted fighting vessel which was commanded by Admiral Horatio Nelson in 1799. In 1801 the Sea Horse was acquired by Folder and Company in England and was used as a transport ship until 1803.
From 1803 to 1807 the Sea Horse was used for trading voyages to the South Seas and was referred to at the time as a “constant trader” which sailed around the British Isles until 1813 when she reverted once more to a transport ship.
On her last fateful voyage from Ramsgate to Cork she was packed with almost 400 men, women and children. The passengers included 16 officers, 16 crew members, 287 soldiers, 33 women and 38 children, many of whom were infants. Captain James Gibbs was in charge of the 16 crew members. It was Captain Gibbs first voyage on board the Sea Horse.
The first mate was an Irishman named John Sullivan who was a native of Cork City. He had unfortunately taken passage on the ill-fated ship in order to join his own ship, the Tonnant, in Cork. The officers and soldiers were members of the 2nd Battalion of the 59th Regiment who were also known as the Lilywhites. They saw much action in the Peninsular War from 1808 until the Occupation of Paris. On December 6, 1815, they returned to England and spent Christmas at home before they were assigned to garrison duty in Cork.
The Sea Horse was not the only ship which was travelling to Ireland carrying soldiers and their families. Two other transport ships, the Lord Melville and the Boadicea were also bringing British troops from Ramsgate to Cork for garrison duty.
The voyage went according to plan for the first few days, so well in fact that a band played practically all day on deck on January 28. The voyage was uneventful until the unexpected and the unthinkable happened. A series of disastrous consequences led to the fateful outcome. The three-ship convoy were victims of the same storm and never made it to their final destination.
The Lord Melville and the Boadicea were wrecked off Kinsale in County Cork. In total, the tragedy claimed the lives of 612 people of whom 510 alone were members of the 2nd Battalion of the 59th Regiment, more than ever fell on a single day on any battlefield in the Regiment’s long history.
Thursday morning, January 29, was the start of the poor weather conditions which led to the misfortunes of the hapless inmates on board the Sea Horse. The weather had changed rapidly when a strong breeze sprung up from the South East. As the day progressed, the wind became even stronger.
By 4pm the ship had passed Ballycotton Island, off the Cork Coast. Unfortunately for the inmates of the Sea Horse, the first mate, John Sullivan, the only sailor who was acquainted with the approaching Irish coast, climbed up the forerigging to survey the land. Tragically he fell down on the forecastle, broke both his legs and his arms and suffered catastrophic internal injuries.
He never spoke following the incident and he died three hours later in his wife’s arms. His death was a loss of local knowledge which had tragic consequences for the ship.
As night fell, the gale force winds increased and it became very hazy and dark. Captain Gibbs, just as the Masters of the Lord Melville and the Boadicea had before him, decided to head towards the lighthouse at the Old Head of Kinsale, which was one of the major lights on the south coast.
Captain Gibbs intended to run down the coastline to the entrance at Cork Harbour. However, having not seen the light for two hours and as the weather conditions worsened, Gibbs decided not to proceed any further. He therefore close-reefed his top sails and hauled close to the howling wind which forced the ship inshore.
At 4am on Friday morning, January 30, 1816, Dungarvan Bay was sighted and the ship drifted very quickly to leeward. By 10.30am the gale had reached storm force. The fore top mast was ripped overboard and the mainsail was torn to ribbons. The lifeboats were washed away and a seaman broke his back and one of his thighs. Although Hook Head was now visible, the ship was unable to navigate around Brownstown Head to arrive in Waterford Harbour.
As the waves breached the ship from stem to stern, Captain Gibbs ordered the anchors to be thrown out and the sails clewed up. The ship was brought up under Brownstown Head in 42 feet of water and with almost 1,800 feet of cable.
At midday the anchors dragged and the wind and the sea still increased. The remaining masts were cut away, the rudder broke, and at ten minutes past midday, the Sea Horse, now battered and helpless, dramatically met its end at the Rinneshark channel following several harrowing hours having clung close to the coast but accidentally and catastrophically entered Tramore Bay.
At that time, many vessels mistook Tramore Bay as the entrance to Waterford harbour and once inside the bay, were unable to turn around and foundered on the rocks.
The ill-fated ship was less than a mile from the shore and from safety and people were washed overboard with every mountainous wave which struck it. The Sea Horse cracked in half and plunged out of sight to her doom into the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
At 1pm the ship had completely broken up and all were thrown into the raging sea.
About 30 people clung to the forerigging but within half an hour they were also swept into the raging sea. Many people were swept out to sea and were never recovered.
Because of the mountainous waves, no assistance whatever could be afforded to the hapless inmates of the doomed vessel by the numerous spectators who lined the shore and hoped for a lull in the merciless gale. The people of Tramore at the time watched for several hours in horror as rescue attempts were impossible.
It must be remembered that all on board the Sea Horse were crammed below deck like sardines during the storm. It was dark and very cold in those cramped conditions. The ship rocked constantly to and fro. Passengers and crew suffered from sleep deprivation.
The turbulence of the sea was frightening and it poured into the ship through every possible opening. Hypothermia had set in. Fear and anxiety contributed to the wretchedness of the situation.
By tragic coincidence a second ship was wrecked in Tramore Bay on that fateful night. A galleon, the Apollonia, which was en route from London to Cork with a cargo of clothes, tea and sugar, was dragged into the bay that night with a crew of seven on board. Because of the emergency of the Sea Horse, local people were on Tramore beach. Although the ship was wrecked in the bay, the crew and part of her cargo was saved.
The actions of those on board the Sea Horse, most of whom were forced to accept their fate, make for difficult reading.
Mothers held their children close. One father, who was in a state of extreme agitation, returned to the deck continuously in the hope of saving his family. A young girl, who was 11 years old, was in a terrified state and begged every officer who approached her to remain with her. Lieutenant Scott heard her cries and died with her when the vessel was engulfed.
Many bodies of children were found in trunks in which their parents had placed them in the hope of safety. The bodies of four small children were found in one large trunk. The body of a solider floated to the shore with his child clasped to his breast.
One woman who died with her child had forced her husband to abandon ship. Another woman, Mrs. Sullivan, the wife of the unfortunate first mate, John Sullivan, who was killed two days previously, never left his side and she died beside his body.
Many stories were collected in relation to the bravery and heroism of the crew and the rescuers from the shore. Some of the rescuers waded into the raging sea and dragged in anybody within distance.
All those who reached the shore were brought to the only small cottage which was located in the Burrow not far from the beach. It was the habitation of a humane and worthy peasant named Dunn.
Tramore was far less populated in 1816 than it is in 2016, 200 years later, but every able-bodied person in the area at the time assisted in some way in the rescue operation.
Some of those who clung to the wreck until it went to pieces had providential escapes and two men in particular, who, against all impossible odds, between them bravely and heroically saved the lives of 12 men.
Lieutenant McPherson, who had been buffeted for sometime in the waves, fortunately caught a rope which was fastened to some planks of the quarter deck which had held together. He was washed off the planks several times, sunk to the bottom three times, but somehow he managed to hold on to the rope. A local man at the time named Thomas Kirwan rushed into the sea and saved him. Thomas Kirwan also saved Captain James Gibbs and nine other men.
Lieutenant Cowper, who was first swept from a single plank and then from those who had helped McPherson, was swept near the shore by part of a mast. His situation was extremely perilous, but for the courage of another local man, a Mr. A.P. Hunt, who, although he was in ill health at the time, rushed through the foaming surf up to his neck and saved him from certain death.
A third Lieutenant, Henry Hartford, was a native of Kilkenny City, the Medieval Capital of Ireland. He was born and reared in Tennypark House, which is situated just outside the city on the main road from Kilkenny to Clonmel, Henry Hartford’s escape was truly remarkable. He clasped his arms and legs around a plank which was full of spikes.
The spikes impaled his hands and his legs but he refused to let go despite the unbearable pain. He was eventually washed ashore, firmly fixed to the plank, and somehow but miraculously, he was still alive. In 1860, 44 years later, Henry Hartford’s sword, complete with scabbard, was washed ashore.
Many people who were involved in the rescue attempts have descendants who are living in Tramore in 2016, 200 years after the disaster. Their surnames include Burke, Dunn, Dunphy, Kelly, Kennedy, Keoghan, Kirwan, Hunt, Lane, Morrissey, Phelan, Power, Reilly, Sinnott and Walsh.
Over the days and weeks following the disaster, bodies were washed up on the beach in Tramore, as was wreckage from the ship. Six months after the disaster more skeletal remains were washed up.
On one day alone 60 bodies, some of them the remains of women and children, were washed up in less than one hour. The remains were so badly decomposed that they were never identified.
As the sea raged, as the wind howled and as dark clouds hovered in the sky, the eerie and spine chilling sight of so many bodies and skeletal remains which were strewn along the shore were a horrifying sight. The remains were quickly buried in three mass graves on the beach and the courageous people who did that work must have found it very distressing.
A number of officers were buried in the old graveyard at Drumcannon Church. The officers were all young men who were aged between 19 and 29. According to Church records, 82 men, women and children were buried in the old graveyard at Drumcannon Church and a further 29 were buried on the beach in Tramore. Drumcannon Church is situated near Church Road in Tramore.
After the disaster a mausoleum lid was carved with the names of the officers. Sadly it remained unclaimed and unpaid for in a stonemason’s yard in Waterford for 60 years. When it was eventually paid for by means of a charitable donation, the stone monument was erected in their memories on the beach in Tramore.
Because of erosion the monument was relocated to the Doneraile Walk in 1912 where it remains today, 104 years later. The monument was restored 60 years ago in 1955. The Doneraile Walk affords a spectacular view of Tramore Bay, where the 363 souls lost their lives to the cold ugly sea on that dreadful day 200 years ago, Friday, January 30, 1816.
An obelisk marks one of the largest burial plots to the disaster in the Drumcannon Church graveyard. Plaques which were taken from the wreck of the Sea Horse are erected on the walls at Cliff Grange, in Tramore.
The total number of people who were on board the Sea Horse when the terrible disaster happened was 393 men, women and children, of whom only 30, all men who included the Master and two sailors, survived. The survivors were:
◆ Lieutenants John Cowper, A. McPherson and Henry Hartford.
◆ Ensign W. Seward.
◆ Corporals Nicholas Ball and Michael Malone.
◆ Drummer W. McNeill.
◆ Captain James Gibbs and two sailors.
◆ Privates John Armstrong, James Clayton, Joseph Clayton, Robert Colvey, Peter D’Arcy, Edward Donegan, Joseph Fitzpatrick, James McLoughlin, David Gailey, John Hames, James Kelly (1), James Kelly (2), John McKibben, Robert McKitterick, Henry Styles, John Tuntliffe, Robert Scott, James Huffin and Patrick Malone (who died shortly afterwards).
◆ Sergeant Thomas Curtis.
In the aftermath of the Sea Horse disaster, the eyes of the people in Tramore at the time were finally opened to the dangerous state of the bay. That led to the building of five pillars, two at Brownstown Head, and three in a field at Great Newtown Head. Each pillar is over 60 feet high and were built by the Waterford Ballast Board between 1821 and 1823. The building of the pillars was funded by Lloyds of London.
In 1823 a large cast iron statue which represents a sailor was positioned on the centre pillar of the three at Great Newtown Head. This ancient mariner is about 14 feet tall and was designed by Thomas Kirk, (1781 – 1845), who was a noted English sculptor. The Metal Man stands with his right arm pointing towards the sea.
The Metal Man and the pillars were built to differentiate Tramore Bay from Waterford Harbour. The five pillars operated as navigational markers and indicated a countdown system, three pillars at Great Newtown Head, two pillars at Brownstown Head and a single pillar at Hook Head. Legend had it that on stormy nights the Metal Man called aloud to mariners: “Keep out good ship, keep out from me, for I am the rock of misery”.
The Sea Horse Bar and Wreck licensed premises at 3 Strand Street, in Tramore, is named after the Sea Horse.
Saturday, January 30, 2016, will mark the 200th anniversary of the Sea Horse disaster. A series of events will take place to commemorate same. The bi-centenary remembrance will culminate on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, July 1, 2, 3, 2016 with a fitting service on the beach.
Ancestors of those who died are expected to travel to Tramore from many parts of the world including the U.S.A., Australia, Boston, Chicago, California, Canada, Connecticut, Germany, New York and New Zealand. ■