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.