SS Connemara

Over 100 years have passed since the tragic collision in Carlingford Lough between the Holyhead passenger steamer Connemara and an incoming collier. Of a total of 95 people in both vessels, only one survived, and this detailed account of the disaster puts right certain misconceptions as to what actually happened on that disastrous night in 1916.

The historical researcher concentrating on the month of November 1916 is confronted on all sides, in yellowing newspaper files, company records and personal reminiscences, by the domination of the war over the affairs and activities of the nation. ‘The Great War” suggests less impersonally than the subsequent “World War I” the effect on man’s mind the conflict had.

The headlines in the opening days of that November were unfailingly optimistic: “St Pierre Vaast Wood. Brilliant and Successful Assault”, as were Sir Douglas Haig’s despatches:

“We successfully raided the enemy’s lines north-east of Armentieres. A strong enemy party entered our trenches near Cuinchy but was at once expelled.”

In retrospect, the attitudes adopted seem almost pathetically contrived to keep public morale high, for these were the closing weeks of the sustained bloodletting of the Battle of the Somme. Since July 1, the press had daily recorded the slow unfolding of the action, in which well over one million were to die, fall wounded or be made captive.

It is small wonder, therefore, that a calamity at sea at this time, one of the worst ever in home waters, was dwarfed in scale by the horror of the Western Front and speedily supplanted in public attention by the throng of momentous wartime events.

At 8.30pm on Friday, November 3, 1916, the passenger steamer Connemara, of the London and North Western Railway Company, collided with the steam collier Retriever at the entrance to Carlingford Lough. Of the 95 people aboard the vessels, all but one were lost. Perhaps because of the relative lack of national interest at this time, the disaster has remained curiously neglected ever since, and misconceptions as to the cause of the collision have thus been fostered.

The Connemara was a steamship of 1,106 gross tons, completed by Denny of Dumbarton in 1897 for the LNWB, by whom she had been employed on the Holyhead-Greenore route all her career. Greenore, Co Louth is a small port in Carlingford Lough then connected to the main Irish railway system by the Dundalk, Greenore and Newry Railway, which was owned by the LNWR.

The 80-mile sea crossing to Holyhead, inaugurated on May 1, 1873, proved increasingly popular, especially with passengers from mid-and West Ulster who had a much shorter sea crossing than the alternative routes from Belfast. The first vessel specifically built for the service, the paddler Eleanor, was wrecked in a fog North of the mouth of Carlingford Lough in 1881, but the company overcame this severe setback and a desire for greater speed and passenger capacity resulted in the delivery of the route’s first screw steamers, the Rosstrevor, Connemara and Galtee More between 1895 and 1898.

The firm were justifiably proud of their efficient and punctual service, though it is worth noting in the light of later events that the Connemara was involved in two collisions prior to her fateful one.

On the afternoon of June 23, 1900, when rounding Holyhead breakwater bound for Greenore, she was struck by another LNWR vessel, the second Eleanor, inward bound from Dublin. Damaged in almost the same spot the Retriever was to hit her 16 years later, she was forced to return to her berth and transfer her passengers and cargo to the Galtee More.

Then, in the early hours of March 20, 1910, she collided with and sank the Liverpool steamer Marquis of Bute in fog three miles North West by North of Holyhead, though fortunately without loss of life. These were isolated mishaps in the generally even tenor of activity on the Greenore service.

The outbreak of hostilities in August 1914, however, immediately deprived the LNWR of several vessels on their Dublin and Greenore routes, requisitioned by the Admiralty, and the Rosstrevor and Connemara, with the Galtee More as standby ship, maintained a restricted third-class service to Greenore.

With the introduction of the “third generation” of steamers on the route, the Rathmore and Greenore, the older sisters, had lost their first-class accommodation and now carried deck passengers, cargo and livestock. To add to the worries of shipowners and masters in these testing times came an Admiralty order to proceed at night.

Without lights in open waters; the question of whether or not the masthead light of the Retriever was lit on entering Carlingford Lough never seems to have been satisfactorily resolved, although past writers on the disaster have quite wrongly stated the lack of a light alone caused the accident.

November 1916 began with westerly gales sweeping across Britain, causing incidents here and there around the coasts that for the witnesses temporarily overshadowed the deeds of war. On the evening of Thursday the 2nd, the steam tanker Ponus, Trinidad for Falmouth, for orders, anchored offshore awaiting a pilot, but during the night dragged her anchors in the gale and came ashore on Gyllyngvase beach, her crude oil cargo later igniting to spectacular effect.

While this drama was being enacted on the South coast, high tide was making in the River Mersey, and about 4.25am on Friday the 3rd the steamer Retriever emerged from Garston Docks and slipped away downstream, commencing a routine crossing to Newry with coal.

Of 459 gross tons, the Retriever had been built at Troon in 1906 for the Clanrye Steamship Company, of Newry, and delivered a steady average of three coal cargoes per week to her home port. Twice her uneventful career was enlivened -– one foggy day in March 1907 when she picked up Capt Cocks and his crew after their schooner Rippling Wave of Fowey had gone aground on the South Rock, Co Down, and, less happily, only the previous August when she collided with and sank the Spanish steamer Lista at Garston, owing to the sudden death on the collier’s bridge of her master, Capt Barry, who was navigating the ship out of dock.

Now Capt Patrick O’Neill, mate in the company for over 11 years, was in command. Passing the Mersey Bar the wind freshened, at noon it veered to the South West and increased in velocity, and around 5pm, with a gale blowing from the South-South-West, the collier took a slight list to starboard, the result, James Boyle the sole survivor affirmed, of a shifting of the cargo owing to the heavy rolling.

Although the weather was bad, neither such conditions nor the slight list were exceptional for the ship and crew, used to a hard trade across the Irish Sea. At the official inquiry, Boyle, a 21 year-old seaman from Warrenpoint, was adamant that the Retriever was completely manageable as she approached the entrance to Carlingford Lough against the ebb tide, and he and William Clugston, the mate, went on deck to attend to the lights. Boyle lit the port one, saw the green flare of the starboard light, and heard Clugston remark he would look after the masthead light. The night was clear, but very stormy, and Haulbowline lighthouse was visible ahead at the south of the Lough. Capt O’Neill himself was at the wheel on the open bridge. It was 7.45pm.

As the last passengers, coats flapping in the wind, hurried up the gangway, Capt G H Doeg looked down on Greenore quayside from the bridge of the Connemara. Capt Doeg joined the LNWR in April 1896, was promoted chief officer in 1900, and took command of the Connemara in 1914, and both he and chief officer Price Williams held foreign-going master’s certificates – a rule of the company.

By 8pm, the Connemara was ready to sail. On board she had 51 passengers, 31 crew including Capt Doeg, three cattlemen and a luggage guard, while 75 tons of general cargo was stowed in the holds and 88 cattle and two horses penned in the livestock stalls. Among the passengers were 17 young women travelling to Liverpool, thence Canada, where they intended entering domestic service or finding employment on farms, and a number of servicemen returning to their units after leave.

One of the few people ashore who noticed the Connemara back out of her berth was Gilbert Chalk, a coastguard on duty at the Greenore station, who logged her departure at 8.10pm and watched her routine passage towards the mouth of the Lough, a little over two miles distant. Chalk then spent a quiet night in the watch room, neither hearing nor seeing anything of interest.

After attending to the port light, Boyle made his way up to the bridge where Capt O’Neill was lining the Retriever up with the leading lights of the channel through Carlingford bar into the Lough, a “cut”, as it was known locally, some 200 yards wide, under the authority of the Carlingford Lough Commissioners in Newry. Captain O’Neill invariably took charge of his ship going over the bar.

Peering ahead, Boyle noticed the Connemara, all lights lit, apparently about half-a-mile distant. He then went below to attend to the stove in the master’s cabin. Unexpectedly, there sounded three short blasts on the collier’s steam whistle, and the engine room telegraph above Boyle jangled. He hurried out of the cabin, curious to know what was amiss, and just as he was about to open the door onto deck there came the shuddering impact of a collision. The time was 8.30pm.

On the balcony of Haulbowline lighthouse, the wave-washed pillar overlooking the cut, stood Assistant Keepers Gillespie, Armstrong and Donovan, watching as Chalk had done, the routine departure of the Connemara. John Gillespie was on duty that night, and logged the passing of the ship at 8.28pm.

In his evidence to the Board of Trade inquiry – which the court seemed to find more lucid and coherent than that of his colleagues – Gillespie recalled that the Connemara appeared to slow down as usual on entering the cut, and when he first saw the Retriever he thought she was a sailing vessel, as she was not burning a masthead light. The collier was yawing from Side to Side but that was nothing out of the ordinary in heavily laden vessels at that point”, as Gillespie commented, and both vessels appeared to be keeping their proper courses – that is, they would pass port side to port side.

Mr Swayne (for the Board of Trade): “Did one or both vessels make an alteration in her course then?” – “Yes.”

“Which was that?” – “The Retriever.”

“What did you see her do?” – “Well, she swung away to port right across the cut.”

“Just before the collision?” – “Yes.”

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - November 2017 Issue
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