Echoes of Irish History

The immigrant voyage of millions of Irish to America in the nineteenth century was staggering in its hardship.  Many know of the Coffin Ships during the Great Hunger and the incredible death toll associated with the 6 to 8 week journey on inadequate vessels designed for hauling cargo rather than passengers.  However, little known but just as significant were the tragedies attending those who fled the imposed cruelties in Ireland before the blight even occurred in 1845.  Before that tragedy, mass emigration from Ireland accounted for one- third of all traffic across the Atlantic.  Between 1825 and 1840, 220,000 Irish emigrated to the U.S. at a time when there were few maritime or immigration regulations in place.

Perhaps none who ventured across the Atlantic seeking a better life had as tragic an end as the 100 Irish men, women and children who set forth on October 16, 1836 on the ship Bristol and the 116 who followed 8 days later on the ship Mexico.  Little remembered today, both of these ships wrecked, with a loss of 216 lives, off Long Island’s south shore within weeks of each other.  The double-tragedy shocked all who read the spectacular headlines for months to come. The wrecks were among the deadliest maritime accidents in U.S. history up to that time.  Their fates brought about  sweeping changes in the government’s neglect of the maritime industry, with measures to insure safer travel, including tasking federal ships with sea rescues which evolved into the Coast Guard.  So many avoidable deaths so close to land and perishing so horribly, gripped the nation’s emotions.  Even  Walt Whitman  wrote about the event in his poem, The Sleepers, from Leaves of Grass.

I look where the ship helplessly heads end on, I hear the burst as she strikes,
I hear the howls of dismay, They grow fainter and fainter.

The Bristol departed Liverpool on Oct. 15 and reached the shores off Far Rockaway on Sunday, November 20 awaiting a pilot escort to guide them through the Narrows.  Local boatmen acted as pilots bringing arriving vessels into port safely.  Though licensed by the harbor, pilots were generally self-employed.  The ship waited for a pilot to arrive, but the New York pilots, who had little regulation and cared less for Irish immigrants, ignored the captain’s signaling, preferring not to work on Sunday!  Later that evening, a storm and strong currents drove the Bristol toward Rockaway Shoals.  The ship grounded and the captain told the passengers to go below and give the crew a better chance to work on deck.  In about an hour, a tremendous wave struck.  Life boats  and everything moveable were swept off the deck. The hatches were ripped off and the vessel filled with water.  Of the 82 steerage passengers below, none but a few close to the hatchways, were saved.  Not a sound was heard; death was instantaneous as 60 persons swam unprepared, into eternity.

The Mexico left Liverpool eight days later but had a more difficult crossing, encountering storms and pummeling seas.  She took twice as long as the Bristol, to reach New York.  Arriving on New Year’s Eve, Captain Charles Winslow signaled for a pilot, but callously, the pilots had adjourned to a Manhattan saloon to ring in the New Year.  Winslow tried to keep the ship away from the treacherous shoreline while he waited for a pilot to respond to his signals, but currents and a storm carried his ship to the Long Beach shore.  The ship was also overloaded with a cargo of iron bars and coal, which added to the difficulties in controlling her.  To the  owners, the passengers were simply another commodity, occupying a cargo deck leased to a passenger broker.  The crew, weakened by the weeks of battling high winds and flailing seas, and hampered by freezing temperatures, lost both lifeboats in launch attempts.  Not till 3 p.m. did a rescue boat reach the Mexico, led by 51-year-old local wreck-master Raynor Smith, who ignored the perils posed to his long boat and six-man crew.

He took in 8 survivors, including Capt. Winslow, 4 crew members, and 3 passengers who had volunteered to help the crew.  The remaining famished and terrified passengers were left behind praying that the boat, or others like it, would return for them.  As day turned to night, Smith, his crew and other would-be rescuers refused to risk another trip to the Mexico as the seas churned unabated.  The weather was so intensely cold, that it was difficult for anyone to remain on deck longer than half an hour at a time.  Fifteen minutes after the rescue boat had departed, the ship struck the bottom at Hempstead beach, not more than a cable’s length from the shore.  It is believed that none drowned, but all froze to death.

A correspondent for the Morning Courier and New York Express later reported: When (passengers) perceived that no further help came from the land, their piercing shrieks were distinctly heard at a considerable distance, and continued through the night until one by one they diminished. The next morning the bodies of the many unhappy creatures were seen lashed to different parts of the wreck, embedded in ice.  Of the 104 victims, two-thirds were women and children, all of whom stood praying on the deck of their broken ship in zero-degree weather just 200 yards off Long Beach where they slowly froze to death in sight of the land of their dreams.  Only their tears made it to shore!

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Sir Roger Casement

Roger Casement was born in Antrim on September 1, 1864 to a Protestant father and a Catholic mother. At 17, he went to work for the Elder Dempster Shipping Company in Liverpool; three years later he was sent to west Africa. There he joined the British Colonial Service and was gradually advanced to a position in the British Consulate there. Always a fair and honorable man, he was horrified at the inhuman treatment of native workers in the Congo, and wrote a report exposing those conditions. The story was published, and when Casement returned to England in 1904 he was celebrated. In London he met Alice Green, a historian who denounced England’s exploitation of the Irish. Her argument impressed Casement and when he returned to Ireland he looked up her friends: Bulmer Hobson, Eoin MacNeill, and Erskine Childers. He soon became a confident of these men and other nationalists as well.

Casement’s diligent service earned him the post of Consul General at Rio de Janeiro, and he sailed off to assume that enviable post, but even there his sense of fair play was to guide his actions. He wrote a scathing report on the cruelties practiced by whites on native workers on the rubber plantations along the Putamayo river. It became an international sensation. He returned to England in 1911 and was Knighted for his public service. Casement retired from the Colonial Service in 1912 and returned to Ireland where his sense of fair play was again aroused – this time by the conditions of his own people under the rule of the Crown.

A man of strong nationalist sympathies, he joined the National Volunteers in 1913. When he visited London the following year, he was on a different mission – to arrange for the Irish Volunteers to bring 1500 Hamburg guns into Howth. History shows just how successful he was for many a man marched into Dublin on Easter Monday morning shouldering his old Howth gun. When more money was needed to secure more arms, Casement was sent to New York on July 4, 1914 to see John Devoy who had been raising funds for that purpose among the American Irish. While in America, World War I broke out, and he immediately contacted the German ambassador to America seeking aid to win Irish independence. On October 15, 1914 Casement sailed to Germany, carrying a small fortune to purchase more arms.

His persistence paid off and the Germans dispatched the ship AUD with a cargo of arms to be landed in Co Kerry; these arms were to be used in the rising planned for Easter Week, 1916. Casement followed in a submarine, landing on Banna Strand in Tralee Bay on Good Friday, April 21, 1916. Those who were to meet him there did not. A delay of 24 hours had been radioed to the AUD, but the ship’s radio was inoperative. The Gaelic American newspaper stated that American President Wilson knew of Casement’s intentions to land arms in Ireland and warned the British government. (New York Times, April 27, 1916, pp. 1 & 4.) The British, alerted to the plans, intercepted the message, and went instead to meet the bewildered Casement who decided to wait on the beach until his contacts arrived. He was captured, identified, and hurried away, a prisoner, to London. At the same time the AUD, disguised as a Norwegian timber ship, was stopped by a British patrol boat. Rather than submit, she was scuttled by her own crew as Casement was on his way to England to stand trial. Found guilty of high treason, he was sentenced to be hanged.

A world-wide furor erupted over the severity of the sentence. Here was a just man, recently praised and knighted by the Crown for his efforts on behalf of persecuted natives in far corners of the world, sentenced to death by that same Crown for daring to challenge the exploitation of his own downtrodden people. In an effort to reverse public opinion, the British government circulated copies of diaries alleged to be Casement’s, which recorded homosexual practices. Much controversy surrounded these Black Diaries, but they had the desired effect. The public furor died down, and Casement was hanged in Pentonville Prison on August 3, 1916 – the last of the Easter Executions.

For many years after the Irish government finally won its limited freedom from England, official requests were made to have Sir Roger’s remains returned to Ireland. It was not until 1965, that England finally relented, but only after circulating the questionable Black Diaries once more. This time they didn’t reckon on modern analytical methodology, and the diaries were proven to be forgeries. In spite of English efforts to sully the name of this dedicated Irish patriot, Casement’s remains were respectfully received by the Irish people, given a huge state funeral, and re-interred in Glasnevin Cemetary on March 1, 1965 – just one year before the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising.

Editors Note: Years later, in conversation with another great patriot, Joe Cahill, who had once been apprehended bringing arms into the IRA. He asked if I knew the name of the ship he was caught on. I replied ‘Yes, it was the CLAUDIA’. He smiled and said “drop the first two and last two letters and what have you?” He loved the irony!