An Irishman's Diary

 

There’s a note in the 1856 journal of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow about an unusual assignation for a poet: “Took the boys over to Donald McKays shipyard to see the launch of the Minnehaha. A launch is always beautiful.We went up to Mr McKay’s house, where was a luncheon; and Mrs Barrow crowned the whole with a recitation.”

Minnehaha was a fine 209ft medium clipper built by the highly regarded shipwright and made her maiden run to Australia in 1857. She would be wrecked in a storm 10 years later off Bakers Island in the central Pacific

But such was the success of his poem that at least six ships were named after Longfellows Minnehaha, the ill-fated bride of the eponymous hero of his hugely popular The Song of Hiawatha, which he had published only a year beforehand.

And the Minnehaha fleet includes a clipper commissioned for the American run in New Brunswick, Canada, in 1860 by the renowned shipping line William McCorkell Co Ltd of Derry. A sturdy and fast three-master, 183ft and 1,120 tons, she cost £12,000, and was the most famous ship owned by McCorkells, becoming known as the “Green Yacht from Derry“.

And then, among others, there was the liner of the same name built by Harland and Wolff in Belfast in 1900, sunk by a U-boat in 1917 with the loss of 43 crew and which lies 12 miles south-east of Fastnet Rock.

I became familiar with the story of McKays Minnehaha recently while investigating family history – it appears that my great great uncle William Bates emigrated to Australia on her in 1857, a 105-day trip that he recounts in detail in a diary we found in the NI Public Records Office.

And then, to my surprise, the other day an account of one of the Derry Minnehaha’s cross-Atlantic journeys – in 1870 – dropped on my desk.

This small, delightful volume*, a labour of love by lifelong sailor Owen McGonagle, captures most evocatively the last days of the city’s role as northwest hub of the emigrant trail through the story of its finest ship. For him too it’s part of family lore – the book is a tribute to his great-grandfather George White, who signed on the Minnehaha that year as an able-bodied seaman and who features in the book’s crew.

Derry-born McGonagle has just retired as head of design in Letterkenny Institute of Technology and is a former commodore of the Lough SwillyYacht Club.

For 12 years, twice a year, Minnehaha made the return trip to America – out with passengers, back with timber or grain – making it across on average in 27 days (although, with fair winds, in as few as 15 days in 1864). On board on that trip in 1870 were as many as 240 passengers, all but a handful steerage, crammed into bunk accommodation in the dark holds.

From 1861 she, and the four other McCorkell ships, plied the runs – Quebec, St Johns, Philadelphia, New York and New Orleans – competing with the increasing numbers of ocean-going steamers that called to Moville on Lough Foyle or took Derry’s migrants from Glasgow – McGonagle imagines a conversation, I have to say, all too familiar to newspaper journalists these days, in which the captain and his officers sit round at the end of their trip contemplating gloomily the reality that their age is past, and that the young men now on their first ships will end their careers under steam.

In 1873 the Minnehaha made the last passenger voyage by a Derry-owned ship to New York and then would be consigned to the Baltimore grain trade.

McGonagle’s meticulously researched, fictionalised account of George White’s journey captures, like only a sailor can, the feel and rhythms of ship’s life, and of the ship, a living thing, its smell, its trim, its creaking timbers, and of the sea, tides and weather that dictate the pace of life. William Bates would have recognised in McGonagle’s cast of characters his own companions, kindred souls, their likes and dislikes coping with the frustrations, discomforts and disciplines of passengers’ life on a long passage. And the strict hierarchy and segregations of society on board under the firm hand of Capt Patrick McGrath.

*Minnehaha – The Princess and the Maiden City, Owen McGonagle. (From bookshops or info@bluewanderer.com)

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