Going down in history – An Irishman’s Diary on the contrasting fates of two notable ships, the ‘WM Barkley’ and the ‘Hougoumont’

Guinness archivist Eibhlin Roche with a model  of the ‘WM Barkley’

Guinness archivist Eibhlin Roche with a model of the ‘WM Barkley’

 

It’s a popular Dublin prejudice that Guinness doesn’t travel well out of the city, especially overseas. But however true this is in peacetime, it was certainly the case during the years of the first World War.  

In fact the difficulties of exporting stout during that era started slightly earlier, during the 1913 Lockout, when the brewery – indirectly affected by sympathetic strike actions in the docks – had to set up its own shipping fleet.  

Then the first such ship, the WM Barkley, was commandeered by the British war effort for a time. And even after an early return to civilian life, it was doomed. On its last beer-carrying mission out of Dublin, 100 years ago today, it was cut in two by a German torpedo, just off Kish lighthouse. The Barkley’s heroic captain, Edward Gregory from Arklow, went down with his ship. So did four others, whose uncertain fate prevented him taking to the lifeboat in time himself. Despite the rapidity with which the vessel sank, however, eight crew members escaped. And providing an unarguable example of Guinness being good you, the cargo played a key part in their luck.  

In a gripping account of that fraught night, a survivor named Thomas McGlue recalled the crucial moments he and others gained from the struggle between the stricken ship and its more buoyant contents: “The Barkley was doing her best to go down but the barrels were fighting their way up through the hatches and that kept us afloat a bit longer – in fact, that’s the only reason any of us got out of her.”

The boat sailed from England and stayed afloat all the way to Fremantle, where it arrived three months later

There followed a bizarre encounter with German bureaucracy as the survivors were interviewed from the conning tower of the now-surfaced U-boat. They had to give the name and registration details of their vessel, while a German officer checked shipping records and, finding it at the third attempt, “ticked her off”.

After that they were allowed to row for the Kish, but as McGlue put it, that “might have been America” for all the progress they made. Eventually they put out a sea anchor and sat there, “shouting all night”.  

Then an in-bound collier picked them up and, after breakfast in the North Star, McGlue hurried home to his wife in Baldoyle, hoping to arrive before news of the torpedo.

October 12th is busy day in the annals of Anglo-Irish shipping. Exactly 50 years before the sinking of the Barkley, on this date in 1867, there was another historic departure – also final in its own way – involving Irishmen.  

In that case, the boat sailed from England and stayed afloat all the way to Fremantle, where it arrived three months later.  

But it was the last-ever voyage of convicts to Australia, and among the 280 prisoners were 62 Fenians, arrested during and after that year’s failed uprising.

The ship was called the Hougoumont, presumably after the famous farm at Waterloo whose gate (closed against the French by Clones man James Graham) was pivotal in the 1815 battle. Now, if the Fenians had their way, the name might have acquired a different fame.  

Educated in Clongowes Wood, Flood had for a period enjoyed parallel careers on both sides of the law, as an attorney and smuggler

Worried about how the non-political prisoners on board would react, however, they decided against an attempted hijack. So the ship proceeded as planned to Fremantle. And instead of physical escape, remarkably, the Fenians poured their energies into an intellectual one: producing a weekly newspaper for the latter half of the voyage.

The Wild Goose, as it was called, ran to seven issues, including a double 16-page special for Christmas. It was edited by Dubliner John Flood, a senior Fenian at the time of the uprising, but a man of many other talents too.  

Educated in Clongowes Wood, Flood had for a period enjoyed parallel careers on both sides of the law, as an attorney and smuggler. His daring adventures in the latter sphere earned the admiration of Isaac Butt, who represented him during the trial. But his part in the Fenian conspiracy had been closely followed by Dublin Castle, earning him transportation.

The brief experience as a floating editor appears to have introduced Flood to yet another career. After release from prison in Australia, he worked for and set up a series of newspapers there, before dying in Queensland in 1911.

Copies of the Wild Goose still survive, happily, donated by Flood’s descendants to Sydney’s Mitchell Library.  

Closer to home, the full fascinating stories of both today’s anniversaries are on the East Wall community website, eastwallforall.ie. The same Docklands suburb hosts the East Wall History Festival in November, details of which will be announced soon.

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