On the cold, stormy morning of January 29th, 1894, the Port Yarrock broke up and sank in Brandon Bay, on the Dingle peninsula, with the loss of 20 lives, writes Brian Patterson.
The Port Yarrock was an unexceptional three-masted barque, of 1,380 tons, iron-clad and built to carry ore from the new world to Europe. Owned by the Port Line of Glasgow, she was typical of many ships of that era, operating undermanned for maximum profit, with scant regard for the safety or well-being of the crew. As was normal, the crew comprised a captain and a handful of experienced seamen. The rest were boys in their teens, apprenticed to the sea and costing less than proper seamen, with their apprenticeship being paid for by their families.
Thanks to an excellent book, A Gallant Barque, researched and written by Sheila Mulcahy, we know the full drama of the Port Yarrock's last journey.
She left Santa Rosalia in Southern California in July 1893, loaded with 2,200 tons of copper ore, bound for Queenstown (Cobh), en route to Antwerp. Just before the ship rounded Cape Horn in early October, it emerged that, before leaving California, the ship's steward had sold for his own gain many of the supplies, including the lime-juice for preventing scurvy. When this scandal emerged, the steward blew his brains out with a pistol. But the captain, already behind schedule, refused to put in to shore for more supplies, condemning the crew to subsistence rations for the rest of the journey - and to the inevitability of scurvy and starvation.
Once round the Cape and out into the Atlantic, they set sail for Europe. But they ran into heavy storms. Eventually, in late January, six months after they had left California, they approached the west coast of Ireland, at night and in a fierce storm. The ship was leaking and the sails badly torn.
The crew was weak from hunger and scurvy. For days they weathered the storm, and trying desperately to find a safe harbour somewhere on the dangerous lee shores of Kerry. Eventually they put into Brandon Bay and dropped anchor off the pier at Brandon village.
Capt Forbes went ashore, where he bought some potatoes. He rode into Tralee and posted letters from the crew to their families. These included a number of letters from one apprentice, Philip Baines, to his family in England. The Baines family held their son's letters and they were made available to Sheila Mulcahy, who reproduces them in her book. Forbes also telegraphed the owners for instructions. They ordered him to refuse offers of help from a local tug, which could easily have towed the ship into the safer anchorage of Fenit, and to wait instead for a company tug. The local tug, it seems, would have cost too much. He returned to the ship, and holding to his orders from the owners, refused all offers of help.
Ominously, he also carried with him advice from Lloyds that his anchorage was unsafe.
On the morning of January 27th, 1894 the storm blew up again from the south, the gale funnelling its way down the valley below the Conor Pass. The Port Yarrock dragged her anchors and the gale pushed the ship out into Brandon Bay.
Then the wind veered to the north and, in the dark night of Sunday, January 28th, the ship was driven on to Kilcummin strand. As dawn broke on Monday, a crowd gathered on the shore to witness her death throes in the Atlantic waves. The company tug had by now arrived, but couldn't reach the ship; a horse-drawn rocket launcher, with a breeches buoy, was sent for from Dingle, but it arrived too late.
As the ship disintegrated, the crew could be seen in the surf, clinging to the masts. An attempt was made on horseback to reach them through the giant waves, but nothing could save them. As the crowd watched, all 20 perished on that cold, bleak January morning. Their bodies were washed up over the following days and weeks. Seven were buried in the nearby graveyard at Killiney, outside Castlegregory, where there is an obelisk commemorating the disaster.
There was a public inquiry, at which the whole tragic tale emerged. The owners were censured heavily for their lack of care. There were long legal battles against the owners, but there was little compensation for the families of the badly used apprentices who formed much of the crew. However, three years later, amendments were made to the Merchant Shipping Act which included under-manning as a reason why a ship could be detained in port.
In the years that followed, much of the copper ore was salvaged and there are many artifacts from the wreck among the local community. In 1925 Jack B. Yeats painted In Memory of the Crew of the Port Yarrock of Glasgow. An anchor from the ship rests above Kilcummin strand, beside a memorial stone placed there by the local community in 1994 to commemorate the centenary of the tragedy, which is remembered each year at Mass in Cloghane, near Brandon Pier. At low spring tides, the bowsprit of the ship, now well buried in the sands, can just be seen among the Atlantic waves.