Running aground – Ray Burke on the Indian Empire and a Galway conspiracy theory

An Irishman’s Diary

Rumours persisted that the Indian Empire had been sabotaged to prevent Galway challenging Liverpool as the leading transatlantic port. Photograph: Getty Images

Rumours persisted that the Indian Empire had been sabotaged to prevent Galway challenging Liverpool as the leading transatlantic port. Photograph: Getty Images

 

A mid-19th-century British prime minister, Edward Smith-Stanley, had been well briefed before he received a delegation from Co Galway at Number 10 Downing Street in August 1858.

Galway’s two MPs and the county’s high sheriff were on the delegation, but it was led by a Catholic priest, Peter Daly, who had become a dominant personality in the town where the recent Great Famine had gravely exasperated the decay and decline of the two centuries that followed its surrender to Cromwell’s forces.

As chairman of the Galway Town Commissioners and a member of the Galway Harbour Commissioners, Daly was petitioning the prime minister for funds to develop the harbour to exploit a burgeoning demand for passenger sailings from Ireland to America.

Fr Daly was a founder and leading shareholder in the Galway Line, which had inaugurated a passenger service from Galway to America and Canada earlier that summer.

He told Smith-Stanley, who had recently been ennobled as Lord Derby, that he was speaking on behalf of the “inhabitants of Galway”, as well as the town commissioners and the harbour commissioners, when he askcd for “the small sum of one hundred and fifty-two thousand pounds” to build a new breakwater and pier outside the old harbour.

“What sort of passage did the Indian Empire make?”, Lord Derby asked immediately, referring to the maiden Atlantic crossing of the Galway Line’s first passenger steamship.

Fr Daly had to acknowledge that “she met with an accident before she started, and after she left another accident happened, which deprived her of a considerable portion of her power”.

Derby then asked about the first accident, which happened after the ship sailed into Galway Bay. He was unable to suppress a laugh as he asked: “She ran upon the only rock to be found in the neighbourhood, did she not?” Daly replied that the ship “was run upon a rock”, but added that the two pilots who were guiding it “were committed for trial for the offence”.

The pilots had been arrested and charged with wilfully and maliciously causing the Indian Empire to run aground on the morning of June 16th, 1858. The ship crashed onto the Margareeta Rock, “the only rock in the bay”, at a point where it was nine miles wide, as Fr Daly himself asserted at an inquiry established by the harbour commissioners. The bay was calm, clear and tranquil with visibility of up to two miles at the time.

The ship’s captain told the magistrates’ court that he believed that the pilots had intentionally steered the ship towards the rock. He said the ship would have broken her back and become a total wreck if he had not defied the pilots and reduced speed just before the impact. The pilots were sent forward for trial at the next session of the assizes and remanded in custody. Police reinforcements were needed to protect them from a mob when they were being taken to and from the jail.

Local indignation and suspicion, buoyed by the unanimous decision of the magistrates, was also supported by the Freeman’s Journal, which called itself “Ireland’s national newspaper”. A dispatch from its reporter in Galway said: “There is but one opinion here on the subject, and that it that the thing was done by design; and, indeed, after hearing the facts it is impossible to come to any other conclusion.”

Suspicions grew when one of the pilots died suddenly while on bail after a fortnight in custody. Three doctors told a preliminary inquest that he had died from the effects of poison, but this evidence was later withdraw, and the jury returned a verdict of death by natural causes. The trial of the other pilot was postponed indefinitely.

Fr Daly’s delegation was pleased with its mission to London, but the money was never approved, and rumours persisted that the Indian Empire had been sabotaged to prevent Galway challenging Liverpool as the leading transatlantic port.

A later inspector of wrecks in Galway was a Galwegian named Michael Healy. He almost certainly retailed the Indian Empire story to his niece Nora Barnacle and to her partner and future husband, James Joyce. The date of the grounding was an irresistible serendipity to Joyce, who was setting his novel Ulysses on June 16th to commemorate the day he first walked out with Nora.

He wove two references to the grounding and subsequent innuendo into Ulysses, which was first published on his 40th birthday, February 2nd, some 99 years ago today.

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