Valour at sea – An Irishman’s Diary on the rescue of the crew of the Léon XIII
The bell from the Léon XIII is now in the Stella Maris church in Quilty, Co Clare, to commemorate the rescue
The three-masted ship Léon XIII left Portland, Oregon, in early April 1907 en route for Ireland with a cargo of wheat. A ferocious storm caused the ship to go on to rocks off the coast of Co Clare and threatened the lives of the crew. Many of them were subsequently brought ashore by local fishermen who rowed out to the stranded ship in currachs.
After sailing for over five months continuously, the Léon XIII arrived in Queenstown (Cobh) in late September 1907. The captain was given orders to proceed to Limerick and deliver the wheat to Bannatyne Mill. The ship, which was built in Nantes in 1902, had a crew of 22 on board.
On October 1st, 1907, while making their way to Limerick, the crew encountered a fierce storm, which caused the ship’s sails to be damaged and her rudder to break off Mutton Island.
Unable to stabilise the ship under such conditions, they were blown northwards. The ship was then forced on to rocks and broke in two. Mountainous waves washed over the Léon, and many of the crew were forced to go on to the ship’s rigging to save their lives.
A rescue mission was planned. It involved the Coastguard from Fenit in Kerry and Seafield in Clare, the RNLI, as well as the naval cruiser HMS Arrogant. Even though the Léon was located only about 250 yards from the shore, it was impossible to reach the stricken ship and her crew, such was the strength of the sea and the presence of reefs. Several attempts were made to launch, but they proved futile against the power of nature’s might.
Instead, local fishermen from the village of Quilty set out in currachs and rowed to the stranded ship. They rescued 13 men. The captain of the Léon and the remaining crew were rescued the following day by the navy ship.
Those rescued were full of praise for all the personnel who risked their lives to mount the rescue, particularly the brave fishermen who rowed into the eye of the storm in their light, wood-framed, canvas-covered boats.
“They seemed to court death and to throw away their lives in the endeavour to save us”, the Léon’s first mate said of the locals.
In early December 1907, a storm caused the wreck of the Léon to break up, and wreckage was strewn over the strand at Quilty and nearby Seafield. Locals scrambled to save some of the timber.
Not long after the rescue, a fund was set up to reward the plucky fishermen. National newspapers recorded who contributed to the fund and how much they contributed. For example, the Bishop of Killaloe donated £1 and money was sent from the great and the good of the local towns and villages of Co Clare, such as Miltown Malbay, Ennis and Ennistymon. Money was also sent from London, Co Down and Belfast. Several Irish MPs – including William Redmond and Stephen Gwynn – also contributed to the fund.
In the end, 32 fishermen received £6 each.
Another fund was established to raise money for the construction of a church for the village. Named Stella Maris (Star of the Sea), the foundation stone was laid in July 1909 and the church was opened in the autumn of 1911. A stone was placed over the door of the church with all the names of the rescuers engraved on it. Inside the church, visitors can see the bell that once rang out on the Léon. It was taken from the wreck, sold at auction in London and subsequently presented to the church in 1949.
After the rescue, the fishermen were invited to a parade in Dublin that was held in their honour, and on October 26th, 1907, the men from Quilty attended a concert in Rathmines town hall, at which they recounted their adventures in rescuing the French sailors. They also sang songs, and other singers attended, including Oliver Holmes, Lilian Whittaker and Victoria Whittaker.
Around the time of the first anniversary of the rescue, medals and awards that were sent over from the French ministry of the marine were presented by the French consul. The efforts of the rescuers and members of the local RIC and coastguard were recognised. The ceremony took place at the Atlantic Hotel at Spanish Point, Miltown Malbay, which was where some of the rescued seamen stayed after their ordeal
The 50th anniversary of the rescue was celebrated in Quilty in 1957. The last few remaining fishermen who took part in the triumphal rescue of October 1907 were brought through the village in a currach which was towed by a lorry.
The deeds of these men have lived long in local memory with songs written about them, and families in France will forever be grateful for the assistance they offered to the stranded seamen.