Donegal writer explores a tragedy on a ship that was once a familiar sight along our coast

Donegal writer explores a tragedy on a ship that was once a familiar sight along our coast

A tragic loss of life recalled by Donegal writer Ann Kennedy

One of the most horrifying events in the annals of the 19th century emigration was that dreadful tragedy of the Londonderry. 

A 277-ton paddle Steamer was built in Glasgow in 1841. This paddle steamer was a regular on the Sligo-Liverpool route between July and December 1848. 

On the first of December 1848 the Londonderry was moored at the Belfast Quay getting ready to sail on its weekly run to Liverpool. After taking on Cargo consisting of merchandise and 132 livestock the Londonderry proceeded to Oyster Island where three cabin crew and 174 steerage passengers, mostly emigrants, got on board.  The steamer was ready to sail but did not sail until 4.30pm due to squally conditions.

After 9.00pm the wind reached gale force the sea became so rough that the waves crashed over the deck of the Londonderry. As the night wore on the conditions deteriorated. The Captain ordered the 25 members of the crew to clear the deck of any passengers and the entrance to the steerage area.  The Captain then ordered his crew to cover the deck with a tarpaulin to prevent the water from the waves from leaking through. The covering placed over the companion was so tightly secured that most of the fresh air was cut off to the overcrowded compartment below.

It was blowing a hurricane by midnight. The movement of the ship resulted in some cattle breaking out on deck; many of the cattle were found dead or in a dying state later. 

Below deck 174 people consisting of men, women and children were crammed together that they could barely move. 

Worse, they lacked air necessary to breath. These people struggled violently in a mad effort to find a way out from the gradual suffocation which was about to inundate them. Many of the people were crushed to death in the stampede. 

While this tragedy was unfolding below deck the captain and the crew were fully employed as they exercised all their experience in getting the Londonderry through the raging storm and to safety. 

The captain and the crew were unaware of the disaster that was unfolding below them.

When the alarm was raised many of the crew rushed to the scene, opened the hatch and were suddenly confronted by a blast of steam. This was after the Londonderry arrived into port on Sunday morning 36 hours after the storm had broke. That was when the full extent of the horrific tragedy unfolded. 

According to one eye-witness, the scene on entering the Londonderry steamer was truly heartbreaking. Below deck 72 bodies were piled on each other, their lives stolen. 

The dead consisted of 23 men, 32 women and 17 children. Among the survivors were three little children, all that was  left of a family of nine on their way to join their father, who had already emigrated.

At the inquest, 13 survivors gave evidence about the events on board the Londonderry. It became clear that the captain and crew displayed some harm towards the steerage passengers. There was some evidence to suggest that the captain and crew had acted in what they believed to be the best interest of the passengers on board the Londonderry in clearing the decks in the storm. The verdict was that the deaths were caused by suffocation in consequence with gross negligence. The captain, his first mate and his second mate were all found guilty of manslaughter.

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