Madam President, Mr. Toastmaster, Fellow Toastmaster and Welcome Guests, the following speech is a short summary of events that happened 212 years just off the coast of Dun Laoghaire.
Standing on the top of the Napoleonic era Seapoint Martello Tower, looking out at the sparkling, unwrinkled sea on a warm and sunny day, conditions were astonishingly different to those commemorated on a mostly ignored blue plaque attached to a wall below me. The events of that grim November day would later lead to the development of Dun Laoghaire Pier. Modern Weather forecasting was not invented until the 1860’s, so in 1807 sailors did not have the ability to find out what conditions they may be facing.
The early 19th Century was unusually stormy, on the 19th of November 1807, several trooper ships left the Pigeon House Harbour, bound to fight in the Napoleonic War. In particular, the ships, the ‘Prince of Wales’ and the ‘Rochdale’. Out of nowhere, Hurricane force winds blew up with sheets of sleet and snow, so much so that visibility was reduced to zero, an east wind pushed the boats back to shore, but, the stormy conditions and lack of visibility meant that the boats did not know how close they were to shore. The following day the ships were seen in the Bay trying, in vain to get shelter in the Harbour. In the evening the ships fired gun indicating distress, to no avail. Captain Jones who escaped from the Prince of Wales described the events thus: “Having arrived opposite Bray Head the sea began to swell and the wind blow a hurricane. He threw all his anchors out but the ship dragged them all along impetuously. She drove without a rag of sail towards Dunleary Point and he expected to be dashed against the rocks there. He repeatedly told the officers of the danger before she struck about 6 or 7 in the evening”. Most of the ships that left our coast that day were decimated along the coast between South Bull to Bray, the ‘Lark’ was the only one that safely made it to Holyhead.Both Rochdale and Prince of Wales were lost off the coast of Dun Laoghaire / Salthill within hours of each other.
The Prince of Wales, captained by Robert Jones had military personnel aboard along with recruits from the South Cork and South Mayo regiments of militia. During the storm Captain Jones dropped anchor, but, the storm dragged the ship along. Only the captain, nine seamen, two women with children and two soldiers managed to escape on the one launched lifeboat. They did not know where they were, or how close they were to the shore. They rowed parallel to the shore until one of the sailors fell overboard and found that he was standing in shallow water. 120 soldiers drowned and it was claimed that the captain locked the troops below deck, removing the ladder and battening down the hatch and in doing so sealing the faith of those trapped beneath, but Mr Moss, the coroner lead a party of four gentlemen to visit the wreck site and ascertained that there was no substance in the story. Captain Robert was brought before the court on murder charges but case was dismissed due to lack of evidence. Captain Jones said that the lifeboat was not launched; rather, it was cast into the sea by the storm, so he ordered those on deck to get into it. Anthony McIntyre of the 18th Royal Irish said that the captain launched the lifeboat and that the ladder from the hold to the deck was withdrawn. Andrew Boyle, also of the 18th Royal Irish, said that the ladder was not removed because “persons below held on to it very tightly”. The verdict was “Casual death by shipwreck”.
The Rochdale and her passengers from the staff of the 97th Regiment were under the control of Captain Hodgson, the soldiers on board tried to attract the attention of the shore by firing their muskets, the number of shots been so many that would-be rescuers had to shelter from the gunfire. However, it was pointless and those that saw the fires could only look on in horror as the ship struck the rocks at Seapoint Martello Tower. It was observed that no pilot could have steered her alongside the Martello as neatly as she lay. On shore cries of the terrified passengers could be heard. The boat was so close to shore that the cries of terrified passengers could be heard by witnesses and a twelve-foot plank would have rescued them, but all 265 on board were lost.
Even though troops were put on guard, there was looting of the ships and of the immense number of items that washed ashore and they could not stop one of the looters from Dun Laoghaire from drowning. There were so many souls lost (nearly 400) that the whole weekend was spent in collecting the bodies for burial. Six people were convicted and sent to Kilmainham Gaol for plundering bodies and property. At no point during these dramatic events were the lifeboats from Clontarf, Bullock, Howth, Dún Laoghaire and Islandbridge launched to try and rescue lives endangered during these terrible events. Most of those who perished are interred in Carrickbrennan Churchyard in Monkstown, the rest are interred in a Cemetery in Booterstown.
Prior to the harbour as we know been built, Dublin Port had a sandbar that meant that ships could only enter or leave at high tide. If there was a storm the ship would have to stay out at sea waiting for the tide to change. Captain Charles Malcolm of George 4ths Royal Yacht suggested that “Dublin Bay had perhaps been more fatal to seamen and ships than any in the world”. This can be vouched by the fact that the remains of more than 600 vessels are sitting at the bottom of the bay. The person chiefly responsible for the campaign to build a harbour in Dun Laoghaire was a master mariner and shipbroker named Richard Toucher, who worked tirelessly campaigning to bring about the construction of a safe port. In 1815, after the sinking’s of both the Rochdale and the Prince of Wales, eight Harbour Commissioners were appointed to supervise the building of a new harbour at Dún Laoghaire. Construction of the Pier started in 1817 and was completed in 1840’s.
Madam President, Mr Toastmaster, Fellow Toastmaster and welcome guests, thank you for listening to this short history of the dual sinking’s of the Rochdale and Prince of Wales ships.