William Keatinge’s headache

This, the fifth in a series of articles about the sinking of the passage boat Longford on the Royal Canal in 1845, continues the discussion in the fourth article about the management weaknesses in the Royal Canal Company that led the inquest jury to impose a deodand on the boat.


William Keatinge[1] was the regular steersman on the Longford. Keatinge said that he “had a slight head-ache” and did not feel himself “well enough to be steering the boat by night”. Accordingly, he asked Samuel Draper, Secretary to the Royal Canal Company, for leave to stay at home. He also [thought that] he named James Dunne as his substitute and got Draper’s permission for Dunne to steer. Draper told Keatinge that he must also get Captain O’Connor’s permission.[2]

According to the captain, Christopher O’Connor, “it is a usual thing for one of the crew to hand his occupation over to another, with the leave of Mr O’Neil, the inspector of the canal”. When O’Neil boarded the boat at the eleventh lock, O’Connor asked him whether Keatinge had obtained leave of absence:

[…] to the best of my opinion he said “not”.

O’Neil, who did not give evidence either to the inquest or to the later trial, left the boat at Porterstown bridge, just before the accident.[3]

It is not clear from the evidence whether the permission of the inspector was required by a company regulation or just by custom and practice. Draper does not seem to have told Keatinge to get O’Neil’s permission; nor does Draper seem to have done anything to inform either the inspector or the captain that he had given Keatinge leave of absence.

At the inquest[4] and at Teeling’s trial in December, Keatinge said that he had obtained the captain’s permission:

William Keatinge recollects the 25th of November, when the accident occurred; the boat started at two o’clock; got leave from the captain to absent himself from the boat for that day; Dunne, he said, was to act in his place.[5]

However, Keatinge’s claim is directly at odds with the captain’s evidence:

[…] the regular steerer of the boat was not in her, he having remained in Dublin, and his place was taken by the regular cabin-boy of the boat, named James Dunne; he is about 18 or 20 years of age; he was deputed to steer by the regular steerer, named William Keatinge, and I was not aware of it until we left Dublin; […] permission was not obtained by the steerer in this case, as I am aware, and I complained to the inspector of the steerer’s conduct, upon the former coming into the boat at the eleventh lock […].[6]

If “until we left Dublin” means “until the boat departed at two o’clock”, then it seems that Keatinge gave his deputy, Dunne, more notice than he gave to the captain:

I had two hours’ intimation on yesterday that I was to steer the boat.[7]

The captain said that he knew that Dunne was an experienced steerer, so he allowed him to steer lest the passengers be delayed.[8] That raises the possibility that the captain could have refused to accept the replacement steerer, but there might not have been any practical alternative.

An alternative might, however, have been found had either Draper or Keatinge contacted either O’Neil, the inspector, or Christopher O’Connor, the captain, as soon as Draper approved Keatinge’s request, which was not on the day of departure but on the previous day:

Keatinge came to me the day before, and asked leave to stop, as he was sick; I gave him leave, and asked who was to supply his place, and he replied Dunne; I asked if he were sure Dunne was capable, and he said he was quite competent to steer the boat, and if he were not I would not let him go.[9]

It seems, then, that both Keatinge and Draper knew, a day in advance, that Dunne was to steer instead of Keatinge. Dunne was told two hours in advance. The inspector was not told at all. And, if his evidence is to be believed, nor was the captain.

Furthermore, Dunne failed to obtain the requisite permission from the inspector to replace Keatinge for the day:

It was necessary for me to get leave from the inspector, and I got general leave of that kind, but had not particular leave that day. […] I have general leave from Mr O’Neill and Mr Draper. I did not report it to the inspector […].[10]

Walking the dog

The farce did not end there, for Keatinge, despite his headache, was not at home in bed: he was on the boat, standing with Dunne at the helm, buying porter, then disembarking at the tenth lock[11] just before the inspector boarded:

[…] the porter was ordered by a man named Keatinge, who went out at the 10th lock; I don’t know whether the captain saw him or not; the captain had not done collecting at that time; I saw a little dog running on the bank along with the boat; Keatinge ordered me to bring the porter according as it was called for; two bottles of porter were brought up before I brought any; Keatinge was to pay for three; I can’t say whether Keatinge drank any or not; I did not see Dunne drink any; a soldier, Fitzsimon, Teeling, and Keatinge drank the porter.[12]

A man called for two bottles of porter, and I understood from some bystanders that he was the person who steered the boat on former trips.[13]

I remained on deck from the time we left the Broadstone until the accident occurred; the boat was steered from the Broadstone either by a man who got out at about three miles from Dublin, or by a man in blue who stood close to him[…].[14]

The evidence of the hussar [Jessop] as to who the person was by whom the boat was steered the first three miles of her way not being very distinct, the Coroner ordered Dunne and Keatinge to be called in, that he might, if possible, distinguish between them. […] Dunne and Keatinge presented themselves; the hussar pointed to the former, and said that to the best of his opinion it was by him that the helm was first held.[15]

Although Dunne and Keatinge had stood so close together until the tenth lock, Dunne did not mention Keatinge’s presence to the inspector, O’Neil, when he boarded at the eleventh:

Mr O’Neil came on board at the eleventh lock and asked for Keatinge; I told him that he was unwell […].[16]

It is not clear whether the captain knew that Keatinge was on board. O’Connor himself said that Keatinge could not have been there: he did not see him at the [Broadstone] harbour, but that is explained by the fact that Keatinge (and Teeling) boarded at the fifth lock, after the boat had left the Broadstone branch and moved on to the main line.[17]

Between the sixth and eleventh lock I began to go round among the passengers to settle about their fare. I began to collect at the back cabin. Keatinge could not have been on board without my knowledge. I did not take notice of any dog on the bank. […] He could not have been on board after we passed the sixth lock, as I then began to go round to take the passengers’ names, and would have seen him.[18]

However, the contrary evidence from other witnesses, including Keatinge himself, is overwhelming, which leaves two possibilities: that O’Connor was lying or that he did not see Keatinge. If O’Connor was in the cabins collecting fares between the sixth and eleventh locks, and Keatinge, who was in the steerage throughout, disembarked at the tenth, the captain might well have missed seeing him. Teeling’s evidence is not helpful:

Keatinge did not appear to be sick. Keatinge left the boat at the 9th or 10th lock, and Mr O’Neil came on board at the 11th. Keatinge was in the steerage. The master was in the cabin, and might have had conversation with him (Keatinge) for aught I know. Keatinge and Dunne might have [sic] some conversation. Keatinge was amusing himself by coaxing a little dog which belonged to him along the bank. He took no part in the management of the boat. He got in at the fifth lock. I also got in at the fifth lock, but he did not get in with me. I don’t know whether the captain took notice of the dog he was calling along the bank or not. The passengers at the steerage did. I did not see the captain near the steerage. Of course it is the captain’s duty to know every one that is on board the boat. I don’t think Keatinge could have been on board the boat without the captain knowing it.[19]

As Keatinge was not on board at the time of the accident, his curious behaviour cannot be held to blame for the calamity that followed, save perhaps indirectly:

  • first, in that if he had been steering the boat might not have hit the bank
  • second, in that his purchases of porter may have had an effect on the steerer.


Ruth Delany said that in the 1840s

Drunkenness among the crew continued to be a source of complaint […].[20]

Much of the questioning at the inquest seemed to be aimed at establishing whether drunkenness had contributed to the accident. No conclusion was stated but the evidence suggests that the amounts consumed (in, admittedly, less than two hours of the journey) were small. Patrick Teeling, who was the main focus of attention, said

I drank two glasses of porter between the 5th and 10th locks on board the Longford. A man named Keatinge, who came in the boat with us, gave me the porter. I cannot say whether Dunne took any porter or not. Keatinge divided two bottles of porter. I took two tumblers of it, and another person took the same. I don’t know whether Dunne took any or not.

Keatinge ordered the porter, which was got from the bar of the boat. We drank no porter before we passed the 6th lock. I don’t think I drank any porter after passing the 10th lock. […] A jobber and a soldier took some of the porter. The soldier got no bottle that I recollect. Keatinge had two bottles. The jobber had one, and I had one myself, which I got from a boy. I did not pay for the porter. I saw no whiskey. […]

I was in a public-house at the 5th lock, just before I went on board. I drank nothing there. I was in Dunphy’s public-house in Phibsborough. I went in to get notes for silver. I drank something at Dunphy’s, but I can’t tell what. I think it was a “crapper”[21] of cordial.. I took about half a glass of whiskey at another public-house at Constitution-hill. I swear that I drunk no more than the “crapper” of cordial and the glass of whiskey before I came on board the boat.[22]

No contradictory evidence was offered by any other witness. However, drunkenness is not the only effect of the consumption of porter.

The captain speaks

In a rather pathetic letter to the editor of the Freeman’s Journal, published after the trial, Christopher O’Connor defended himself against three charges:[23]

  • that he should not have set off “without the proper steerer”
  • that he should have steered while the stand-in steerer went to dinner
  • that he was not competent at steering. He disposed of that by citing Keatinge’s evidence.

But it was his responses to the first two points that exposed the weakness of his position. In both cases he said, in effect, that he had done his duty. He had reported the absence of the regular steerer to the inspector and he could do no more. He would have steered the boat if Dunne had told him he intended to leave the helm, but Dunne simply handed over to Teeling while the captain was busy changing sovereigns and making out parcels.

O’Connor had failed to establish his authority over the boat and its crew (which admittedly would have been difficult with a pair like Keatinge and Dunne on board). He focused on individual tasks rather than on his more important responsibilities. And even his heroic work in the rescue attempt could not disguise his failure to ensure safe transport for his passengers.

Damage limitation

The Midland Great Western Railway of Ireland had recently taken over the Royal Canal and was anxious that it be known that any blame rested with the old regime:

Mr Murphy QC, accompanied by Mr Perry, attended on the part of the Royal Canal Company, to render what assistance they could in the investigation. […] Mr Murphy QC said it was right to state that he appeared on behalf of the company. They were probably aware that the property of the canal had passed into the hands of the Mullingar Railway Company, but there had been no change of officers whatever; so that if any of the officers of the company wished to be examined, they had a right to be produced, as they should continue to act under the new orders without any change.

Mr Perry added that he was anxious that this announcement respecting the continuance of the officers should be made, lest it might be imagined that the transfer of the canal had in any way led to the present accident.[24]

On the second day of the inquest, Perry said that the magistrates were delaying the transfer of money found on dead passengers to their heirs. The company would guarantee the entire amount to the magistrates “so that they would be enabled to divide the property more promptly among the parties entitled to it”.[25] He also said that the company would send all the survivors home at no cost to themselves, make good their losses and give each of them £1 as well. Jessop, the Hussar who had rescued several people, was given £5 and recommended strongly to his colonel.

The company achieved much favourable press comment and the entire incident soon passed from the pages of the press. According to Ruth Delany, the captain Christopher O’Connor was dismissed, Dunne was banned from working on the passenger boats and, some years later, Draper had his salary reduced as part of a set of cost-cutting measures.[26]


This is the fifth of a series of articles about the sinking of the passage boat Longford on the Royal Canal in 1845. The first provides an overview of the accident; the second is about the passage boat services and the crew of the Longford; the third is about the inquest and trial. The fourth began the theme continued on this page, the weaknesses of the Royal Canal Company, and the sixth discusses who was steering when the accident occurred.


Notes and sources

[1] Some accounts gave his name as Keating.

[2] Evidence of William Keatinge, Dublin Evening Mail 28 November 1845

[3] Evidence of Christopher O’Connor, Dublin Evening Mail 28 November 1845

[4] Evidence of William Keatinge, Dublin Evening Mail 28 November 1845

[5] Evidence of William Keatinge, Statesman and Dublin Christian Record 12 December 1845

[6] Evidence of Christopher O’Connor, Dublin Evening Mail 28 November 1845

[7] Evidence of James Dunne The Morning Post 29 November 1845. According to the Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent 27 November 1845, Dunne “got notice at twelve o’clock” that he was to steer.

[8] Evidence of Christopher O’Connor, Dublin Evening Mail 28 November 1845

[9] Evidence of Samuel Draper, Dublin Mercantile Advertiser, and Weekly Price Current 28 November 1845

[10] Evidence of James Dunne, The Morning Post 29 November 1845. According to the Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent 27 November 1845, Dunne said that he should have obtained permission to steer on that day from either O’Neil or Mr Draper’s clerk, but had not done so because O’Neil was out of town.

[11] Evidence of William Keatinge, Dublin Evening Mail 28 November 1845

[12] Evidence of Alexander Campbell, Dublin Evening Mail 28 November 1845

[13] Evidence of Patrick Morris, passenger, ibid

[14] Evidence of Robert Jessop, passenger, ibid

[15] ibid

[16] Evidence of James Dunne, ibid

[17] Evidence of Patrick Teeling, Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent 27 November 1845

[18] Evidence of Christopher O’Connor, Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent 27 November 1845

[19] Evidence of Patrick Teeling, Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent 27 November 1845

[20] Ruth Delany and Ian Bath Ireland’s Royal Canal 1789–2009 The Lilliput Press, Dublin 2010 p164

[21] Crapper: a half-glass of whiskey. Bernard Share Slanguage: a dictionary of slang and colloquial English in Ireland Gill and Macmillan, Dublin 1997

[22] Evidence of Patrick Teeling, Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent 27 November 1845

[23] Freeman’s Journal 16 December 1845

[24] Dublin Evening Mail 28 November 1845. Perry was chairman of the company’s Canal Committee. The Morning Post of 29 November 1845 said that other directors and shareholders were also present: “Mr Cosgrove, Mr Cooper, and other members of the Canal and Railway Company”

[25] Dublin Evening Mail 28 November 1845

[26] Delany op cit pp177, 181


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