In December 1849 the Cammoge (or Commogue) ferry, which crossed the mouth of Poulnasherry Bay, suffered an accident that resulted in the drowning of 41 people.
The accident was widely reported, but most reports seem to have been based on a small number of sources, notably the Limerick Chronicle. Despite that, there are differences in the description of what happened; those descriptions make it difficult to determine what the boat itself was like.
The cause of the accident
This is one account, from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper of 23 December 1849 citing the Limerick Chronicle:
The London Standard of 17 December 1849 cited the Weekly Freeman‘s report of the previous Saturday:
The boat moved on as far as the middle of the ferry, when a sea broke over her stern, and filled her at once, the wind blowing strong from the south-east at the time. She upset instantly, and her miserable living freight were immerged in the merciless waters, while four (who were eventually saved) clung to her until a boat from Captain Cox’s men came to their assistance.
The description given by the surviving boatman of the accident is, that when within about sixty yards of the beach the boat split from the bows down by the keel, and began to fill with water, when the passengers leaned to the side favouring the swell of the sea, when she upset with crew and passengers […]. There were four persons saved by another ferry boat’s crew.
What befell the boat? Was it filled with water by a breaking sea, as the first report suggests, or did its structure fail, as the second does? It seems to be agreed that the boat did not sink but that it did capsize after water got in.
The rescuers are identified in one report as Captain Cox’s men, in another as the crew of another ferry. A Captain Cox lived nearby at Mount Pleasant; I am disinclined to believe in the existence of a second ferry boat.
The boat’s history
Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper of 23 December 1849 quoted the Limerick Chronicle as describing the boat as “a crazy and rotten boat, which has been plying on this ferry for the last forty years”.
The London Standard of 17 December 1849 cited the previous Saturday’s Weekly Freeman as saying
The fatal row boat has been for many years in the service, and has been heretofore employed as a horse-boat, but being found too weak, was used as a passenger boat.
The boat was said to have been rented to its operators:
The fatal craft belonged to a man named Williams, who has for the last three years let her at a weekly rent to the boatmen who worked her, both parties neglecting her repairs […].
The Freeman’s Journal editorial of 18 December 1849 said
The verdict of the coroner’s jury was silent as to the real cause of the catastrophe. Gross neglect was imputed to the owners of the boat, for having allowed such numbers to crowd into so crazy a craft, which was converted from a horse into a passenger boat, human life being less valuable than horse life in the union of Kilrush. […] Why did not the grand jurors and proprietors of the district look to the safety and soundness of the conveyance, as they were morally bound to do?
The term “horse boat” has at least three meanings. First, and least importantly, it may refer to a type of ferry, used on American rivers, propelled by horses walking on a turntable that causes paddle wheels to turn. There are some illustrations here and others can easily be found. I have never heard of such a contrivance being used in these islands and I think that it is unlikely to be what the journalists had in mind.
Second, people interested in inland waterways may think of a horse boat as one pulled by a horse, or team of horses, on a canal or river. Such a boat is likely to be long, straight-sided, flat-bottomed and relatively narrow. It is likely to operate on a specially built towing-path or trackway. The nearest place to Poulnasherry at which I know such boats to have operated is on the Limerick Navigation, from Limerick to Killaloe, and a boat could have been sold, towed down the estuary and put into use at Cammoge.
However, if the boat was at Cammoge for forty years, it is unllikely to have come from the Limerick Navigation, which did not have a trackway until around 1812. Before then, the navigation was used mostly by smaller boats, which were rowed, sailed or poled. Furthermore, a canal boat would have been difficult for horses to board at Cammoge without a quay and ramps, neither of which the Ordnance Survey map shows.
On a related point, is it possible that the term “horse boat” meant a ferry boat that was hauled by horse across the water at Cammoge? I have never heard the term applied to such a boat (which doesn’t mean it was never so used) and the arrangement was relatively rare. It seems to me that it would require a large capital investment — a strong endless cable, more than twice the length of the crossing, to which the boat could be attached; strong anchorage points on both banks; messenger ropes for hauling the cable in the appropriate direction; a team of horses on each bank — as well as at least two men on shore, one to attach the nippers and one to guide the horses. It would be cheaper to have two men in the boat and to dispense with the apparatus and the horses. If a cable were to be laid across the estuary, it seems to me that it would be cheaper to operate the boat as a reaction ferry rather than using horses.
The third meaning of “horse boat” is a boat used to carry horses. I do not know of any substantial traffic in horses in the area; I suspect therefore that a horse-boat operating at Cammoge would have been able to carry no more than one or two horses at a time. It might have been of about the same size as this one [click on the image for a larger version, but it will still be very faint] or this one.
The boat’s design
If the boat was built [perhaps at Clancy’s Dock?] to carry horses across at Cammoge [which is a guess based on no evidence], rather than having been built originally for use elsewhere and relocated to Cammoge, it may be possible to make some guesses about its design.Neither the Ordnance Survey 6″ (~1840) nor the 25″ (~1900) map shows a pier or other infrastructure on either side of the channel. The ferry must therefore have been designed to operate from the stony beaches, which may have limited its hours of operation.
More significantly, it must have been possible to beach the boat such that it would provide a stable platform for getting the horse (or horses) on and off. I know little about the animals, but I gather that they can be nervous, which might be why some pics show horses being held while aboard ferries. I suspect that there might be three criteria for a small horse ferry:
- flat-bottomed so that it could be beached and would provide a stable platform during boarding and disembarkation
- shallow-hulled and flat inside to make it easy for the horse to stand
- low-sided so that the horse could walk aboard from the beach (in the absence of quays and ramps) without being obstructed by the sides of the boat.
I invite correction if I am wrong about what horses might need. Incidentally, I am sure that I read somewhere, years ago, that it was important to persuade a horse to stale before it boarded a boat lest its micturition produce a quantity of liquid that, with free surface effect, might endanger the vessel.
Perhaps the boat was not unlike the cattle-carriers of Crovraghan or the (inland) Shannon cot. Or perhaps it had a better defined bow, a more boat-like shape: somewhere between the Poulnasherry turf boats and the Crovraghan cattle-carriers. Perhaps it was a scow: Wikipedia’s article on scows concentrates on the American usage, referring to flat-bottomed sailing boats, but I think of scows as being more like this, a larger version of this, a smaller version of this or one of these.
A boat that could carry a horse or two could also carry people, so its designation as a horse boat would not prevent the ferry’s carrying passengers too. But the newspaper reports suggest that it had ceased to carry horses some time before 1849 because it was “found too weak”.
I don’t know what that means, but it does strike me that a shallow, flat-bottomed boat carrying a horse has its centre of gravity very high, which reduces its metacentric height and thus the righting moment that brings a vessel back to the vertical from a roll. Thus a boat of a form suitable for embarking and disembarking horses, and suitable too for crossing relatively calm waters, would be dangerous on rough water.
There is no information on whether the boat was converted in any way for its new role. It would have been relatively easy to build up the sides, providing the passengers with some protection from waves. However, I suggest that it is unlikely that two of the basic characteristics — flat-bottomed; shallow-hulled and flat inside — were greatly altered. If the boat was flat inside, passengers probably sat on the bottom, which would have put the centre of gravity lower than it would have been with a horse on board. Nonetheless, if the boat was shallow-hulled, the centre of gravity might have been at or near the water level rather than, as with a conventional boat, below that level.
If the boat had remained level, and filled with water, passengers who did not panic might have been able to hold on to the floating wood. But if it was rolling, or if passengers had all moved to one side, and if it then took on water, whether from a wave breaking over it or from a leak, free surface effect would have increased the heeling until the vessel capsized.
Mark Twain wrote [in Life on the Mississippi 1883]
There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.
I suspect my rate of return is even higher than he envisaged: I am conscious of both the paucity of evidence and my own ignorance of local conditions and history and the science of naval architecture. However, this piece is intended as a basis for discussion: the comments of more learned folk may help us towards a better understanding of the nature and design of the Cammoge ferry.