Readers familiar with the history of the River Shannon will know that John Grantham brought one of the first steamers to the river. One of his sons, also John, followed in his footsteps. As President of the Liverpool Polytechnic Society he gave a lecture on Iron as a material for ship-building, which formed the basis of a book of the same title published in 1842 (by Simpkin, Marshall and Co, High Holborn; Lace and Addison, Standard Office, and W Webb, Liverpool; Finlay, Glasgow; Curry and Co, Dublin); it went through at least five editions.
The lecture was supplemented, in the book, by several letters Grantham had received from others interested in the subject. One of them was from James Scott Walker of Liverpool, who had sailed from Liverpool to Limerick on the iron steamer Erin-go-Bragh in 1840 [or perhaps 1841].
The steamer was built [330 tons burthen] and engined [100hp] by Mather, Dixon, whereof Grantham was a partner, for the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company’s service on the Shannon Estuary, where it was to become one of a three-vessel fleet with the Garryowen and the Dover Castle. In fact, though, Erin-go-Bragh returned to Liverpool in 1843, spending four years on the CoDSPCo’s service between Liverpool and North Wales [which it took over from the St George Steam Packet Co], before returning to the Shannon in 1847.
Most of Walker’s letter is a description of the voyage of the Erin-go-Bragh to the Shannon and, in particular, of the gale in which she was caught off the coast of Co Kerry. I reproduce that below the map.
Being anxious to view the beautiful scenery of the Shannon, I gladly accepted an invitation to accompany your new iron steamer, Erin-go-bragh, from this port to Limerick last year. As this vessel was intended exclusively for the Lower Shannon, her draft of water was necessarily small, not exceeding 5½ feet when in ballast-trim, and having but little depth of keel, she was not, of course, well suited for ocean navigation. She, however, performed the voyage most satisfactorily, though, for the latter part of it, under circumstances the most adverse and perilous. She was commanded by Captain Christie, formerly first officer of the Great Liverpool [built, as Liverpool, for the Transatlantic Steam-ship Company but taken over and renamed by the P&O Line] and who has had long experience in transatlantic, as well as coasting steam navigation.
We sailed from the Mersey on the morning of the 22nd of April, with little or no aid from the wind, and, though the engines were somewhat stiff, got abreast of Cape Clear in the afternoon of the 23rd. Had the weather remained favourable we should probably have reached Kilrush, on the Shannon, in 52 hours from the time of our departure; but, shortly after midnight, on the morning of the 24th, when we had left the light on the larger of the Skelligs Rocks a few miles astern, a gale sprung up from the southward and westward, and, acting on a previous swell from another direction, produced a remarkably heavy sea. In a few hours the wind rose to a perfect hurricane, and the waves, at once crossing and precipitous, rose to a fearful height, so that the hull and engines of the vessel were put to the severest trial.
We stood to the north-west to keep clear of the land, which, though not very far distant, was invisible, even after daybreak, through the haze and spindrift. The spray dashed over the ship in continued sheets, and she encountered many tremendous seas that threatened to overwhelm her, taking her, indeed, sometimes on the weather bow and the lee quarter simultaneously; but such were her buoyancy and liveliness that she accommodated herself surprisingly to the emergency, and, without a perceptible strain, shipped very little water. She was put under the close-reefed mainsail and fore-stay-sail, but for some time during the height of the storm the boat cloths, placed against the weather main rigging, were substituted for the former. At one time, while, from the force of the wind, the height of the waves, and the frequent smothering of the paddle wheels, she was doing little more than lying to, a sea suddenly struck her and filled her main deck to a considerable height. To use the Captain’s expressive phrase, she “sighed” under it for a moment, and then again rose like a duck. Another sea carried away great part of the larboard bulwarks forward, and damaged her paddle boxes, head rails, and figure head, but none of the iron-work was disturbed. During the gale, the arm of the mate was broken by a blow from a sheet-block, and three other men were disabled.
Till about ten in the morning of the 24th, the storm continued without cessation — the waves, which were steep and tumultuous, rising mountains high. About 8 o’clock, some of the men on board thought they saw a long ridge of dangerous rocks on the lee. If such were seen at all (and there certainly was for a time an appearance to warrant the apprehension), they were doubtless the Blaskett Rocks — to touch which would have been inevitable and instance destruction, but they were probably only the dark ridges of the waves indistinctly seen in the spindrift. Be this as it may, our gallant little vessel got clear of that ugly locality. The gale continued with occasional slight abatement during the whole day, and also the following night, during which it again increased to another hurricane, at (which is somewhat remarkable) the same hour. As the wind shifted some points from time to time, we occasionally put the vessel, which behaved admirably throughout, on the other tack, forging out seaward as we best could.
On the morning of the 25th, the weather became more moderate; and, though the sea was still running high, we put her before it under both sail and steam, and ventured, for the first time, to approach the land. She scudded admirably and safely. With all the disadvantages of her peculiar build, which gave her but little hold of the water, she had made a good offing; for we ran eastward about 50 miles, at about eleven knots an hour, before we again saw the Skelligs; the first “land” we made, if rocks may be so called. We immediately shaped a direct course to the estuary of the noble Shannon. We arrived off Kilrush in the evening, after a beautiful and interesting run from the Skelligs, and finally anchored at Tarbert, for the night, the engines never having once stopped during the whole passage.
The Erin-go-bragh, after all the buffetting she had received, had neither sprung a single plate, nor started a single rivet. It was the opinion of those on board, as it is my own, that a wooden vessel could not have weathered it out, as her whole frame must have been so strained that she could not have been kept afloat. No vessel, whether of wood or of iron, with sails only — (and this I will venture to say in behalf of steam) — could have worked off so dangerous and proximate a lee shore, under the pressure of such a storm in wind and wave. I have several times crossed the Atlantic, and have encountered many gales; but do not remember to have beheld so trying a sea-way; for, in the open ocean the waves have room to roll away in their majesty and sublimity, without encountering the backset or recoil from the awful cliffs which here oppose them. The storm was severely felt on shore, many of the houses and cottages along the coast and for miles into the interior having been unroofed. A brigantine from Kildare [sic], which had been in the tail of the gale, afterwards put into Kilrush dismasted, only seven feet of her main-mast being left.
You may believe, Sir, we were all grateful again to set foot on terra firma, and that, whatever our former impressions in behalf of wooden vessels, we had nothing to say against the Erin. For myself, I am bound to add, that though my own slender nautical education was all imbibed in the old floating schools, with “wooden walls,” and though my partiality was consequently strong in behalf of hard “heart of oak,” my confidence in the still harder material for ship-building is firmly, and I trust not erroneously, established; and, taking all things into account, I am inclined to exclaim — “There is nothing like iron!”
After our arrival at Limerick, I made the passage to and from Kilrush in the iron steamer, Garryowen, belonging to the same company. Though she had been running nearly seven years, she was as sound, and as apparently free from corrosion, as on the day on which she was launched, having been all that time in a tide-way, without any repairs. Even the original red paint-work on her sides in the engine room was quite fresh and bright. She was taking in her third set of boilers during my stay at Limerick. The Erin-go-bragh is now running on the same station and is a great favourite.
Here is Dick Gaughan singing Erin-go-Bragh.