Saturday 20 July 2019

Shipwrecked: The Victorian Titanic that foundered on Dublin Bay rocks

The White Star Line's state-of-the-art liner that lost her way off Lambay Island

Frank Fallon’s painting of the Tayleur
Frank Fallon’s painting of the Tayleur

Damian Corless

Before the Titanic there was the Tayleur. Like its more famous successor, the Tayleur was unveiled by the White Star Line as the biggest and fastest passenger ship of its day.

Like the Titanic too, it would go down on its maiden voyage with a terrible loss of life.

One hundred and sixty years ago, in early 1854, the Tayleur ran aground off Lambay Island in Dublin Bay with 370 fatalities.

The Tayleur was custom-made to service a new in-demand route between Britain and Australia. Gold had been discovered Down Under and during the 1850s more than a quarter-of-a-million fortune seekers set out from the British Isles, including some 60,000 from Ireland.

The three-month voyage was an endurance test for rich and poor, but the Tayleur promised five star luxury all the way, with the result that it left Liverpool crammed with 600 movers and shakers, almost half of them Irish. Before the ship had even left the

Mersey however, the pilot noticed that the compass readings seemed wonky. But there was no question of a return to port. It was an age of light touch regulation, and shipping owners put profit before the safety of their crews and the travelling public.

The story of the Tayleur's tragic maiden voyage is told in a new book by Gill Hoffs. Entitled The Sinking Of RMS Tayleur, its cover features a painting by Wicklow-based artist Frank Fallon.

A maritime specialist, Frank describes the Tayleur as a disaster waiting to happen.

"It was the biggest ship of its time, but the rudder was far too small to steer it properly. Most of the ships of the time were wooden, but the Tayleur had a hull made of iron.

The iron hull interfered with the ship's compasses, with the result that while the captain believed he was sailing due south, the ship was in fact heading full speed ahead for the Irish coast," he said.

"The ropes for the masts were not properly seasoned, so they weren't flexible and jammed in the holes. This meant that the crew couldn't control the sails which were carrying them on to the rocks at Lambay."

At a subsequent inquiry, it emerged only 26 of the 71-strong crew were able seamen. Most were Indonesians and Chinese who'd been recruited with economy and haste in mind – and who spoke little or no English.

Shortly before the ship struck a reef off Lambay Island, the captain was convinced he was passing the Bay of Biscay.

A ferocious storm drove the Tayleur on to the rocks and passengers scrambled to avoid being sucked under the sinking ship.

Reports differ as to whether there were 100 or 200 women on board, but only three survived.

The cumbersome Victorian dress has been blamed for the high death rate. Women were sewn into tight corsets, layered with petticoats and bulky outer garments which dragged them down.

The Tayleur disaster was one of many in the Irish Sea which can be largely put down to a penny-pinching recklessness in the shipping trade.

A year earlier, 83 people perished when the Queen Victoria ran aground off Howth, with allegations that the Howth lighthouse was unlit. Five years later, in 1859, the Pomoma from Liverpool ran aground off Wexford killing 373.

Another disaster of 1859 finally persuaded the British And Irish Admiralty to install a proper system of weather forecasting, when the Royal Charter left Cobh on the last leg of its journey from Australia to Liverpool, carrying 430 passengers and a huge gold bullion.

The ship ran into a storm in the Irish Sea and sank with the loss of 400 lives.


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