In April, it is customary to see articles on what is arguably history’s most famous shipwreck, the sinking of RMS Titanic after colliding with an iceberg, and the tragedy of the loss of 1500 souls, many of them Irish immigrants. However, some sixty years prior, also in April, there was another tragic shipwreck resulting from a collision with an iceberg that also tragically claimed the lives of people fleeing the inhumanity of the Great Hunger to seek a better life, the Hannah.
The Hannah was a brig of approximately 200 tons that set sail from Newry, Ireland, on Tuesday, 3 April 1849. She had a crew of 12 under the command of its 23-year-old master, Curry Shaw, transporting approximately 180 Irish immigrants, many of them families with children.
The young Captain Shaw had one distinguishing quality that enabled him to hold such a senior position at such a young age; he was the owner’s son. Shaw had already gained infamous notoriety when on an earlier voyage of the Hannah in 1847, he had crammed 390 passengers from Sligo aboard the ship only to have many of them die and be buried at sea. At one point during that crossing, Shaw had ordered the passengers confined below decks during a storm. During this voyage, the ship’s Doctor, William Graham, later accused Shaw of several times slipping into the bunks of unmarried young women and raping them.
At 4 am on 29 April, the Hannah struck a “reef of ice,” which punctured the ship’s hull. Realizing the ship was beyond saving and going down, Captain Shaw ordered the ship’s carpenter to nail shut the ship’s hatch trapping the passengers below. Shaw and two of his officers then fled in the ship’s only lifeboat.
Fortunately, some members of the Hannah‘s crew had more bravery and compassion than their cowardly captain. They wrenched open the hatch and hurriedly convinced the terror-stricken passengers that their only hope was to escape to the same ice floe that had doomed the ship.
The ship sank in 40 minutes. Some were unable to make it out before the ship went under, others slipped and perished in the cold water as they attempted to cross onto the ice. However, the most heart rendering tragedies were those who escaped the ship only to die in the cold and the gale that was now blowing. Ann McGinn escaped with her six children, only to have them all perish. John Murphy left his twin boys on the ice to rescue his infant daughter; he found her, and she survived being immersed in the frigid water, but the ice holding his boys had drifted away.
The seamen who had stood by their duty and aided the passengers gave up what protective clothing they had to the women passengers, many of who had escaped in only their nightwear. The survivors spent the next twelve hours on the ice floe in a strong gale as the cold and the sea continued to claim some of them and seemed likely to claim them all.
By a miracle, at around 5:00 pm, a mast was sighted on the horizon. It was the ship Nicaragua, another ship carrying famine immigrants to Canada. Seeing something on the ice and then discerning it to be a distress flag, Nicarauga’s Captain Marshall immediately changed course and began the dangerous mission of working his way through the ice to rescue the Hannah‘s survivors. By 7:00 pm, he was close enough that he and his crew succeeded in saving about fifty of the desperate survivors. Seeing additional victims on an ice floe that had drifted off and not accessible to his ship, Captain Marshall pushed off with his men in the ship’s long boat and saved them after navigating the treacherous ice.
Later Captain Marshal would write of the rescue “No pen can describe the pitiable situation of the poor creatures, they were all but naked, cut and bruised, and frost-bitten. There were parents who had lost their children, children with loss of parents. Many, in fact, were perfectly insensible. The number got on board the Nicarague [sic] were 129 passengers and seamen; the greater part of these were frost-bitten.“
At least 49 people perished in the wreck of the Hannah; the rest carried the scars, both physical and emotional, of the ordeal for the rest of their lives.
As to Captain Curry Shaw, he and his two cowardly officers were rescued by another ship. The Ballina Chronicle reported that a charge was laid against the three “of their being guilty of one of the most revolting acts of inhumanity that can be conceived.” Despite a disposition by the ship’s Doctor and a crewman citing Captain Shaw’s cowardice and inhumanity, he escaped punishment. It is a testament to how cheaply Irish life was valued at that time.
Those lost on the Hannah were twice over the victims of man’s inhumanity to man; first driven from their homes in starvation by a callous foreign government and secondly abandoned by a coward responsible for their safe passage. We should not forget them.