Anyone familiar with the Aughrus Peninsula in north-west Connemara will surely know a beach at Aughrusbeg, known to one and all as the Anchor Beach. The name, of course, derives from the big old ship’s anchor, lying there on the golden sand. Few, though, are as familiar with the story behind that anchor.
We must go back in time and place – 7am on June 26 1877, on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean, as the sailing ship Verity was launched from the ship-building yard of William Charland Snr, in St Joseph de Lévy, Quebec, Canada.
BY HEATHER GREER
At 1,022 tons (about 60 tons greater than that most famous of the clipper ships, the Cutty Sark), she was sizeable enough: 179 feet in length.
She was rigged as a three-mast barque, carrying square sails on the fore and main masts, and fore-and-aft sails on the aftermost mast (the mizen).
Verity was built for the Canadian tycoon James Gibb Ross, who owned a fleet of some 80 vessels. Two months after the Verity was launched, Gibb sold three quarters of the shares in the ship to brothers Samuel J and Abram M Hatfield of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, which became the Verity’s registered home port. The Hatfields were well known in Nova Scotia shipping circles.
As with most of the numerous sailing vessels built in Quebec, the Verity was built for the Atlantic cargo trade.
Her maiden voyage in late 1877 was from Quebec City to Liverpool, and in the following year and a half she made 13 cross-Atlantic voyages, often to Belfast or Waterford.
On December 18 1889 the Verity departed Waterford, bound toward Sandy Hook, under the command of Captain George William Corning Jnr, from Ardrossan, south of Glasgow, who had held the rank of captain for at least ten years.
Having no homeward cargo, the Verity was ‘in ballast’: about 450 tons of shingle, sand and mud loaded into her holds, sufficient to keep her upright under sail.
Her full complement was 20, including Captain Corning, a mate, and 15 other of Irish, British and foreign hands, plus three young men from Waterford, who were part-working their passage as emigrants to America.
The weather was good and the winds in the Verity’s favour, and she made steady progress westward for the first days of the voyage.
By midwinter’s day she was at the same latitude as the Fastnet Rock, and over 400 nautical miles to the west of the Irish coast.
From then on, however, the weather turned steadily worse. The vessel endured a succession of violent gales, with vast seas and driving hail. In such conditions the men worked a hundred and more feet above the deck, supported only by footropes slung from the swaying spars. It was not much of a Christmas on ship-board.
But 5am on December 29 found the Verity lying-to in a full storm, carrying only a goose-winged lower main topsail (goose-winging in a square rigged ship meant furling the sail, and then pulling out part of the sail on both sides, to form two small triangles of sail; the lower main topsail is the second sail from the deck, on the main mast).
Even then she was hard pressed, and around 6am the sail came adrift from its yard. The master quickly sent 14 hands aloft to furl the sail, in danger of flogging itself to pieces in the wind.
Balanced on their footropes, the crew had to use both hands to try to tame that flogging sail, in the bitter cold of a mid-winter Atlantic.
While the men were still aloft, disaster struck. The Verity was caught by a very heavy squall and she broached, being thrown onto her beam ends.
A massive sea carried away her bowsprit, followed by the foremast, which broke at deck level; then the main and mizen masts went, breaking just below the eyes of the rigging.
The men aloft fell from the footropes, twelve of them onto the deck, but two of the crew fell overboard and were lost.
Four other men were seriously injured, and were brought below to receive what treatment was available; this, of course, was the captain’s job.
The falling main yard left a gaping hole in the deck, and the men secured it as best they could with a tarpaulin, and then set about the task of cutting adrift the spars which were on all sides beating against the ship’s topsides.
The Verity was now helpless and drifting in heavy seas. On the day that the dismasting occurred, a steamer of about 2,000 tons passed close by, and the Verity signalled her.
The poor, wretched crew must have thought that Providence has spoken to them at that moment, but the steamer just proceeded on her way without stopping.
The crew maintained strongly at the later official enquiry that the steamer clearly saw the Verity’s condition and could have stopped to render assistance had they wanted to.
The master and crew now set about the task of attempting to set a ‘jury rig’, to try to run Verity before the wind and find a port. They were, however, unable to gain steerage way on the vessel, which was drifting towards the inhospitable west coast of Ireland.
She continued to drift to the west and the north, for what remained of December, and into January.
It cannot have been a pleasant New Year’s Eve for the crew – but then life for crews manning square-rigged vessels on deep-water passages was rarely easy.
Even for ships with kindly captains – and that could never be taken for granted – the rations were often meagre, consisting of the worst of meat while it lasted.
This was followed by ‘hard tack’ (dried bread which could break a man’s teeth) and rotten pork fat, washed down by water which was often tainted and almost undrinkable.
When the weather was bad, the seamen’s bunks were usually soaked, as were their clothes and boots, with little prospect of drying them out. Their oilskins were of canvas rubbed with oil to waterproof them, and the oil would eventually wear off leaving little protection.
In the teeth of a severe gale the vessel’s decks were swept by waves, the full length of the ship, often carrying away gear and men, either carrying them clean overboard to their deaths or dashing them against the vessel’s bulwarks and sometimes breaking limbs or worse.
Add to all of that the cold, the terrible cold, such cold as the crew of the Verity must have experienced that winter of 1879.
The wind howling in every part of the rigging and carrying all before it; the vessel thrown in every direction by huge cross-seas; constant hailstorms biting the faces of all of the sea-soaked, miserable, freezing crew. Indeed, it was a hard life, made for the toughest of men, and those who weren’t tough – and lucky – did not survive it.
On the 2nd January, 1880, the Blasket Islands off the Kerry coastline were sighted, lying almost north, about 25 nautical miles.
That night a schooner passed close by, and Verity sent up distress rockets, one of them going right over the schooner, so that the people could be clearly seen on her deck, but she also passed on without offering any assistance.
Verity by now had drifted and sailed some 400 miles eastward. The wind must have backed into the south, for the helpless vessel now drifted in a northerly direction along the Irish coast. Two days later, on the evening of January 4 1880, as darkness fell they spotted the Slyne Head lights, about seven miles to the north-west.
This meant that the vessel had missed Galway Bay and now lay to the east of the dangerous rock-strewn Slyne Head. She must at that time have been in grave danger of drifting ashore onto the rocks and reefs of Slyne Head itself: a terrifying prospect.
Captain Corning watched the lights for around three hours and, concluding that she was bound to go ashore, he made the decision to abandon her.
The desperate crewmen had on two previous occasions approached the master and begged that they be allowed to abandon ship, but Corning forbade it. But now that land was in sight and the vessel in such a precarious location, he ordered that Verity’s two boats be got out.
At 9.30pm on January 4, they abandoned ship; the master and ten hands took to one boat, and the mate and six others to the other.
They made for Slyne Head but it was too dangerous to attempt a landing there, so they kept on and eventually landed in a cove called Stackport, about a mile to the NE of the mainland part of Slyne Head. There, they were accommodated by local people, and presently transferred to Clifden.
The abandoned Verity did in fact scrape past Slyne Head, and continued to drift in a north-easterly direction, on the next day foundering on Aughrus Point in NW Connemara.
Though this was not included in the official enquiry report, some newspapers stated that “the destitute Galway peasantry, defying the police, completely stripped the vessel of provisions and valuables”.
This, of course, was normal practice not alone in Galway, but along all coastlines where ships came ashore as wrecks. Perhaps less forgivable, the crew themselves claimed afterwards that they has been personally robbed of their own effects, though this was never substantiated and may well be untrue.
And what of Captain Corning and his crew? The official enquiry concluded that they had acted properly at all times during the disaster, and that in the opinion of the Wrecks Commissioners, “no blame whatever attaches to the master or to anyone on board for having abandoned Verity as and when they did”.
Captain Corning and all of the surviving officers and crew had their licences returned. Corning himself commanded the American barque Glaneide for two years.
In 1883, he became master of the Scottish barque Modern. He sailed from Shields in England bound for the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), on March 20.
The Modern was spoken by another ship on May 17, while in the middle of the South Atlantic, and that was the last ever report of the Modern, of Captain Corning and her crew. No trace was ever located.
So the unfortunate Captain Corning outlived the Verity by less than two tempestuous years. Around 1950, the owner of the lobster fishery at Aughrusbeg, with a few local men, caught an anchor from the Verity off Aughrus Point in a grapple.
They managed to raise it from the seabed, and towed it to its present resting place at what is now known forever as “the Anchor Beach”.
■ Heather Greer edited this article from a chapter from her forthcoming book, on life and death at sea through the centuries, off the Connemara coast. The book is a work in progress.