Limerick Chronicle files: Brothers’ stirring account of emigrants’ terrible sea journey

Sharon Slater, Limerick Chronicle Historian


Sharon Slater, Limerick Chronicle Historian

Emigrants to Australia had to travel the whole way across the world on ships such as these

Emigrants to Australia had to travel the whole way across the world on ships such as these

In August 1963, the Chronicle ran a four part series with extracts from the journal of two Limerick brothers who had travelled from Ireland to Australia 100 years before.

The brothers were Hamilton George and Mark O’Shaughnessy, sons of Mark T O’Shaughnessy, a coach a carriage agent in Thomas Street.

The brothers had both enlisted in the R.I.C. in 1859. Hamilton, aged 21 at the time, and stood almost six foot tall. He had previously worked as a clerk. While Mark was only 19 years old and he was almost five foot ten inches tall and worked as a labourer. Hamilton was a reserve in the RIC while Mark had been posted to Cork City. They both resigned to take their journey across the world together. The journal was kept mostly by Mark who referred to his brother as Hammy.

The brothers set sail from Queenstown (now Cobh) to Queensland, Australia on March 23, 1863. During the 93-day trip, there were 10 births and 37 deaths; thirty-three of those deaths were children.

The brothers kept a log of their journey. They told of the four young men who were discovered stowed away as the ship was being towed out of Queenstown harbour. They were quickly sent ashore under the guidance of a clergyman on-board.

A man by the name of Brown was left behind as he had gone ashore shortly before the ship sailed and not returned in time. His wife continued the journey alone. Over the next few days, the O’Shaughnessy journal told of the sailing speeds and weather. On March 26, they mentioned that all the passengers on board were suffering from seasickness.

All of those travelling had to carry out a duty. The O’Shaughnessys were responsible for getting “the lower deck scraped and swept every day three times; to go on duty at 7 o’clock in the morning until 10 o’clock at night, to keep the girls near the second cabin, not to let them near the young men that came up every fifth day, and to see that all the lights were put out at 10 o’clock to the minute; also to go on the galley every fourth night for a week to see that all passengers got their dinner, supper and breakfast also”.

On April 6, they record the death of the first child in a callous fashion “Sailed six knots per hour; sun very hot; saw several fish; a child thrown overboard at 7 o’clock.” Three days later they record the first birth. On April 11, the second child dies, this time of measles. Another died of measles on May 13. The ship was also inflicted with “scurvy and itch”. The following day they note the death of the first adult “Dwyer, native of Tipperary – leaves six children after him, all very young”.

Within the space of a week beginning April 25, two passengers died in quick succession. “Collins, native of Kerry, married only four months, a runaway match”, “Mrs Gillespie was thrown overboard”.

The heat began to increase as the ship sailed further south and during April, it became unbearable - “could not stop below to take dinner; had to come on deck that night, and most of the passengers could not stand the heat below. For the next few days, the passengers slept on deck and walked around in their undergarments.

It was not all doom and gloom as there was notes of singing and dancing as the ship tossed in the ocean waves. On May 4, an Irish family of a husband, wife and son “all used to play on flutes together, the best I ever heard”. On March 29, one of the sailors caught a small shark, which caused great excitement among the passengers.

On May 1, “an English girl named Alice Wild, dressed herself as a sailor and passed off as such to Doctor and Captain… [they] dismissed her from the hospital; she was nurse there, and put an Irish girl in her place”.

As the days turned into weeks, tensions rose on the ship. Fights broke out on an almost nightly basis between the Irish and the English - “only the Irish were so strong the English would walk into them”. Theft also became a problem. On May 26, the brothers wrote, “A London prig thought to steal our bacon hanging up in our room. Seeing the fellow myself, I pounced out of bed, but the prig made off like the very devil; made fast the door with boxes and locked up the bacon at 12 o’clock.”

That same day the ship was hit by a large wave that made its way down the hatch. This caused terror to the passengers who were below deck as they thought the ship was sinking. On May 28, “at 12 o’clock a sad accident happened to a young man aged 20, Robert Campion, a native of Kilkenny, who slept in the same room with us… while walking a deck, smoking, he was caught by the sail flapping at the time, which threw the poor fellow overboard”.

Another alarm was raised on June 10, as a fire broke out in one of the larger sleeping quarters. “All the passengers were running here and there, but found that it was a sling lamp that took fire. It was taken by a passenger and thrown overboard. Only for it being thrown over so soon all the beds would have taken fire”.

By June, the weather had changed drastically for the ship and on June 2, the deck was covered in snow. The following day a great snowball fight broke out among the passengers. In the two weeks of June, twelve children passed away and were “thrown overboard”.

There were ten constables on the ship, five English and five Irish. One evening early into the journey, April 5, they discovered a threatening letter aimed at the ship’s doctor, who was deemed by almost all the passengers as an unsavoury character.

The O’Shaughnessys referred to him as “a crank little fellow”. Later in the journey, June 13, the doctor was attacked by several passengers and “only for the priest and captain coming down so soon they would tear the doctor to pieces.”

Every so often, the ship would meet another who were on the return journey to England. As the ships met, hundreds of letters would be exchanged.

The brothers made note of what others reading the journey should bring if they were going to take the long journey to Australia. “If anyone is going out from Limerick, tell them to bring such – flour, jam, fancy biscuits, straw hats, white trousers, white coats, preserved milk, clay pipes, and could with the greatest ease make £60 on the passengers.”

On June 21, land was spotted, over the course of the next few days as they neared the coast of Australia the passengers were overjoyed, singing and dancing each night.

Three days later on June 24 at six o’clock in the morning, the ship “cast anchor for good.” They brothers were destined for Rockhampton on the advice of a Father Keating “we were offered £40 a year with rations to go as shepherds. We refused it.”

The bothers were shocked at how underdeveloped Australia was at the time, “this is not the country they represented; it is a wild country.” They also found it very expensive, with lodging costing £1 a week.

They did not stay long in Rockhampton and decided to try their luck further south in Sydney. The brothers soon settled in Australia. On May 9, 1866 at St Augustine’s Church, Balmain, Sydney the marriage took place of Hamilton to Kate Louisa Brennan, who was also a native of Ireland.