Wreckers and Plunderers 1856.

The entire county of Wexford had to pay a levy following the plundering of the "Irrawaddy", a big merchantman which went aground on the Blackwater Bank, off the coast of Wexford, on October 13, 1856. En route from Glasgow to Rangoon, the "Irrawaddy" was carrying a valuable cargo of calico, gunpowder and cut stone, with an estimated value for ship and cargo of£50,000. in bad weather the ship struck the Blackwater Bank about 9.30 p.m. on October 13 and began taking water at a rate of four feet an hour. The 21 crew members, including Captain Thomas Millar , took to the boats. One boat, with three men in it, capsized and the three were lost. The remainder made it to shore. In effect the "Irrawaddy" had been abandoned, a fact used by the defence in a subsequent court case.

Captain Millar went to Wexford town to notify Lloyds agents of the wreck and to try to hire a steamer to pull the "Irrawaddy" off the sandbank. When he returned to the scene of the wreck on October 14, he found that the ship had drifted off the bank and was now grounded near Cahore. Worst of all he saw that the ship was surrounded by a fleet of boats and that plundering was in progress. What happened is best described in the captain's own words, as reported in "The Wexford Independent" of February 28, 1857, from a sitting of Wexford Spring Assizes before the notorious Judge Keogh.

Eleven Arklow fishermen who had been arrested following the plundering had been charged at the Assizes but the Grand Jury had failed to find a True Bill and the men were released "to the cheers of a crowd outside the courthouse". The court then sat to hear civil proceedings brought by the English owners of the "Irrawaddy" and the underwriters. They sought compensation of £7,485 , a huge sum in those days. Captain Millar said that on October 15 he saw some cargo being removed from the stranded vessel by boats from Courtown Harbour, amongst those in the boats were a Coastguard and two of his crew. Some 40 or 50 boats were involved and from 400 to 500 people were on board the ship. He himself went out to the ship and found Mr. Cuscaden, Chief of the Coastguards, there. While he was on board other boats came alongside, Anning himself, the Captain told them to keep off, threatening to "blow their brains out". The men in the boats had boathooks, tongs and long iron rods with beards on their points (obviously fishing spears). They rushed on board. Outnumbered, he took Cuscaden's boat and went ashore for the police. When he returned with some policemen he found that most of the boats now had cargo in them. Fitzsimons of the police ordered his men to load their carbines, but "the wreckers only smiled at them" .

Miller then described how he, his crew and the police started to clear the decks. In twenty minutes he had nearly cleared them when two men advanced on him with boathooks. He parried their attack with a cutlass but was struck with an axe by another. Members of his own crew rushed to his assistance. They grabbed the axeman and handed him over to the police. But the plunderers had won the day. A large quantity of goods had been taken away. Fifteen or twenty of the largest boats, of fifteen to twenty tons burthen, were very deep laden with plunder. A hole had even been cut in the deck to enable goods to be taken from the holds. Calicos worth £500 had been taken, the ship" s stores had been destroyed and the sails and rigging had also been carried off. The first boat had been in charge of the Coastguard, added the Captain.

By October 16, he said in cross-examination, the ship was full of water and broke up later . Some packages were washed ashore and he saw gun-powder on shore with the Coastguard. The mizzen mast and part of the standing rigging were returned to him later. " One man bought 50 feet of books from the wreck", he said in an aside. Divers and official salvers went aboard afterwards and the salvaged goods were put on a steamer. Cuscaden was in charge then. From Harper, Lloyd"s agent in Wexford, some said goods had been retrieved from as far away as Arklow, and William Coighlan, Coastguard at Arklow, said he got goods from twenty boats as they came in from the wreck. He said there were about fifty boats out, but some had no goods at all when they came in. Counsel for the claimants made the point that boats could easily return empty, having off -loaded goods elsewhere.

William Cuscaden, Chief Coastguard Officer, in his evidence was obviously at pains to play down the amount of goods taken. He said he had only three men while there were 400 or 500 plunderers and he disputed Captain Millar's assertions. In cross examination, however he admitted that he himself had taken a chronometer and a spy-glass from the "Irrawaddy". In his final plea, council for the ratepayers of the county argued strongly against the injustice of saddling responsibility on the people of the barony who were not only innocent but had rendered assistance to save the ship and cargo. Why, he asked should they be compelled to pay for the depredations of marauders from another county? The jury , Directed by Judge Keogh, found for the claimants, however and assessed damages at £1,700, the claim to be levied off the entire county.

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