The Sea Horse Disaster of 1816 Tramore Bay and the Building of the Commemoration Cairn

It was something I had failed to understand – 363 people, including children, had lost their lives in Tramore Bay, but it was a story that younger generations were unfamiliar with. As Tramore natives, my grandfather had told me the story of the Sea Horse tragedy. He had come from an extensive line of fishermen and rescue workers and no doubt many older people like him were fully aware of the town’s sad maritime history. The Sea Horse disaster was at risk of being forgotten about by those living in the bay area as time moved on and as the population of the town expanded. With the 200-year anniversary due in 2016 it was decided that those who perished in Tramore should finally be remembered.[1]


It was in late January 1816 when the 2nd Battalion 59th Regiment (2/59th) known as the Lilywhites left England for Ireland. The soldiers had engaged in many battles against Napoleon since 1812 and following his defeat in 1815, the battalions had returned to England. Irish men had fought for the British and the French and with the war finally over, many of the men, recruited in Ireland, were returning home. As was customary, wives and children went with the army, they could now plan to live with their families in one location. However, any such plans were destroyed when the vessel transporting the troops was wrecked by a great storm on 30 January 1816 in Tramore Bay. The people of Tramore, some of whom tried a rescue, gathered on the beach, and watched in dismay as the ship broke apart a mile from the shore. As cold lifeless bodies and personal belongings were washed ashore some of the smallest children were discovered inside travel chests, four being found in one. Their mothers had desperately placed them in the watery tombs in a vain effort to save their lives.


In the immediate aftermath, and in the weeks that followed, bodies in a state of decomposition, bloated, discoloured, and disfigured, were washed ashore. They were buried unceremoniously in mass graves on the seashore while several of the officers were interred in Drumcannon Church graveyard. The heart-breaking moment of when a father laid his only son in a cold grave a long way from his home reminds us that this story is one of sorrow, a universal story, a parent’s grief at the loss of a child is understood by all. Corporal Malone had lost his wife and child and as his ‘fine boy’ who was seven years old was about to be interred in a separate grave dug for his beloved child, he cried out, ‘Stop, comrades, for a while’, he then went ahead to remove his shirt and wrapped it gently around the body of his son, which was entirely naked. ‘William, William – my boy! This is the last shirt you will ever require of me’. Corporal Malone continued to watch his son until the child could no longer be seen and lifting his eyes to Heaven, he retired.[2]


What is absent in the contemporary accounts, were the effects the disaster had on the people of Tramore. Local volunteers were compelled to aid with retrieval and burial. Many of the personal belongings of those that perished were never recovered; surviving widows and families were left in a state of destitution as pensions were non-existent. As the remains continued to come on shore, they were hastily buried as the state of decomposition was advanced and those charged with this work could only have found it distressing. Local lore, which told of how the bones of those buried in shallow graves were unearthed following a storm, may hold some truth.


The Dangers of Tramore Bay and Backstrand Explained


There are many written accounts of the Sea Horse tragedy that include those who died with focus primarily given to the regiment and the many campaigns they had undertaken during the Napoleonic Wars. However, there are far less accounts as to why the men and their families perished in Tramore Bay. Consequently, those of us who know the bay should make every effort to attempt to explain why not only this tragedy occurred but why so many occurred over the centuries.


By the early nineteenth century, the rectangular basin that is Tramore Bay had long been found by navigators as dangerous and to be avoided. However, in tumultuous weather with dark clouds and high spring tides, it was impossible to find the tower of Hook Head which is found on the eastern boundary of the estuary known as Waterford Harbour. The lighthouse of Hook Head distinguished Waterford Harbour from Tramore Bay but when ships accidentally entered Tramore Bay and realised their error, the decision was taken to navigate toward the Rinneshark for safety.


The Rinneshark channel lies on the eastern side of Tramore Bay and gives access to the lagoon at the rear of the sand dunes, known locally as the Backstrand. Three small rivers drain into the Backstrand which fills completely at high water through the Rinneshark channel and in turn empties, exposing five hundred hectares of sand and mud. Early nineteenth century maps show the channel as Rinneshark Harbour suggesting refuge was considered at this point as the tidal lagoon of the Backstrand offered protection against wind and storm waves and was a welcome repose for seafarers.


All tides, including those of Tramore Bay, are created by very long-period waves that move through the oceans in response to the forces exerted by the Moon and Sun. Tides originate in the oceans and advance toward the coastline where they appear as the regular rise and fall of the sea surface. A horizontal movement of water often goes with the rising and falling of the tide. This is called the tidal currents. In the open ocean, tidal currents are weak but as the seawater is confined and bottlenecked; near estuary entrances, narrow straits and inlets, the speed of tidal currents can reach up to several kilometres per hour. Tide times vary from day to day depending on the lunar cycle which also causes variation in the type of tide and the tidal range. When the Sun, Moon and Earth are all lined up, the Sun’s tidal force works with the Moon’s tidal force. The joint pull can cause the highest and lowest tides which are called spring tides. The highest spring tides occur two or three days after a full or new Moon. Winds further contribute to the raising and lowering of water levels and are an important force in creating currents. Wind speeds at Tramore vary from an even, calm setting to very occasional storm force conditions. Storms more commonly occur from October to April, although they can occur at any time of the year. Wind speeds are at a maximum during December and January. The orientation of Tramore Bay is west of due south and is exposed to the predominant south-westerly winds in winter.


As with all large open bays, the seafloor of Tramore Bay slopes gently away from the beach. The dangers of Tramore Bay are not buried deep within the bay itself but are created by natural forces such as wind and tidal currents. On the eastern side of the bay, at the mouth of the Rinneshark, an anomaly occurs which distinguishes itself from the sloping seabed and changes the general profile of the bay. The convergence of the Rinneshark channel and the Bay, affected by wind and wave action, creates massive sand bars which move and change with tides and currents. The sand bars are often exposed at low tide but moreover can be recognised when waves break upon them. Ordinance survey maps show the sand bar as the waves break at the mouth of the Rinneshark while satellite imagery also clearly outlines the sand bar and channel. Strong currents are generated on spring tides and when the tide turns at low water, a large volume of seawater rushes into the Backstrand via the Rinneshark channel. This tidal prism generates the strongest tidal currents within the Tramore area, and these currents are increased further by strong southerly winds. The Rinneshark channel can hold large volumes of water and can direct a huge quantity of water in both directions while the sand bar at the mouth of the Rinneshark ensures water currents are kept at elevated levels throughout the tidal cycle.[3]


The decisive actions taken by past seafarers, who mistakenly entered Tramore Bay, sadly often led to the tragic loss of life. Numerous accounts exist of fishermen and sailors whose vessels have foundered while trying to shelter along the coastline. What adds further to the many tragedies is the realisation that many of these experienced seafarers were trying to save the lives of those in their charge. The Sea Horse too dramatically met its end at Rinneshark following a harrowing number of hours having clung close to the coast but having accidentally and catastrophically entered Tramore Bay. The Sea Horse further tried to navigate Brownstown Head but as its two anchors dragged, and the striking climatic conditions prevailed, the ship finally broke apart in the bay which raises the possibility that the sandbar at Rinneshark was responsible for dealing one final blow to an already ill-fated vessel. However, no definitive explanation exists as to why the vessel foundered and as such this premise must be considered along with others.


The Sea Horse Commemoration Cairn


The commemoration that took place in January 2016 was fitting, it was cold and the wind from the ocean swept along Tramore’s Promenade. The visual representation of each victim presented by the work of artist Jane Butler brought home the reality of the 363 lives that were lost. By working with several community groups, a large art installation was displayed in the Holy Cross Church. Lino cuttings supplied print imagery of each soldier, woman, child, and sailor. Rank was not distinguished. The sailor who took control of the sails was as important as a captain or officer. The plight of a child even more tragic! Further, a stone for each victim was placed on the beach for the remembrance service which took place at three locations. At the Holy Cross Church, an ecumenical service was held, at Christ Church, a military service followed where wreaths were laid upon the obelisk which had been built in memory of the service men in the decades that followed the tragedy. The service at the beach on the lower promenade remembered the events that took place two hundred years previously and at the same time honoured those who took part in the rescue and all rescue workers. The stones that had been placed on the beach were later used to build a cairn on the lower Promenade, the unveiling of which took place later that summer. The idea of building a cairn as our memorial was simple. The thought of using a cairn to depict all the victims equally was appealing to me and when I suggested it to the committee led by Tracy McEneaney it was accepted with ease as though all realised the significance of the cairn. The building of cairns for various purposes goes back millennia ranging in size from small rock sculptures to sizable man-made hills of stone. In Ireland dolmens are burial sites and in other Celtic regions cairns represented death too. In folklore there are many reasons given to the existence of ancient cairns. One story tells of how men going to battle placed a stone, one upon the other, as a visible reminder of their existence. Those who returned removed a stone while the remaining stones were used to build a cairn to remember those who lost their lives. As a committee member I was confident that the idea of building a cairn for the Sea Horse victims was new, however, remarkably this was not the case as was later discovered. During our research we discovered a poem written in 1827 where the author asked that a cairn be built, but over time the poem like the victims was forgotten. The poem, ‘The Shipwrecked Soldiers’ Cairn’[4] requested,


“Oh, who would not raise, with stones, gravel, or sand,

A Cairn, on a day which was holy,

To hide from their view, who may walk on that shore,

Of grant, and of stone, be a monument made,

Which shall dare the invading breakers;

Be the bones safe beneath that monument laid,

And blessings attend on its makers.”


Upon reading the poem I realised the Sea Horse Commemoration Cairn is the invisible thread which connects the people of Tramore today to the people of Tramore of 1816 and indeed further, to the victims of the Sea Horse. This story is one that places at its centre the lives that were lost and the tragic events which led to such a disastrous outcome. The unveiling of the Sea Horse Cairn took place in July 2016. The honour of revealing the stonework was given to Chris Hunt who had travelled with his family from the United States to attend the events. Chris Hunt is the descendant of Arthur Hunt who along with local fishermen including my grandfather’s people had made every effort to rescue those on board the ill-fated Sea Horse. He was not aware of his family connection to Tramore. His connection along with many others was discovered by tracing the families whose names were found during our research.


Two hundred years has passed and although much had been forgotten so much more was discovered. The community effort that respectfully remembered those that suffered and died ensures that future generations will not, at least for the next century, forget the Sea Horse tragedy.


[1] As Mayor of Tramore in 2012 I set up a group to remember the Sea Horse victims. A remarkable community effort ensured the Sea Horse Commemoration, and the building of the Cairn were successful. Although it is impossible to recall everyone involved it would be unfair not to note those who led individual aspects of the commemoration. Tracy McEneaney – Chairperson, Jane Butler – Community Art, Noreen Phelan – Schools Projects, George Thompson – Research and Genealogy, Clare Musgrave – Commemoration Concert, contributors to the Sea Horse Book and our Rescue Services. A further thank you to Catherine Drea and Ciaran Conneely for images. For more please see the Sea Horse Commemoration Facebook page.

[2] J.J. McGregor, Narrative of the Loss of the Sea Horse Transport in the Bay of Tramore, on the 30th of January 1816, Waterford, 1816.

[3]McGrath Declan, A Guide to… Tramore Bay, Dunes and Backstrand, Waterford 2001, pps. 22-24

[4] The poem, ‘The Shipwrecked Soldiers’ Cairn’ was written more than a decade after the tragedy of the Sea Horse. The author is not named, The Naval and Military Magazine, Vol. III, September 1827, p. 32



The Shipwrecked Soldiers’ Cairn, The Tragedy of the Sea Horse is available here





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