First Ever Trans Atlantic Steamship Crossing From Passage West, Co. Cork, Ireland.

Captain Roberts And The Sirius Historic Links To Passage West, Co. Cork

Passage West, Co. Cork, Ireland, is an old Irish town with a great maritime heritage amongst its forebears and the majority of the riverside lower lands run alongside the River Lee stretching from Rochestown to downstream Monkstown.

The former 19th century Passage West to Cork railway line took its passengers on daily trips that presented wonderful scenic views of Cork harbour throughtout the entire journey.

Alongside the railway line as it approached the town of Passage was the farmland owned by Captain Roberts (of Sirius fame) father. As a seafaring town many of the locals earned their living from the sea as fishermen, whilst the town at one time hosted three boat building yards. The locality also reared many young boys who took up their working lives with the British Merchant Navy and sailed around the globe.

 

One Passage West seafaring man with an anglo Irish ancestry was Richard Roberts, a farmer's son born at Ardmore in 1803. From his family home he could look out on the river every day and when he graduated to his teenage years he joined the British Royal Navy.

 

This was the beginning of a career at sea, a career that would claim his young life at just thirty seven years old. However before his fatal sea disaster, Richard Roberts had written himself into seafaring history as the very first captain of a steamer to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

That famous ship was the SS Sirius. That was also the ship that enabled Captain Richard Roberts to be inducted into the All Ireland Hall Of Fame Online Gallery in 2017.

 

The story of Captain Roberts and The Sirius are interwoven in history. Both made international seafaring history.

Roberts entered the British Royal Navy in his youth and served there until he gained the rank of Lieutenant and was then given command of the SS Sirius. As captain of the Sirius, Roberts guided the first steamship to travel across the Atlantic to America, in April 1838.

 

After the successful and historic voyage he was transferred to the SS President which was lost at sea in March 1841. Roberts is presumed to have gone down with the ship.

The SS Sirius, constructed at Leith, Edinburgh, Scotland, first came to Cork in 1837 when she was purchased by the St. George Steam Packet Company for the then princely sum of £27,000. 

Considered a big and powerful ship by the standards of the day, the two cylinder engines had been built on the Clyde by J. Wingate & Co. of Glasgow. Their piston stroke of 6 feet (nearly 2 metres) delivered steam pressure of 5lbs per sq. inch (34.5 kn per square metre). The engine room itself was 57 feet in length.

 

The gross tonnage of 703 made the Sirius a sturdy little ship. Built of timber with carvel construction, she had one deck and two masts. Her length from the inner part of the main stern to the fore part of the stern post aloft, was certified as being 178 feet 4/10ths. Her breadth midships was similarly certified as 25 ft 8/10ths and her depth mid-ships as 18ft 3/10ths.

 

The Sirius was a schooner-rigged with a standing bowsprit and carried square sails on the mast forward of her tall narrow funnel. Her stern was square, while a dog image decorated her bow. This dog image was noted as a fine work of art.

 

The Sirius normally undertook the run from Cork to London but early in 1838, she was chartered by the British and American Steam Navigation Company to voyage to New York. Both the Sirius and her much larger rival, the Great Western, were scheduled to leave from London.

 

The Sirius was to leave on 28th March, 1838, calling to Cork enroute on 2nd April and to sail from there to America. The Great Western was to leave London on 7th April but to sail directly to New York.

In preparation for the trip The Sirius was given some modifications for the voyage with increased bunkerage for coal and the paddle boxes were changed, from square to round in outline.

 

The historic sea journey of the Sirius started from Passage West, (formerly the official port of Cork in the 19th century) on 4th April at 10.30 a.m. in company with the SS Ocean, another splendid steamer of the St. George Steam Packet Company.

 

The Sirius was quite crowded for the trip. Some came aboard in London, others in Cork. She had a total of 40 passengers comprising 5 ladies and 6 men in the first cabin, 5 ladies and 3 men in the second and 1 lady and 20 men in steerage. First class, the first cabin, cost 35 guineas including provisions and wine. Second class fare was twenty guineas and a berth in steerage for the commoners cost eight guineas.

 

The Sirius was loaded with stout from the Beamish & Crawford brewery in Cork City, as well as other food delicacies. She was also loaded with as much extra coal as she could mount.

As the epic voyage started out, the stormy weather was not in their favour and several of the onboard passengers and crew wanted to turn back during the journey fearing inevitable loss of life. However under the command of Captain Roberts, he decided this was not going to happen.

 

On leaving Passage West, six miles downriver from Cork City, the crew and ship were loudly cheered by the locals as she made her way past the nearby parishes of Glenbrook and Monkstown. The ship then sailed over to Queenstown (now Cobh) to drop off the Cork VIP's and then sail out to the Irish sea via Roche’s Point Lighthouse, and again stopping off at London before proceeding to the Atlantic Ocean on its vast historic journey to New York.

 

Just a mere eighteen days after leaving Passage West, the Sirius arrived in New York on 22nd April 1838. She had steamed 2,897 nautical miles at an average of 161 nautical miles per day. By now the Sirius had used up all her coal stock and the engine revolutions had run at 15 per minute all through the voyage.  

 

Running eighteen hours behind The Sirius on the afternoon of 23rd April, the 1,340 ton Great Western steamed into New York. However the little SS Sirius had outshone The Great Western to the New York finishing post and Passage West born, Captain Roberts, had masterminded his own slice of Irish history.

 

In recognition of the Captain Roberts achievement, he was subsequently presented with the Freedom of Cork and also London and later the people of Passage West presented him with a silver salver.

 

The Sirius made a second trip to New York under Captain Stephen S. Moyle. Tragically she was lost at Ware Cove, near Ballycotton, Co. Cork, on 16th January 1847.

 

Captain Richard Roberts and all his crew were also lost when the steamer, SS President, went down while on a return voyage from New York in March 1841. In 1844 a cenotaph was erected to the memory of Captain Roberts in the grounds of the Marmullane Church Of Ireland cemetery, Passage West, Co. Cork.

 

The 150th anniversary of the sailing of the Sirius was commemorated in 1988 and a re-enactment of the historic departure on the morning of 4th April 1838 was the high point of celebrations organised in Passage West. The US Ambassador and the then Minister for the Marine were among the dignitaries to attend.

 

And so it is that a Famous Son of Passage West and Cork is now incorporated in The All Ireland Hall Of Fame Online Gallery following in the footsteps of another famous son of Passage West, Eddie O'Brien, a Cork hurler of 1970's vintage.

Eddie's profile can be browsed under our Sports Legends category.

 

 

Derry JF Doody

Editor