After escaping the devastation of the Great Hunger, leaving Galway on a coffin ship, the St. John, 99 emigrants lost their lives in a shipwreck on the shores of Cohasset, Massachusetts, on Sunday, October 7, 1849. 

The 99 men, women and children were en route to start their new lives in America and tragically died within sight of the land they hoped to make their new home. The wreck was the worst in Cohasset’s history.

The ship weighing 200 tons was Irish owned and onboard were nine crew members as well as their passengers from North Clare and Connemara.

On that fateful Sunday morning, the brig St. John encountered a severe storm. The ship’s captain, Martin Oliver, dropped anchor two and a half miles off the coast in the hope that they could ride out the storm. The anchors failed to hold that the ship was washed onto submerged rocks, known as the Grampus Rock.

The ship’s hull was torn apart by the rocks and the emigrants flung from the hull into the sea. The crew cut away the masts and sails in an attempt to lighten the ship and escape from the rocks but to no avail. Within an hour the ship’s hull was in pieces and bodies began to wash ashore.

There were only an estimated 20 survivors from the St. John tragedy, Captain Oliver among them. Entire families were wiped out including emigrant Patrick McSweeney who died attempting to save his wife and nine children. None survived.

Days later the author Henry David Thoreau and his friend, the poet Ellery Channing, visited the area on an excursion to Cape Cod. He wrote of the devastation he witnessed in the June 1855 issue of Putnam's Magazine. In Boston, he saw fliers reading “Death! 145 lives lost at Cohasset!” and so they decided that they would travel to witness the tragic aftermath.

When he arrived, Thoreau observed the town still in a state of confusion and the waves from the storm still breaking on the rocks. On the way to the site of the wreck, he noted a graveyard with a “large hole, like a cellar, freshly dug there” and seeing several wagons coming from the beach loaded with roughly made boxes. On the hillside near the water, he saw the bodies "marble feet and matted heads" all around him with "wide-open and staring eyes." By this time days later it’s believed that only 28 bodies had been removed from the water.

Fifty-nine years after the shipwrecked the fraternal society, the Ancient Order of the Hibernians and the Ladies Auxiliary (now known as the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians) erected a 20-foot high Celtic Cross in Cohasset to honor the dead. At the memorial’s dedication ceremony in 1914 dignitaries of the time along with 15,000 brother and sister Hibernians were in attendance.


* Originally published in 2014.

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