Saturday, 9 April 2016

Buried at sea

Women that lived prior to the twentieth century are far more difficult to trace than their husbands. Often, we hear genealogists refer to them as the invisible ancestors. Or, at least, that’s the common complaint. But, the opposite is true in the case of my third great-grandparents, Francis Byrne and his wife Jane Daly, who married in Dublin, in October 1846.[1]

From the time Jane immigrated to New York in September 1887, till her burial there in 1901, she has featured in the available sources. Francis, on the other-hand, left precious little trace behind. Fourteen years after his marriage, when his daughter Catharine was christened, his name made a second appearance in the church registers.
[2] At least, this ‘proves’ he was alive and well in the spring of 1860. 

Then - nothing - all subsequent reports find him dead.

His daughter Hannah married John Comiskey on 5 December 1869. At the time, her parent’s address was given as Kingstown (now called Dun Laoghaire), in County Dublin.
[3] Yet, when the marriage was registered with the authorities, Francis was reported 'dead'.[4] Presumably, it was Jane who lived in Kingstown. Throughout the 1870s, when his other children - Francis, Charles and Jane - each married, they all confirmed their father was deceased. 

But, we do not know exactly when he died. Nor do we know when or where he was buried. Perhaps it was before 1864, when such events began to be registered in Ireland. Or, perhaps he died somewhere other than Dublin city or Kingstown, where I’ve concentrated the search. Perhaps he died at sea and his death was not registered.

You see, Francis worked as a ‘fireman’ or a ‘stoker’ when he was alive, i.e. someone who tended the fire of a steam engine - for example, on a steamship.  I had hoped this clue might be enough to help distinguish him from all the other men sharing his name and living around Dublin, to see if something could be found of his life (or death).

And, the English census of April 1861 includes a man matching all the meagre details known and suspected about ‘our Francis’, except his surname was said to have been ‘Byrns.’ He was married, born about 1828, from Dublin city, and worked as a fireman on a steamship, so I’d be happy to overlook a small spelling irregularity.
[5] Chances are our Francis was illiterate anyway.

On the night in question, Francis Byrns was aboard the screw steamer, Torch, moored for repairs at Trafalgar Dock, Liverpool. There is little certainty we have the right man, but it could easily have been my third great-grandfather.

When I tried to trace what happened to Francis Byrns, I came across the tragic story of the Torch’s demise.
[6] On 1 March 1873, albeit a few years after our forefather’s first reported death, the screw steamer was in a disastrous collision with a large sailing ship called Chacabuco.

The tragedy occurred at Great Ormes Head, off Wales. Both vessels were lost and twenty-five men drowned.

Chacabuco, with her crew of twenty-six hands, plus the captain, was returning from San Francisco, laden with wheat. The vessel Torch operated as a passenger and cargo ship between Dublin and Liverpool. She was on her usual return trip back to Dublin, with a crew of sixteen men under the command of Robert Cullen, when the terrible collision occurred. It was pitch dark, at two o’clock in the morning, in the middle of a snowstorm, with raging winds. 

A tug boat, out in the storm hoping to pick up a job, rescued all the passengers and the crew of Torch, except for one man, reportedly, a bullock-driver named James Loran. Poor Loran became jammed in the wreckage on deck and could not be cut free. Tragically, just before the steamer went down, he was heard to cry out ‘Goodbye, God bless you all!’ 

I only hope my third-great-grandfather met with a more peaceful end.

Harrington Fitzgerald, The Wreck, 1901, 
Smithsonian American Art Museum, accessed DPLA

[1] Marriage register, St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, Dublin, October 1846, p. 288, accessed National Library
[2] Baptism register, St Laurence O'Toole, Seville Place, January 1861, p. 71, same.
[3] Marriage register, St Laurence O'Toole, Seville Place, December 1869, p. 40, same. 
[4] Copy marriage register, General Register Office.
[5] Census Returns of England and Wales, 1861,
[6] The Sydney Morning Herald, 10 May 1873, p. 5; The Argus, 27 May 1873, p.6, accessed Trove

© Black Raven Genealogy


  1. A tragic tale, both the steamer and the unknown end for your 3x great grandfather.

    1. Colleen, when I close my eyes I can nearly hear James Loran's final forlorn goodbye. His certainly was a tragic end.

  2. How sad for James Loran in those final moments.

    Finding a possible match for an ancestor sometimes puts us in an odd position: on one hand, we want it to be our ancestor just so we can check it off our list, but on the other, we don't want our ancestor to have met with a tragic death.

    1. I know exactly what you mean, Wendy.

  3. That's so sad. I hope your 3x grt grandfather had an easier end.

  4. You did a great job at helping us to envision what happened. I can only imagine how frightening it must have been for everyone involved. Like the others, I hope your ancestor had a more peaceful end.