On calm sunny afternoons at Seapoint it’s hard to imagine the bay as anything other than a steady and benign body of water, welcoming bathers, waders and paddlers alike. This sense of peace is only enhanced by the crystal clear sea and vistas from Howth to Dalkey, Mediterranean-like in so many aspects. But on a cold stormy day in winter 1807, this part of the Bay was the focal point for a terrible tragedy. One that would see much loss of life but would ultimately precipitate a great positive for Dublin Bay.
In the 19th century sailing Dublin Bay was a far more treacherous prospect. Dublin Port could only be entered at high tide, leaving ships in a perilous position waiting through the changing levels until they could access the port. The bay was subject to sudden storms, rough waves and the coastline was strewn with jagged rocks. Disaster would befall many of these ships, the wrecks of over 600 ships lie at the bottom of the bay. One such event involved the Rochdale and the Prince of Wales. But it was also a catalyst for the powers that be to finally do something to safeguard ships waiting to enter Dublin Port. The solution being the construction of Dun Laoghaire harbour.
In the early 1800’s Napoleon was a threat and authorities feared invasion. Defensive Martello towers were built around the Irish coast for protection. On the 19th of November 1807 troops left Dublin on several ships bound to fight in the Napoleonic War. Both the Rochdale and the Prince of Wales were carrying troops and the next day after not getting very far south they got lost in a terrible snow storm. The wild wind blew east dragging the ships back towards the shore, the waves swelled and the snow came down thick making visibility difficult.
The Rochdale, the bigger of the two, was a 135 ton brig. She cast anchor but the chains snapped. The soldiers on board tried to attract the attention of the shore by firing their muskets. But it was all for nought and those that saw the fires could only look on in horror as the ship struck the rocks at Seapoint Martello tower. All 265 souls aboard including 42 women and 29 children were lost.
The Prince of Wales sailed under Captain Robert Jones and it carried the 97th regiment. She too tried to cast anchor but it failed and wind whipped through the ship, ripping the sails to shreds and blowing her back towards Dun Laoghaire. She ended up on the rocks at Blackrock. Only the captain, nine seamen, two women with children and two soldiers managed to escape on the one lifeboat. 120 soldiers drowned and it was claimed that the captain locked the troops below deck, removing the ladder and battening down the hatch and in doing so sealing the faith of those trapped beneath. Captain Robert was brought before the court on murder charges but case was dismissed due to lack of evidence.
There was already a campaign to build a harbour at Dun Laoghaire with Richard Toucher, a norwegian master mariner and shipbroker, at the helm of the campaign. He saw this as an asylum harbour, a safe refuge for ships in trouble in the treacherous Dublin Bay. After the double tragedy of the Rochdale and the Prince of Wales this campaign received it’s much deserved support.