Folklore of the Alfred D. Snow Wreck

We can gain a new perspective from stories containing humour, history and anecdote in the folklore gathered by the Irish Schools' Collection of the 1930s, now held in the National Folklore Collection.



Wreck of the Alfred D Snow
Untitled Tape T322, recorded by Séamus MacMathúna ~ Source: Séamus MacMathúna Sound Collection, Comhaltas Traditional Music Archive: 1,000 open-reel 1/4" audio tapes, largely field recordings, with accompanying labels and notes, held at Cultúrlann na...
View File Record

The coastal folklore of County Wexford is punctuated with shipwrecks, stories of assistance rendered and loss of life despite the best efforts of rescuers. The wreck of the Alfred D. Snow stands out across the lore of a wide variety of communities surrounding Waterford Harbour. She was a four-masted American vessel sailing from San Francisco, California on July 20, 1887 with a cargo of grain and lumber. On January 4, 1888, she was driven onto the rocks and wrecked at Broomhill Point on the Wexford side of the estuarine boundary between Counties Waterford and Wexford.

This incident in coastal lore has been well covered and is well-remembered in communities surrounding the wreck site, and folkloric accounts provide nuance to the official reports of the wreck and its subsequent memorialisation. The episode is recounted in this telling given by Jason Mason, age ca. 65 and recorded by Thomas Ryan of An Pasáiste Thoir (Passage East) school in County Waterford:

A storm arose when the vessel was passing by the southern coast of Ireland. The vessel drifted helplessly on the ocean till at last she came near White Head, close to Dunmore. There was a crew of 29 hands on board. They signalled for the coastguards' boat but the coastguards were afraid to go out as the storm was still raging. Some Dunmore men saw the Alfred de Snow in distress and asked for the coastguards' boat but the coastguards refused to give it. They went again and asked for it, and this time they got it. They went out to save the crew but were too late. In view of the men she struck the rocks at Broom Hill. The crew was drowned.

The communities involved in the attempted salvage and rescue operations surrounding the wreck of the Alfred D. Snow provide a series of overlapping accounts of the anguish felt by onlookers and lifeboat crewmen as the episode unfolded. The sense of tragedy and logistical complications gives an insight into the cultures and structures of cross-county and cross-passage operations. The sheer risk of mounting such a rescue in the fierce storm comes through clearly. The account continues by relating a verse commemorating the wreck:

'Twas on the fourth of January,
The wind and gale did blow;
When nine and twenty hands
Were lost on the Alpher de Snow;
Oh, hark, what is that I hear?
The mast is broke in two;
The yards are floating by her sides,
She is sinking from our view.
Oh, Heavens, they are human beings
Floating in the tide
Just away that small and fragile boat
That is bumping by her side.
Oh, are there any hearts of sympathy
Standing on the shore
Oh, yes, there are brave and gallant men
Now watching in Dunmore


They're willing for to risk their lives
to the coastguards' house they go
And they ask the captain for the boat
And he quickly tells them "No".
At last when he gave his consent
To the gallant hearted crew
In spite of storm, wind and tide
To the sinking ship they flew
But just as they reached the doomed ship
In hopes some lives to save
They see the last let go the mast
And sank beneath the wave
The dauntless Captain Cotter
With "Dauntless" ship by name
With courage brave they face the wave
To their assistance came.

The folkloric commemoration of the wreck and the loss of life appears in several accounts from school collection books along the Waterford and Wexford Coasts. In the recording of traditional music above sung by Mrs Elizabeth Jefferies, we hear another expression of a wealth of commemorations and narratives of cultural memory.