The turbulent coastline of County Clare has for centuries
been a graveyard for many ships that attempted to navigate
it. Famously, in 1588, the mighty fleet of the Spanish Armada
lost four of its vessels to this unrelenting coastline.
On September 26, 1907, a French ship, the 3,000 ton Leon
XIII, arrived in Cork Harbour from Portland, Oregon. The
ship, owned by the Societe des Armatuers Nantais, soon set
off for Limerick with the intention of delivering wheat
to Bannatyne mills.
Later, on October 1, the crew of 22 under the leadership
of Captain Lucas were making their way past the coast of
Quilty, when disaster struck.
A ferocious storm had hit the area on the previous night
and was so powerful that even the seasoned Quilty fishermen
thought it more prudent to stay ashore.
However, the French sailors, not realising the ferocity
of the storm sailed straight into the high winds and lashing
Suddenly, the ship struck a reef just a few hundred feet
from the shore. The deadly force of the wind and waves combined
to split the ship in two, leaving the stern submerged and
the crew at the mercy of the Atlantic Ocean.
Before long, a huge crowd had assembled along the shoreline.
Almost immediately the local fishermen set out in their
currachs in an attempt to rescue the trapped sailors.
What followed has been immortalised in Quilty folklore,
and was described in the Clare Journal of October 7, 1907,
as a display of reckless daring such as has rarely
been witnessed in Ireland.
At the heart of the furious storm the brave Quilty fishermen
drove their currachs as near to the striken Leon as possible.
Approach could only be attempted in a circuitous way through
a mile of raging, boiling water, and yet the
men continued relentlessly.
At the same time as the fishermen were battling against
the waves, a lifeboat from Seafield station had been sent
After an abortive attempt by the coastguard, a wire was
sent to Admiral King Hall at Cobh requesting a rocket apparatus
in order to make contact with the vessel, but due to the
weather, this equipment was not available.
With time running out for the crew of the Leon, the fishermen
persisted in their endeavour to save the sailors. After
many soul-stirring scenes, records the Clare
Journal, the West Clare fishermen thrust themselves
into the waves, until they finally reached the vessel.
In a bitter struggle between life and death, the Quilty
Fishermen eventually won, rescuing 13 of the 22-man crew
to the jubilation of the worried onlookers, with the remaining
crew members brought safely ashore by the naval vessel HMS
These last sailors to be rescued had remained behind with
Captain Lucas, who had broken his leg after been hurled
across the deck. Ironically, the fact that his leg was wedged
between two bits helped save his life for he
would have been thrown into the sea if it were not for this
After the incident, Captain Lucas spoke of his amazement
at the bravery of the fishermen. They seemed to court
death, and to throw away their lives in the endeavour to
rescue us, he said.
Louis Boutin, the first mate,articulated the sentiment amongst
the crew by saying, I have been all over the world,
but never, never in my life have I seen any action more
heroic than the conduct of those Clare fishermen.
After the incident which lasted almost three days, the crew
of the Leon were taken to Pat Taltys hotel (which
would later be renamed The Leon) and were shown tremendous
The French Government later honoured the gallant fishermen
by presenting them with bronze medals in the former Atlantic
Hotel at Spanish Point.
The Limerick Chronicle initiated a fund in appreciation
of the fishermen involved in the epic rescue.
A memorial church was erected in Quilty to their memory
with each of their names (as Gaeilge) over the main entrance.
The Church named Stella Maris (Star of the Sea) was officially
opened on October 11, 1911. Forty-two years later, the bell
of the Leon was recovered from the wreckage by Stephen F
Ebrill and was presented to the church on November 11, 1949,
where it can still be seen today.
A lifering bearing the name Leon XIII and Nantes, previously
on display at Beatrice ODwyers shop in Quilty
is now on loan to Clare Museum, where it is on exhibition.
As we approach the one hundredth anniversary of this historic
occasion we can still appreciate the importance of what
was an amazing act of true heroism.
Ní fheicimid leihéidi na n-iascairí
sin o Choillte riamh arís.