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The Jacmel Sails

The Fenian Landing At Helvic

3. The Jacmel Sails

Meanwhile (March 1867), the Rising had taken place in Ireland without waiting for American help. It had been a complete failure. Hundreds of Fenians were in prison and the Habeas Corpus Act was suspended for a further year. The real nature of the defeat did not reach the New York Fenians and a letter from the Fenian leader in England, Thomas J. Kelly, appealed to the O'Mahony wing for help implying that all was not yet lost. 6 Plans were therefore set in motion to send arms and men in a boat just purchased.

This was an 81ft. brigantine called the Jacmel Packet. It had been built in Medford, Mass, in 1861 and was first called the Henrico. Her first owner was Henry Okill of Jacmel, Haiti. In 1866 the ship was owned by John A. Dawes. When Dawes tried to sell the Jacmel to an Italian in Colon, Panama, the American Consul seized the vessel. The U.S. Marshall for Southern New York sold her to a man called Charles F. Blake. 7 Whether he was a front for the Fenians we do not know. However we do know that the reason for the seizure in Colon was debts incurred through non-payment of seaman's wages, pilotage fees etc. 8

Towards the end of March 1867 the Jacmel was berthed on the East River waterfront while the planning was done from nearby Chatham Street in the Bowery district of New York. Arms were transferred to newly made boxes labelled as wine and machinery. 9 James E. Kerrigan, a U.S. Congressman, was in charge of the expedition and the loading was supervised by the first Officer William Sweetman. Various estimates put the number of arms from 5,000 10 to 8,000 11. Mostly these were surplus Union arms from the Civil War and also some which had been used by the Confederates — Spencer Repeaters (Union weapons), Enfield Rifles (mostly used by the Confederates), Austrian rifles (Union), Sharp breech loading rifles (much used on Western trails) and Burnside breech loading rifles plus three 6lb. guns and ammunition.

On April 12th, 1867 the Fenians met in a house in East Broadway and were joined by Captain Cavanagh. They then took a steamer down river to Sandy Hook, where they waited until the evening of the 13th. When the Jacmel came up they all went aboard and stood off for Cuba to avoid suspicion. 12 There seems to be some confusion as to what the Captain's christian name was. Devoy says he was John F. Cavanagh of the U.S. Navy, while John Savage who became leader of the Fenians in America in 1867 says that he was a U.S. naval officer but intentionally omits his name. 13 John F. Cavanagh had been a member of Congress but Joseph B. Cavanagh of Passage East Co. Waterford, was an officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve and had served in the Civil War. After the War he had lived in New York where he came into contact with the Fenians through a fellow Passage man called Baston who had a bar room in the Bowery. 14

Capt. Cavanagh had not seen the Jacmel before he boarded the vessel at Sandy Hook. On the following day he changed course for Ireland and on Easter Sunday, April 21st renamed the ship the "Erins Hope". They finally picked up laud on May 18th at Blackrock Lighthouse on Eagle Island off North Mayo. 15 A messenger had been sent from New York on April 20th to inform Kelly of the ship's arrival, Kelly had asked especially for a landing at Sligo, 16 as the Donegal coast was not well patrolled — no Naval ships were stationed between Belmullet and Lough Swilly. 17

Author: Sylvester Murray

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