Worst shipwreck you’ve never heard of

Port of Cork: the Neva sailed from Cork Harbour, seen in a painting by George Mounsey Wheatley Atkinson

By Arminta Wallace - The Irish Times

In January 1835 a three-masted barque sailed from Cork harbour, bound for Australia, with 241 people on board.

Most were Irishwomen who had been convicted of various crimes and sentenced to transportation to the colony of New South Wales. Some were the wives of Irishmen who had already been banished. There were also more than 30 children, mostly babies and toddlers.

On May 13th the ship hit a reef north of King Island, off Tasmania, and sank with the loss of 224 lives.

A few survivors managed to get to King Island, but most of those died on its beaches from cold, exposure and shock.

It was the second-largest maritime disaster in Australian history and the greatest catastrophe in almost a century of convict transportation.

Yet the name of the Neva , and the story of its pitiful human cargo, is almost unknown in Ireland.

Now the Cork historian Cal McCarthy has teamed up with the Australian artist and designer Kevin Todd to tell that story in a new book.

The Wreck of the Neva does more than just reconstruct the drama of the shipwreck; it also gives a vivid sense of the lives of these women from all over Ireland, filling in many of the human details behind the stark historical facts.

For a modern reader, one of the most startling aspects is the harshness of the sentences that British courts imposed in Ireland for what we would consider to be minor misdemeanours.

One woman received seven years for the theft of a handkerchief; another got a life sentence for stealing sheep. But, as McCarthy says, by the standards of the day this could be seen as getting off lightly.

“Forty years earlier a lot of those crimes would have resulted in execution. So I suppose transportation would have been seen as a lighter sentence.”

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