Tag Archives: South Shore Irish Heritage Trail

‘St. John’ wreck recalled on South Shore Irish Heritage Trail

The Oct. 7, 1849, wreck of the Irish emigrant ship St. John near the Massachusetts Bay community of Cohasset is one of the historical highlights of the South Shore Irish Heritage Trail. More about the trail below. From 99 to upwards of 160 passengers and crew, mostly from counties Clare and Galway, were killed when a storm dashed the brig on rocks less than a mile from the shore, about 25 miles south of Boston Harbor. Eleven people survived.

Sandy Cove, Cohasset, at low tide, Oct. 16, 2022. The ‘St. John’ wrecked less than a mile from this beach, where many of the dead where recovered. Henry David Thoreau described the scene in his book, ‘Cape Cod.’

American writer Henry David Thoreau witnessed the aftermath of the wreck, which he described in his 1865 book, Cape Cod, based on his 1849, 1850, and 1855 walks along the distinctive peninsula.  This book was published 11 years after Walden, in which Thoreau described Irish railroad workers living near the pond he made famous. Here are some of his descriptions of the scene in Cohasset immediately after the St. John disaster:

On reaching Boston (from his home in Concord, Mass.), we found that the Provincetown steamer, which should have got in the day before, had not yet arrived, on account of a violent storm; and, as we noticed in the streets a handbill headed, “Death! one hundred and forty-five lives lost at Cohasset,” we decided to go by way of Cohasset. We found many Irish in the cars, going to identify bodies and to sympathize with the survivors, and also to attend the funeral which was to take place in the afternoon;—and when we arrived at Cohasset, it appeared that nearly all the passengers were bound for the beach, which was about a mile distant, and many other persons were flocking in from the neighboring country. …

As we passed the graveyard we saw a large hole, like a cellar, freshly dug there, and, just before reaching the shore, by a pleasantly winding and rocky road, we met several hay-riggings and farm-wagons coming away toward the meeting-house, each loaded with three large, rough deal boxes. We did not need to ask what was in them. …

It appeared to us that there was enough rubbish to make the wreck of a large vessel in this cove alone, and that it would take many days to cart it off. It was several feet deep, and here and there was a bonnet or a jacket on it. In the very midst of the crowd about this wreck, there were men with carts busily collecting the sea-weed which the storm had cast up, and conveying it beyond the reach of the tide, though they were often obliged to separate fragments of clothing from it, and they might at any moment have found a human body under it. Drown who might, they did not forget that this weed was a valuable manure. This shipwreck had not produced a visible vibration in the fabric of society. …

Yet I saw that the inhabitants of the shore would be not a little affected by this event. They would watch there many days and nights for the sea to give up its dead, and their imaginations and sympathies would supply the place of mourners far away, who as yet knew not of the wreck. Many days after this, something white was seen floating on the water by one who was sauntering on the beach. It was approached in a boat, and found to be the body of a woman, which had risen in an upright position, whose white cap was blown back with the wind. I saw that the beauty of the shore itself was wrecked for many a lonely walker there, until he could perceive, at last, how its beauty was enhanced by wrecks like this, and it acquired thus a rarer and sublimer beauty still.

This monument at the mass grave of those killed in the wreck of the ‘St. John’ at the Cohasset Central Cemetery was erected through the efforts of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and its Ladies Auxiliary. It was dedicated on May 30, 1914, and now part of an annual remembrance. The group at left are students from the Irish Studies program at Boston College.

A memorial to the dead Irish emigrants is part of the South Shore Irish Heritage Trail, which includes monuments, museums, and other attractions in nine towns from Weymouth to Plymouth. Up to 40 percent of the population along this 30-mile coastal stretch claim Irish heritage, thus its nickname as the Irish Rivera. One of the newest additions to the trail is a monument to the 1916 Easter Rising, found at the Scituate waterfront. Learn about other stops at the heritage trail website.

Memorial of the 1916 Easter Proclamation at Scituate on the South Shore Irish Heritage Trail.