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The sailing ship, the Francis Spaight, was registered in Limerick in May 1835 and was advertised in the newspapers of the time as the "grandest ship Limerick had ever seen". Built in England earlier that year, it was built for the Canada trade and was intended to be "one of the most superior vessels ever offered to emigrants". It was named after its owner, the Limerick merchant, Francis Spaight, who was also local magistrate in the area.
In September 1835, on its second ever voyage to Canada, the Francis Spaight ship left the Limerick Quays with a crew of 18 men on what was to be its ill-fated journey. The captain of the ship was Timothy Gorman, a master mariner in his 40s from Kilrush, Co. Clare.
The outward journey was uneventful and evidence from the time suggests there were no passengers aboard this leg of the journey. On 24th November, after over a month in the port city of St John, New Brunswick, the Francis Spaight with its cargo of timber set sail for Limerick. On the night of 3rd December, the ship ran into a storm in the middle of the Atlantic and turned bottom up. On getting the masts cut away, it again righted, but with the loss of three of the crew. Provisions were lost over board, and the sailors found themselves adrift at sea in freezing winter conditions with no food or water.
They endured for sixteen days, but finding it impossible to sustain themselves any longer, Captain Gorman called his crew together. The question they had to consider was whether one or all should die. What unfolds is a strange and macabre story that saw a very unusual custom come into play - The Custom of the Sea - whereby lots were drawn to determine who will be killed and eaten for food to sustain the remaining crew, when it was clear there were no other alternatives.
As a result, the Francis Spaight ship became infamous for an incident of cannibalism where four of the crew were eaten by their own crew mates.
The Custom of the Sea draws on testimony from the time, along with archival research from Ireland, England and Canada, to reveal the gripping story of what happened on that desperate journey from Canada to Limerick almost 200 years ago.
Available for podcast on Friday 12th August, 2022.
Broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1 @ 2pm, Saturday 13th August, 2022.
Narrated by Andrew Bennett
Produced by Marc McMenamin and Sarah Blake
Sound Supervision by Peadar Carney
Re-enactments by Diarmuid de Faoite (Captain Gorman), Ian McGlynn (Newspaper Reporter), Wally MacKinnon (John Palmer) and Tim Desmond (Unnamed Crewman).
Contributors include Dr. Matthew Potter (Limerick Museum), Arlene White (Killaloe Ballina Local History Society), Dr Richard Mc Mahon (Mary Immaculate College, Limerick), Prof Rainer Baehre (Grenfell Campus, Memorial University, Newfoundland) and Sharon Slater (Historian in Residence, Ormston House, Limerick and limerickslife.ie).
Additional recordings by Colin Barker, Rebecca Tinsley, and Sarah White.
Research in the British National Archives and British National Maritime Museum by Len Barnett.
Special thanks to Dr Paul O'Brien (Mary Immaculate College Limerick); Eugene Ryan (Limerick Civic Trust), Tom Treacy (Shannon Foynes Port Authority); John Dundon (Mullock & Sons, Limerick); Dr Seán Gannon (Local Studies Department, Limerick City & County Library); the staff at Mary Immaculate College Library, Limerick; David Bracken (Limerick Diocesan Archivist); Mary-Ellen Badeau (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick); Dan Hichen (Massachusetts Historical Society); Tanya McDonald (University of Newfoundland); Aggie Sliwka (Harriet Irving Library, University of New Brunswick); Bruce Driscoll (Irish Canadian Cultural Association of New Brunswick); Dan Boudreau (American Antiquarian Society); Peggy Perdue (Special Collections Department, Toronto Public Library); Bryan Hacker (Author of 'The Gormans – Master Mariners of Kilrush').
An Irish radio documentary from RTÉ Radio 1, Ireland - Documentary on One - the home of Irish radio documentaries