Heroism in Killiney Bay
FELIX M. LARKIN
This paper was a contribution to the celebration of Bloomsday 2020 at Martello tower no. 7 in Killiney, Co. Dublin, 16 June 2020. Because of the government’s Covid-19 restrictions, it was delivered online.
On Strand Road in Killiney, there is a row of very grand castellated, granite-faced houses which back on to Killiney beach. They were built around 1875 on sites originally occupied by summer huts for some of Dublin’s elite. Among the elite who had one of these was the family of Sir John Gray. Gray is remembered today – if he is remembered at all – because of his statue, which stands in O’Connell Street and commemorates his work as a member of Dublin corporation in bringing the Vartry water supply to the city. In addition, John Gray was MP for Kilkenny city from 1865 until his death in 1875 – and he was the owner of the Freeman’s Journal, Dublin’s foremost nationalist daily newspaper in the nineteenth century, which features prominently in Joyce’s Ulysses. The ‘Aeolus’ episode of the novel is set in the Freeman’s offices in North Prince’s Street, Dublin, adjacent to the GPO and near where the Gray statue is located. After Sir John Gray’s death, his widow owned one of the newly constructed castellated houses, which she named Vartry Lodge in honour of her husband’s work in bringing water to Dublin. It retains that name today. It was presumably built on the site of the family’s old summer hut.
The story I will share with you here dates from late September 1868, and Sir John Gray’s son, Edmund Dwyer Gray, was in residence in the summer hut. During a storm in Killiney Bay one evening, a schooner named the Blue Vein was wrecked – and young Gray, aged 22, swam out with a rope to the doomed craft, saving five lives. He was awarded the Tayleur Fund gold medal and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s silver medal for his bravery. Tayleur medals were awarded for gallantry in the Irish Sea and its environs by the committee that administered a fund set up to assist survivors of a vessel, called the Tayleur, lost in 1854 at Lambay Island, off the north Co. Dublin coast. The Tayleur was an emigrant ship bound for Australia from Liverpool, and many of those who did not survive and whose bodies were recovered from the sea are buried in a mass grave near the church on Lambay Island.
But back to Edmund Dwyer Gray and his heroic deed: A young Englishwoman with an interesting pedigree happened to be visiting Dublin in September 1868 – and, by chance, witnessed Edmund’s great feat and was afterwards introduced to him. They were married in the following year, 1869. She was the daughter and namesake of the notable Victorian philanthropist Caroline Chisholm, celebrated as the ‘emigrants’ friend’ for her work on behalf of female emigrants to Australia. The elder Caroline was the wife of a British army officer, and she had settled with her husband in Sydney in 1838. Before long, she became aware of the pitiful plight of young girls newly arrived from England in search of a better life – many of whom, stranded and penniless, became prostitutes. She began helping these girls find shelter and jobs, and went on to set up an employment registry and temporary home for them in an old barracks in Sydney. By her efforts, thousands of girls were settled happily in New South Wales.
The Chisholms returned to England in 1845, and their daughter Caroline – the future wife of Edmund Dwyer Gray – was born there in 1848. Mrs Chisholm’s philanthropic work continued apace. She travelled throughout Britain and Ireland tracing relatives of former convicts and other settlers in Australia, and helping to reunite them by arranging for the relatives to go out to Australia. She became an enthusiastic advocate of Australian emigration as the best way of coping with over-population at home, and in 1849 launched the Family Colonisation Loan Society, which provided savings facilities for intending emigrants and then, after a certain amount had been saved, would lend them the balance of the money required to pay for their passage. She is so revered in Australia that she was depicted on their $5 banknote in issue between 1968 and 1991.
This extraordinary woman was caricatured by Charles Dickens as Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House, probably his most critically acclaimed novel. Dickens knew her in London, and he portrays her unsympathetically as obsessed with good causes in far-away places – characterised by Dickens as ‘telescopic philanthropy’ – and, as a result, shamefully neglecting her person, her family and her household. At one point, Mrs Jellyby proclaims that ‘my public duties … [are] a favourite child to me’. It is an amazingly hostile portrait of Edmund Dwyer Gray’s future mother-in-law.
Edmund succeeded his father as proprietor of the Freeman’s Journal in 1875 and followed him into politics, becoming – from 1877 onwards – home rule MP successively for Tipperary county, Carlow county and the prestigious St Stephen’s Green division of Dublin. But for the advent of Parnell, he might have led the Irish Party at Westminster. He was lord mayor of Dublin in 1880, and he and his wife made the Mansion House a glittering social venue during his mayoralty. Gray died suddenly, aged 42, on 27 March 1888. After his death, his widow effectively controlled the Freeman newspaper for the next four years. The Parnell Split occurred during that period, ushering in a time of unprecedented volatility in Irish politics which had huge implications for the Freeman. The paper’s decline, which led ultimately to its closure in 1924, had its origins in the Split and its turbulent aftermath. Mrs Gray’s response to the challenge of steering the Freeman through the crisis was ham-fisted. Neither her bizarre family background, nor her marriage to an ambitious politician, had equipped her for the problems she had to face – but that’s another story. Suffice it to say that Mrs Gray sold off her interest in the Freeman in 1892.
The Grays, Edmund and Caroline, had four children – of whom the eldest, born in 1870, emigrated to Australia in 1894, two years after his family had disposed of the Freeman. He was also named Edmund Dwyer Gray. He eventually settled in Tasmania, where he became a journalist and politician of note. In 1928 he was elected to the Tasmanian parliament for the Labour Party; and he was treasurer and deputy premier of Tasmania from 1934 until his death in 1945, except for six months in 1939 when he served briefly as premier. When speaking in Hobart on 14 October 2017 at the unveiling of a monument honouring Irish convict women transported to Tasmania, President Higgins made a passing reference to the younger Edmund Dwyer Gray and to his successful career in Tasmania.
His mother, Caroline Gray (née Chisholm) – a fabulously wealthy woman after her husband’s death – did not remain a widow for long. She remarried in November 1891. Her second husband was a Captain Maurice O’Conor, of the Connaught Rangers and a scion of the Catholic gentry of Connacht. She was twelve years older than her new husband. They made their home in the late 1890s on Inisfale Island in Lough Allen, near Drumshanbo, Co. Leitrim – a property of the O’Conor family. Caroline passed the last thirty years of her life there in melancholy obscurity, afflicted by failing eyesight. She died in 1927.
It is a prosaic end to a love story that began in such dramatic circumstances in Killiney in 1868. Those circumstances were recalled in an article by a well-known Irish journalist John Augustus O’Shea that appeared in the Universe, the English Catholic newspaper, in 1888 and was reproduced in the Freeman’s Journal. O’Shea wrote with some flourish, as follows:
On the 25th of September, twenty years ago, the schooner Blue Vein was wrecked in Killiney Bay, and Gray swam through the hiss and surge of waters to the doomed craft with a rope, and was the means under God of rescuing five fellow creatures. For this he was rewarded with the Tayleur gold medal … but he also gained the affections of a daughter of Caroline Chisholm, the Emigrants’ Friend, who was a witness of his intrepidity.
Remember this story when next you go for a walk on lovely Killiney beach. The ghosts of Edmund Dwyer Gray and his wife Caroline may be hovering close by.