An unexpected visitor

Notes from the Western Periphery

ILL-FATED VOYAGE An artist’s rendering of the Bornholm floundering during a violent Atlantic storm.

The Bornholm at Newport

John Bradley

If you had been standing at Melcomb Point, west of Newport, on the afternoon of Sunday January 20, 1782, you would have observed an extraordinary sight: a warship limping into the harbour, dismasted and under emergency jury rig. Drifting towards Newport Quay, driven by a westerly breeze, barely under control, was the Danish 36-gun frigate Bornholm.
Bornholm was in a distressed state, its destroyed rigging a tangle of wood and ropes, its crew ravaged by illness. Having anchored, a tender was sent and contact was established between Captain Mathias de Bille and the Newport authorities.
The Bornholm’s visit to Newport would have vanished from local memory but for the fact that 100 years later the grandson of its captain – Torben de Bille, Danish Ambassador to the UK in London – visited Newport and erected a brass tablet commemorating the events of 1782 in the Church of Ireland chapel located in the grounds of Newport House.
The tale described on the tablet intrigued me. After contacting the Danish Embassy in Dublin, I was eventually sent a complete dossier on the Bornholm saga by the Danish Naval archives, a summary of which was published in the Journal of Westport Historical Society in 1992.

Fateful journey
Bornholm had set off from Copenhagen on December 19, 1781, bound for the Danish West Indies islands. In the North Atlantic it sustained major damage in a violent storm and was partially dismasted. Recovery was hampered by the fact that many of the crew had become incapacitated by illness.
But for extraordinary good luck, the story might have ended there. Ships of the Spanish Armada had been wrecked on this inhospitable coast almost two centuries earlier. However, as the disabled Bornholm was driven by the storm towards the coast of Mayo, she arrived in the narrow gap between Achill Head and Clare Island, the only landfall that offered prospects of survival and safety inside Clew Bay.
An anchor was let go and eventually held. But the ship remained horribly exposed to the continuing storm. A small boat came out from Clare Island and, in the best tradition of Grace O’Malley, tried to extract massive salvage rights for piloting Bornholm to a safer anchorage at Newport. However, even in their distressed state, the frigate was heavily armed and a more modest fee was quickly negotiated. Unable to raise the anchor, it was cut loose and the ship proceeded cautiously eastwards towards Newport.
Having arrived at a safe anchorage, the sick crew were taken off and isolated in a building at Melcomb Point, where many subsequently died and were buried. With the assistance of the people of Newport, under the guidance of Sir Neale O’Donel of Newport House, the Bornholm was patched up. Captain de Bille was nursed in Newport by Patrick Gibbons, but he succumbed to illness, died on March 17 and was buried in the O’Donel crypt.
After emergency repairs, on July 15, 1782, Bornholm departed Newport and returned to Copenhagen. Gibbons was subsequently compensated by the Danish government and used the funds to build de Bille House, currently occupied by Mr Frank Chambers and one of the handsomest houses in the town.
In the summer of 1993, encouraged by the WHS article, Peter MacDonagh searched for the discarded Bornholm anchor in the area off Achill Beg, found it and raised it. It was stored at Cloghmore in the Clare Island Sea Farm, and its identity was subsequently confirmed by Danish Naval authorities. Its current location is unknown.

Interesting times
When I discussed the Bornholm incident with the late naval Commander Oliver Stoney of Rosturk Castle, he expressed surprise that a ship as relatively small as a 36-gun single deck frigate had been sent down the Atlantic in mid winter. Usually only huge three-decker men of war would have taken such a risk.
But the Bornholm’s voyage took place in very interesting times. In America, the War of Independence had ended when, on October 19, 1781, the British army under Lord Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown. Relations between Britain and the Northern European states were tetchy. The Danes urgently needed naval support to defend their Caribbean colony from the marauding Royal Navy, so took the risk of sending a frigate on a voyage where it was overwhelmed in the violent storm.
The loss of the American colonies probably accelerated the Act of Union in 1801. The British needed to prevent efforts by the Irish parliament and the Irish ruling class to go down the same route, and did so in the aftermath of the suppression of the ill-fated 1798 rising using bribes and inducements. John Browne, 3rd Earl of Altamont from 1780 to 1800, became Marquess of Sligo on December 29, 1800, and supported Union. Sir Neale O’Donel of Newport did not.
Much has changed since then. The Sligos are no longer at Westport House. O’Donels no longer occupy Newport House. There is a parliament in Dublin again. And standing outside de Bille House in Newport today, you are looking at a town which has celebrated its 300 years of history.
On August 31, 1993, another Danish Ambassador, His Excellency CU Haxthausen – this time appointed to Dublin – unveiled a plaque on de Bille House just over 200 years after the Bornholm’s unexpected visit in 1782.

John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.