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Ferry History

Mersey Ferries - The Irish Connections

When our Mersey ferries have finished their useful lives on the river, sometimes they are sold for breaking up. However, frequently they have been bought by other operators for service elsewhere. In view of the geography, it is perhaps not surprising that more Mersey ferries have been sold to Irish owners than to any other group of buyers. The majority of the ferries were used as tenders, carrying passengers to and from passenger liners, mainly transatlantic. This was especially so at the port of Cork, where Cobh (formerly called Queenstown) has always been the major Irish transatlantic departure point. However, some former Mersey ferries were used as excursion vessels.

The very earliest sale to an Irish company was in 1845, when the Eastham ferry William Stanley, built in 1837, was sold to the City of Dublin Steam Packet Co. However, it is not certain that she ever crossed the Irish Sea; possibly her new owners used her at Liverpool. She was sold to an owner in Chester in 1852 and converted to a sailing ship in 1855. In this guise, she made voyages far from the Mersey and the Irish Sea, sinking in 1859 while returning to Britain from Cuba.

The earliest ferry which definitely migrated across the Irish Sea after being sold was the Wallasey vessel Heather Bell (1865). She was sold in 1891 to H. J. Ward & Co., who were Liverpool tug owners. They changed her name to Erin’s King and based her at Dublin, where she operated a programme of excursion sailings. She was broken up at Garston in 1900.

The only sister ships to be sold to Ireland were the Wallasey vessels Rose (1900) and Lily (1901). Both were sold to Palmer’s, of Dublin, in 1927, taking the names An Saorstat and Failte respectively. They remained at Dublin until 1941, but probably had little business after the start of the war; although Ireland was neutral, its trade and commerce were badly disrupted during the war. Both ships were sold in 1941 to the British Iron & Steel Corporation, with Rose / An Saorstat being renamed Biscosalve. Lily / Failte was not renamed, but was wrecked in 1943 and her remains were broken up at Passage West, in Cork harbour, in 1944. Biscosalve lasted until 1951, when she was broken up at Preston.

The first Birkenhead ferry to be sold to Ireland was Lancashire (1899). Her sale in 1929 was to the Galway Harbour Commissioners, who renamed her Cathair-na-Gallime. Galway had made a few attempts to become a significant transatlantic port during the 19th century. However, although it was closer to America than any other British or Irish port, it suffered from an inability to attract much cargo, and consequently all those attempts failed. It seems likely that Lancashire / Cathair-na-Gallime was used as a tender for occasional visiting liners and for local excursions. She was broken up at Cork in 1948.

The Wallasey ferry Royal Iris (1906) came to prominence in the Zeebrugge raid during the First World War. It was as a result of their service at Zeebrugge that she and her sister Daffodil (1906) were awarded their “Royal” prefixes in 1919. When Royal Iris finished on the Mersey in 1932, she followed her former consorts Rose and Lily into the Dublin fleet of Palmer’s. However, unlike the earlier pair, she was not renamed. In 1946, she was sold to the Cork Harbour Commissioners and renamed Blarney. She was the first of several former Mersey ferries to be stationed at Cork. She survived until December 1961 when, at the ripe old age of 55, she was broken up at Passage West.

The next Wallasey ferry to travel to Ireland was John Joyce (1910). She carried the name of a Chairman of the Wallasey Ferries Committee, but had been launched as Bluebell. She also went to Dublin, but to Palgrave, Murphy & Co., who were better known for their cargo services from Dublin to Northern Europe. Again, she retained her Wallasey name. In 1946, she followed Royal Iris to Cork, where the Harbour Commissioners took the view that they needed two tenders. At that time, there was the prospect of a substantial post-war revival of the liner traffic to the USA. The liner traffic did develop as expected, with calls by Cunard’s Southampton based Mauretania and their Liverpool based Britannic, by other Cunarders, and by a variety of non-British liners. John Joyce was renamed Shandon, but lasted only until 1953, when she was broken up at Passage West.

The final Wallasey ferry to serve in Ireland was Francis Storey (1922). She went to Cork in 1951, apparently to replace John Joyce / Shandon, and was renamed Killarney. She served for nine years, being broken up at Cork in 1960. Surprisingly, she was broken up before Royal Iris / Blarney, despite being sixteen years younger.

The Birkenhead ferries Mountwood (1960), Woodchurch (1960) and Overchurch (1962) were designed by the Liverpool naval architects Graham & Woolnough, who were contracted also by the Cork Harbour Commissioners to design two tenders to replace Royal Iris / Blarney and Francis Storey / Killarney. It was perhaps not surprising that the appearance of these tenders had many similarities to that of the three Birkenhead ferries. They were ordered from the Liffey Dockyard in Dublin. However, Francis Storey / Killarney was apparently unlikely to last until the first of the new tenders was ready. Birkenhead Corporation had sold its oldest ferry, Hinderton (1925), after ordering its first two new ferries. Graham & Woolnough knew that Birkenhead Corporation would dispose of its three remaining old ferries, Thurstaston (1930), Claughton (1930) and Bidston (1933), as the new ones were delivered. Through their agency, it was arranged that Bidston should be chartered to the Cork Harbour Commissioners after the first new ferry, Mountwood, had been delivered. In this way, Bidston made her way over to Cork in 1960, replacing Francis Storey / Killarney. For her service at Cork, she was fitted with two lifeboats, one on each side near the stern, replacing the single stern lifeboat she had previously carried. The floatable seats and life rafts were cleared from her upper deck, leaving a mainly uncluttered deck space and her funnel was repainted. Finally, she was re-registered at Cork, leading to the unusual situation of a ship owned by a British public authority flying a foreign flag. Having been used to oil burning steamers, the engineers at Cork had to adjust to a coal fired vessel. Once the new tenders were in service, Bidston was no longer needed, so she was sold for breaking up at Cork in 1962.

One further Mersey ferry which ended her days in Ireland was the Birkenhead vessel Storeton (1910). She was sold to Leith owners in 1940 for use as a lifting vessel and later as a tug, and then to Cork owners in 1951. In view of the alterations needed to fit her for her role at Leith, it seems unlikely that she was used to carry passengers at Cork. Her time at Cork was in any case very short, as she was broken up in January 1952.

Regular readers of “Newsletter” may recall an article which appeared in 1998, which described visits to Dublin by two other Mersey Ferries. The Birkenhead ferry Oxton (1879) was renamed Old Oxton in 1925, to free the name for a new ferry. She was withdrawn from service and sold for breaking up in 1926. However, before being broken up, she made two trips from Birkenhead docks to Dublin, carrying new railway cars for the Irish rail network. Much more recently, Mountwood crossed over to Dublin in 1996 to act as a tender for the visiting U.S. aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy.

With all the changes made to the Mersey ferries in recent years and the intention of the Mersey Ferries organisation to keep the three remaining vessels in service for the foreseeable future, it seems unlikely that we will ever again see a former Mersey ferry being based at an Irish port.


Name (built) Port (owner) & date New name Fate
Bidston (1933)   Cork 1960   B.u. 1962.
Storeton (1910) Leith 1940
Cork 1951
  B.u. 1952.
Lancashire (1899) Galway 1929 Cathair-na-Gallime B.u. 1948.
Francis Storey (1922) Cork 1951 Killarney B.u. 1960.
Heather Bell (1865) Dublin (Ward) 1891 Erin’s King B.u 1900.
John Joyce (1910) Dublin (Palgrave Murphy) 1936
Cork 1946

B.u. 1953.    
Royal Iris (1906)      Dublin (Palmer) 1932

Cork 1946

Blarney  B.u. 1961.
Rose (1900) Dublin (Palmer) 1927
Glasgow 1941
An Saorstat
B.u. 1951.
Lily (1901) Dublin (Palmer) 1927 Failte Wrecked & b.u. 1943.