In May 2021, NAS member Duncan Ross submitted a members’ story titled Diving into the American Civil War. The piece documented his research of, and his visit to the wreck of the Lelia - a paddle steamer that was built in 1864 to run the blockaded southern American ports. Through a perfect storm of calamities and bad luck, the Lelia sank in Liverpool Bay on her maiden voyage. 47 out of her compliment of possibly 59 died in the tragedy, some as a direct result of the sinking, but most during their attempts to leave the ship or when they tried to board the Northwest Lightship.

Read Duncan's original story here

From the Cork Daily Herald: Thursday 19th January 1865


SEVERE FAMILY AFFLICTION: The truth of the old adage that “troubles seldom come singly” has received a striking illustration in a family in Queenstown. A telegram has been received by the brother-in-law of the pilot Edward Sweeney, officially notifying his death at the foundering of the ill-fated blockade runner Lelia, which has already appeared in this paper. He was a young man of about 27 years of age, and was much respected in Queenstown both as a good and obedient son, and as a good and kind husband. He leaves to mourn his loss two children and a widow, who is within a few weeks of her accouchement. His step-father, a seaman named Hennessy was also drowned on the same day (Saturday) at the wreck of the brig True Blue, off the harbour of Boulogne – which was detailed in yesterday’s paper. Thus two women were bereft of their protectors – the one by the loss of her husband, and the other by that of her husband and son – by the disastrous gale of Saturday.


The last thing one expects when writing an article about a shipwreck is a relative of one of those involved to get in touch, but that is exactly what happened in July 2021. In my NAS article, I included a section called The 59th Man, in which I presented the mystery of Edward Sweeney – a Cork pilot who was not listed as an official person on board, but appeared in several newspaper clippings from the time as one who perished during the sinking.

To my total surprise, the great, great grandchild of Edward Sweeney (Gráinne Meaney) contacted me after conducting some genealogy research into her family. Her searches led her to the NAS Members’ Stories page, where to her equal surprise, she found a mention of her ancestor. Gráinne actually lives in the same house as her great grandmother (daughter of Edward) last lived near Cóbh (pronounced ‘kove’). Cóbh, in Co. Cork was known as Queenstown between 1849 and 1920.

Gráinne was kind enough to share the details of her genealogical research relating to her great, great grandfather; including his marriage, children and details of his lineage up to the present time.

Email from Gráinne Meaney, July 2021.

Hi Duncan, 

…Edward Sweeney was eluding me for years and I am more than grateful to your work for helping me learn about him. 

Yes, I am the great great grandchild of Edward.

Edward Sweeney married Jane Donovan on June 8th 1860. The witnesses were William Mulligan and Catherine Barry.  They were married in the RC Cathedral at Cóbh (Queenstown). There is no address and their fathers’ names are not recorded. 

William Mulligan was also a Harbour Pilot. 

Edward and Jane had 3 children - all girls. 

Mary Agnes was born in 1861 and baptised on 7th April 1861 in Cóbh Cathedral. I have her baptismal certificate so I am sure of this. She was my great grandmother. In her final years, she lived in the house here where I live today. 

Jane Anne Sweeney was born in June 1862. Again, I have her Baptismal Certificate naming her parents. She was baptised on 15 June 1862. Jane Anne died in 1869 and is buried in Cóbh. The grave was erected by her maternal grandfather, Thomas Donovan.

The final child is Catherine Frances who was baptised in the Cathedral on 26th February 1865. She married and had a few children. One, Joseph, joined the navy and died at Invergordon in Scotland. There are no descendants still with us from Catherine’s family as far as I can ascertain. 

Mary Agnes was my great grandmother. She died in 1941 so I never met her but I live in the house where she spent her final years - about 20km from Cóbh. 

I am as sure as I can be that your 59th Man is my Edward and I am most grateful. I have one sister and 3 cousins who are the same descendants and I can’t wait to tell them. 

I will let you know if I learn more. 

Very best wishes,



Although Gràinne was unable to offer any photographs, she has shed a little bit of light on the mystery. We now know for sure that Edward Sweeney was a Co. Cork pilot who worked out of Cóbh.

The Lelia had two officially listed pilots on her maiden voyage in January 1865 (one from Liverpool and one from Cork – Magnus Park) already on board, which makes Sweeney’s presence all the stranger. There would presumably be no practical need for two Cork pilots. The presence of any Cork pilot also raises another issue, as it suggests the intention to stop there, although I can find no definitive evidence of this. Bermuda is the only destination noted in any text relating to the Lelia.

With the genealogical information Gráinne generously provided she has, in some ways, brought Edward Sweeney’s character to colourful life. We can picture a wedding day, baptisms and three daughters - one of whom tragically died young.

Details of proposed compensation to Edward Sweeney’s bereft family from the Cork pilot fund. The sum of £10 (around £1000 today) was awarded.

Cork Examiner, Thursday 26th January 1865. (

As far as I can ascertain, Edward Sweeney’s body was not recovered, but perhaps the contact with his great, great grand-daughter has served as some sort of minor tribute to a life lost in such appalling circumstances. A voice from the past, now just a faint whisper, is still echoing. It’s very sad to think that 46 other souls, their stories all but forgotten, would have had families too.

Although times must have been incredibly tough, it is heartening to know that Edward’s family survived the horrendous news and fallout, and generations-later, are still going strong. One can only imagine the personal hardships and the heartbreak involved at the time of the tragedy, but one hopes that in such instances, local communities pulled together for one another. In a port town, where nearly everyone’s father, husband, brother or son would have been employed in some sort of maritime-related capacity, it is fair to assume that this would have been the case.

At the risk of sounding sentimental, I think Gráinne’s contact demonstrates the occasional far-reaching benefits of archaeological and historical research, and its ability to enrich and touch the lives of others. To know that some of my endeavours have assisted somebody is enormously satisfying. Who knows who will be in touch next!

Further reading: Lelia by Chris Michael