South Portland Historical Society will present the next in its fall lecture series on Wednesday, Oct. 18, at 6:30 p.m. at the South Portland Community Center. Author Michael Connolly will share his research on the lives of Irish immigrants in greater Portland. As we prepare for that lecture, let’s take a look at one Irish immigration story – the wreck of the RMS Bohemian.

Shipwreck at Night, painted by Alzira Pierce in 1939. The mural still adorns the wall of the South Portland Post Office. Courtesy image

On the evening of Feb. 22, 1864, the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Bohemian struck Alden’s Rock, an underwater obstruction two miles southeast of the Cape Elizabeth Light Station.

The Bohemian was a 295-foot, three-masted, bark-rigged ship. A bark is a three-masted ship with square sails on the fore and mainmast and fore-and-aft rigged on the mizzen mast. Bohemian made a regular voyage from Liverpool, England, to Quebec, Canada. In the winters she would sail to Portland, which was considered eastern Canada’s winter port because the St. Lawrence River freezes in the winter.

The Bohemian was built by William Deny along the shore of the Clyde River in Scotland and launched in August of 1859. She was built for the trans-Atlantic trade for the Montreal Ocean Steamship Company. The ship was built with six watertight bulkheads that divided the hull in an effort to control any potential shipboard flooding. The vessel’s design was considered very safe. In addition to sail, she was equipped with a 500-horsepower, double-cylinder steam engine and a screw propeller.

Celtic cross erected in 1985 at Calvary Cemetery on the site of the mass grave where 12 victims of the Bohemian shipwreck are buried. Courtesy photo/Jackie Dunham

On the Bohemian’s final voyage, there were 219 passengers along with 99 crew members on board. Nineteen of the passengers were in cabins. The remaining 200 passengers, primarily immigrants from Ireland, were traveling in steerage.

Steerage is the section of the ship’s hull that offered the cheapest berths for passengers. According to Michael C. Connolly, “… disasters highlighted the dangers of maritime transport in this era, especially along Maine’s rocky coastline. The loss of the RMS Bohemian, in particular, illustrates the perils of immigration because many of the victims were Irish steerage passengers.”


It has been estimated that as many as 17,000 Irish immigrants were lost at sea attempting to migrate to the U.S. and Canada in the 19th century.

As the ship approached Portland Harbor, the captain, Robert Borland, became disoriented by the fog and severely misjudged his position along the coast. He launched flares to announce his arrival to a local pilot ship, captained by Benjamin Willard. Willard’s boat was positioned in the outer harbor close to Cushing’s Island and he and his crew didn’t see the Bohemian’s flares.

At about 8 o’clock in the evening, the Bohemian struck Alden’s Rock. Peter Dow Bachelder, in his book “Shipwrecks & Maritime Disasters of the Maine Coast,” wrote, “Despite the ship’s relatively slow speed when she struck, the impact shattered plates in the Bohemian’s hull and ripped open a fatal gash in her engine compartment, nearly amidships. A concerned Chief Engineer William McMaster momentarily appeared on the bridge and informed Captain Borland that the ship was ‘making water very fast.’”

The rising water in the ship’s hold soon extinguished the fire in the steam engine and the Bohemian drifted toward the coast of Cape Elizabeth. Hoping to beach the vessel before she sank, Capt. Borland made a run for the shore, but the vessel ran aground on Broad Cove Rock.

Borland ordered the lifeboats launched. Lifeboat number one was launched with about 80 individuals on board who were successfully landed at Broad Cove. As lifeboat number two was about to be lowered, a panic ensued and many of the Irish immigrants, mainly women and children, jumped into the boat, pitching it into the cold dark water where it swamped. About 20 people drowned. More passengers perished when they jumped in the icy sea attempting to reach other lifeboats as they pulled away from the Bohemian. She continued to settle deeper and deeper into the water. About midnight, two of the lifeboats returned to the stricken vessel and removed the remainder of the passengers.

An 1864 Harpers Weekly depiction of the wreck of the RMS Bohemian. Courtesy image

Although Capt. Borland had fired the ship’s cannons and launched several signal rockets, the residents of Cape Elizabeth didn’t become aware of the ongoing tragedy until the Bohemian’s lifeboats began to arrive on shore with the ship’s bedraggled survivors. Once the citizens of Cape Elizabeth realized that a disaster was unfolding in their backyard, they responded by bringing the survivors food and clothing and lighting bonfires to provide warmth.


The aftermath of the shipwreck is depicted in a mural on the wall of the South Portland Post Office, titled Shipwreck at Night. It was painted by artist Alzira Pierce in 1939. The painting shows the Bohemian offshore while survivors gather around a fire and a pot of boiling soup.

According to Bachelder, “During the morning literally hundreds of compassionate and concerned local people journeyed to the cape to offer food, clothing and other assistance, including passage into Portland.”

Given the darkness and confusion that ensued after the Bohemian’s sinking, it was unclear, at first, how many people had perished. It was eventually determined that 40 passengers along with two crew members had died. Twelve of the bodies, thought to belong to Irish steerage passengers, were never claimed by relatives. They were buried in a mass grave in Calvary Cemetery.

The grave remained unmarked for many years. In 1979, South Portland mailman Bartley Conley became interested in the painting that adorned his work place and started to conduct research. When he learned of the location of the mass grave in Calvary Cemetery, he was surprised and dismayed that nothing marked its location.

Working with the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Irish-American Club, Conley organized a series of fundraisers to have a Celtic cross erected at the site of the grave. The cross, dedicated on May 19, 1985, has the names of the 12 individuals buried there. It is a testament to those who lost their lives fleeing famine in their homeland and who had hoped to start their lives anew in the United States.

Some Irish immigrants who safely immigrated to greater Portland found employment on the waterfront as longshoremen. A longshoreman is someone who loads and unloads the cargo of ships. This back-breaking physical labor provided many recently-arrived Irish families with income. The lives of Irish immigrant longshoremen is well documented in Michael C. Connolly’s “Seated by the Sea: The Maritime History of Portland, Maine, and Its Irish Longshoremen,” as well as in his recently-published historical fiction, “Murkey Overhead.”


Michael Connolly lecture on Oct. 18

Please join us on Wednesday, Oct. 18 at 6:30 p.m. in the Casco Bay Wing of the South Portland Community Center to hear Mr. Connolly share his research on the lives of Irish immigrants in greater Portland. The presentation is free for current South Portland Historical Society members, $20 for non-members. Annual family memberships will be available for $25 at the lecture. Please arrive early if you wish to join. Our speaker series is brought to you with the financial support of Bristol Seafoods.

Tour at Mount Pleasant Cemetery on Oct. 21

On Saturday, Oct. 21, South Portland Historical Society’s Executive Director, Kathy DiPhilippo, will offer a walking tour at Mount Pleasant Cemetery on Meeting House Hill. Kathy will talk about South Portland’s history and the many well-known South Portlanders who are buried in this cemetery that dates back to 1734. The tour will take place at 11 a.m. with an additional tour at 1 p.m. if demand requires. The tour costs $10 for current historical society members; $25 for non-members. Registration is required; please call 767-7299 to register or contact the society by email at The rain date for this tour is Oct. 28.

Seth Goldstein is development director for the South Portland Historical Society and also serves as the director of the society’s Cushing’s Point Museum. He can be reached at

Comments are not available on this story.