Profile: Michael Kearney & the Rothesay


Michael Kearney’s Rothesay, built in Harbour Grace in 1851

In the mid-nineteenth century, Ferryland native Michael Condon Kearney was in high demand. A genius, self-taught shipbuilder, Kearney had a shipbuilding yard on the south side of St. John’s, where he built many vessels.

In 1848 Kearney came to Harbour Grace and built the Arabella Tarbet for foreign service. John Munn subsequently had Kearney build another ship, the Naomi, after his wife Naomi Munden.

At the foot of Victoria Street in 1851, Kearney constructed the Rothesay, a 313-tonne clipper barque considered his supreme production. The ship took its name from John Munn’s hometown in Scotland. As one poet noted:

“She was a splendid form indeed,
Built for freight and yet for speed,
A beautiful and gallant craft,
Broad in the beam and sloping aft.”

According to W.A. Munn, the Rothesay was “often challenged…but always won.” One such race took place when the Rothesay met Holmwood’s Tasso at Demerara. The Tasso was considered the fastest sailing vessel out of St. John’s. They left Demerara side by side, but soon lost sight of each other; they only caught sight of one another again at Cape Race. The Rothesay was the first to pass Cape Spear on her way to Harbour Grace with flags flying.

Sir William Whiteway even selected the miniature model on which Kearney built the Rothesay for the Newfoundland Exhibition at London’s Crystal Palace in 1851. Michael Kearney had given it finishing touches with gold and silver that had been mined in Newfoundland for the fastenings of her rudder and hawse pipes. A holiday took place at Harbour Grace when she was launched, and local poets sang the ship’s praises in the papers. Such extracts included:

“The blocks were placed upon the slip,
The keel was laid for a noble ship.”

“He knew the chart of the sailor’s heart,
You see her feel—the thrill is in her keel.”

“Spurning with one foot the ground
With one exalted joyous bound,
She leaped into the ocean’s arms
With all her youth, and all her charms.”

During Michael Kearney’s stay at Harbour Grace, he was superintendent of building four different vessels at one time. John Rorke had the largest sealer: a 260-ton behemoth built at Carbonear, which he christened Thomas Ridley after his old friend and relative. Ridley & Sons had the Brothers built at the Beach premises. William Donnelly had the brig Saint Fillian built at Spaniard’s Bay. Capt. Azariah Munden had the Four Brothers constructed at Brigus.

During this period, over 100 men found constant employment at the Beach premises.

Also, Michael Kearney famously built the wooden ‘beacon light’ in Harbour Grace in 1850.

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