Monday, January 03, 2005


Fascinating talk on archaeology at Civic Trust


Western People
December 22, 2004

Familiar historical anchors at Clew Bay Heritage Centre and Newport were the opening pictures to a fascinating illustrated talk given by Karl Brady of the Underwater Archaeology Unit (UAU) of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, to the Westport Civic Trust.

This unit, formed in 1997 and with a complement of four archaeologists who are also divers, has been tasked with creating an inventory of shipwrecks around the coast. The unit also, among other responsibilities, has an input into assessing planning applications when they might impinge on maritime heritage.

With a treacherous shoreline and marine traffic for many thousands of years, the coast of Ireland is strewn with shipwrecks, or sites where vessels have foundered. Early dives, as far back as the 16th Century, would have been undertaken purely for salvage, and in 1626 freedivers – who used no breathing aids – were brought from the West Indies to recover cannons from the seabed in Broadhaven.

The 19th century and the years following saw an expansion of underwater activity with the development of diving equipment, diving bells and helmets, and following World War II the wide availability of aqualungs made diving available to many people. The televised raising of the Mary Rose in 1979 caught the imagination and sparked an intense interest in diving and underwater exploration.

It is thought there are about some 10,000 wrecks sites around the Irish coast. Most of them will be from the 19th century onwards, when there was a dramatic increase in trade between Ireland and Britain, so the greater number of wrecks identified are on the East coast (some 42% of the total) and would have included many colliers, but also a considerable number of fishing boats. There are 25% of all recorded wrecks between Kerry and Donegal, largely because less trade was carried on from these harbours, the recording system was less good and the coast, with its fierce tides, currents, rocks and weather rapidly dispersed wreckage.

There are considered to be 300 wreck sites in Mayo waters. However, the west coast is famous as the site where many ships of the Spanish Armada came to grief in their retreat to Spain in 1588. It is thought that there may be up to six Spanish shipwrecks off the Mayo coast, although local tradition has five.

The Santiago is believed to be in Broadhaven, the San Nicholas Prodaneli off the Curraun Peninsula, the Grand Grin is thought to have gone down off Clare Island and La Rata Encoronada at Blacksod Bay. Many artefacts were washed ashore, and have found homes around the area: there are particularly interesting items in Belleek Castle Hotel near Ballina.

Some twenty Spanish ships foundered on the west coast. The loss is hardly surprising: victuals and water for the crews had been almost exhausted, there was wide-spread illness and exhaustion, the ships were badly damaged, the weather was appalling, the high winds were onshore and the charts were highly inaccurate.

The first printed charts appeared in the mid-16th century, but knowledge of the west coast of Ireland was sketchy and Achill Island did not appear, or did so as part of the mainland.

There was no absolute accuracy in mapping this part of the coast until the Ordnance Survey chart of 1839.

Another wreck of note was The Tayleur, an emigrant ship on her maiden voyage from Liverpool to Australia, which was lost at Lambay on the NE coast in 1854. Of the 560 passengers, 260 were lost including nearly all the women and children.

Various causes for her loss have been suggested, but the ship had no proper sea trials and was rushed into service for the mass of emigrants heading for the Kalgoorlie gold rush. When dived upon, nine disarticulated churches were found, and 200 blank gravestones: home customs were being exported to new territories.

Not all the UAU’s work is concerned with off-shore sites. Drainage work in the 19th century aroused the interest of archaeologists with the discovery of artefacts and dugout boats from the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, and craft from the Viking incursions and later: Viking boats have also been found on the shores of Clew Bay.

Many finds of stone axes and bronze swords have been found in rivers, some dating from BC1200 and it is thought these will have been offerings to river gods.

One of the most spectacular finds has been the wooden causeway in Lough Carra near Ballinrobe dating from around BC1500 to BC1100 and thought to be concerned with ritual activity.

The earliest bridge over the Shannon, dating from AD796 to AD804 has also been identified. Mayo also has good evidence of the change in sea levels following the end of the last Ice Age. Submerged forests and peat beds will be found at very low tides in Blacksod Bay, and from a later period early medieval walls can be seen going into the sea in the Inishkea Islands.

Ireland has a rich maritime and inland waterway heritage, which is now being appreciated in all its fullness. The UAU has a vast, but important role in finding, identifying, investigating and recording these sites to afford them protection and enhance our knowledge.

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