Shipwreck Inventory of Ireland: Louth, Meath, Dublin and Wicklow

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2009), Reviews, Volume 17

Shipwreck Inventory of Ireland:
Louth, Meath, Dublin and Wicklow

Compiled by Karl Brady
(Government Publications, €35)
ISBN 9780755776160

From the highest point in old Holmpatrick graveyard, up by the ruined church tower where little more than a murder of crows mourns the many worn headstones, you have a pretty good view of the islands off Skerries. From here, on days when cold winds whip the waves into a shrieking frenzy, it is not difficult to imagine the horror of sliding helplessly from some brig back in the day, her back broken on Shenick or St Patrick Islands, inhaling mouthfuls of freezing saltwater, feet skittering for purchase beneath the heaving surf as you succumb to cold and exhaustion beneath the boom of Breeches Buoy rockets. Imagine this and you may suddenly get the feeling that you’re no longer alone. Perhaps the souls of dead mariners are looking over your shoulder. And why not? No small number of their bodies rest uneasily beneath your feet just yards away.
According to Karl Brady’s book, there are 210 recorded shipwrecks between Balbriggan and Loughshinny alone—and well over 100 of these lie just off the tiny north Dublin port village of Skerries. Here many souls were lost within just 100 yards of the shore, and in many cases their bodies are buried either in local graveyards or beneath cairns near the shore. To read the names of some of these stricken vessels and, where known, their often pitifully brief epitaphs is to get a sense of loss that aches across the ages: ‘Agnes, January 1854, off Skerries: brig, four crew all lost’; ‘Jane and Mary, January 1834, off Skerries: wrecked, crew drowned’; ‘Johnson, March 1786, Skerries Island: wrecked en route from Whitehaven, captain was Robinson. All on board were lost’. Irene, Isabella, Maggie, Rosebud and Telford, Caroline, Endeavour, Hector, June and Wanderer—ships named after saints, loved ones and aspirations, some that sailed as far as the Indies, laden with hopes and dreams, broken and scattered across the nearby sea floor.
Perhaps even more poignant are those 62 wrecks whose names are recorded simply as ‘unknown’: a captain and two crew found washed ashore dead in 1783, their ship, its origin and its end a mystery; 30 feet of a hull washing ashore in 1850 with no clue as to the fate of its crew; foreign cannon found lying in waters off Colt Island indicating an unrecorded tragedy, likely unmourned except by far-off families who once awaited and perhaps finally gave up on the return of sails on the horizon. Schooners, sloops, brigs, smacks and cutters each went to the bottom, the hungry depths oblivious to size, class or warrant. One bleak entry that stands out is for the Spey, lost in 1846. A bottle washed up on Dalkey Island contained a piece of paper. On it was written:

‘Brig Spey, for Issey, 4th Jan., 1846. Six feet water in the hold. We expect to be soon all lost unless some help arrives. We are about 37/36 degrees off Skerries. The captain was lost two days ago, and the mate is dead; he died of yellow fever about a week ago. John Igo. Seaman.’

Another entry to the wretched annals states simply: ‘Fanny, 03/05/1847, Skerries. Sank.’
Karl Brady’s well-illustrated, hardback inventory is part of an ongoing programme of work being undertaken by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government aimed at creating an archive of all recorded incidences of wrecking off our coasts. The volume, generously illustrated with 32 colour plates, diagrams and maps, in all documents some 3,000 vessels wrecked prior to 1946. Each entry provides the ship’s name, type of vessel, port of origin, owner’s name, cargo, date of loss and other relevant data. The book is introduced with easy-to-follow explanations to his abbreviations and contractions, followed by a fascinating 38-page historical and geographical context of the region, with the help of some six other contributors, beginning at 7000 BC.
Clear and mercifully concise appendices contain sources, a glossary, a lengthy bibliography of books, maps and charts—and an alphabetical index of ships’ names. It is certainly an important undertaking, and the information gathered here may well lead to a broader understanding of the maritime history of our east coast and generally help raise awareness of the need to preserve and catalogue the many different elements of Irish maritime heritage. But beyond catalogue, this book is something else too, something with the power to haunt and to ensure that you never look in quite the same way again at that little rusted relic or hunk of ancient driftwood worn shapeless on the seashore. The sea holds many secrets. Sometimes it spits forth little clues to the things it has taken and hidden. Lest the missing ever be forgotten, we now have a record of their last gasps before watery oblivion. HI

David Diebold is features editor of the Evening Herald and co-editor of Skerries News.

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