You are here

Boats and Shipwrecks of Ireland

Boats and Shipwrecks of Ireland

By Colin Breen and Wes Forsythe. Pp. 192, figs. 21, color pls. 14, tables 3, plans 4, drawings 48, maps 9. Tempus, Stroud 2004. $35. ISBN 0-7524-3122-6 (paper).

Reviewed by

While recent decades have seen various studies of Ireland and the Irish in maritime history, and of Irish merchants and mariners in Medieval times, this is the first general study of the archaeology of riverine and marine vessels in Ireland.

Both authors work in the Centre for Coastal and Marine Research at the University of Ulster, and both are archaeologists and professional divers. As they point out, it is somewhat surprising that an island nation should have ignored its maritime archaeology for so long. Indeed, it is all the more surprising because since the very beginning of the study of Irish archaeology, the surrounding seas are considered to have been the main vector of cultural change. In the 1920s, one eminent archaeologist declared that Ireland was an island of the Atlantic, Britain an island of the North Sea. This colorful but utterly misleading statement encapsulated the nationalist and xenophobic belief that Ireland’s past had been shaped by immigrants and influences from continental Europe uncontaminated by British elements. In fact, the reverse was the case, and while the Atlantic seaways had a role to play at times, the role of the neighboring island and the intervening Irish Sea was always paramount. This cross-channel path and coastal traffic around the island were the main seafaring routes in prehistoric and historic times.

The archaeological evidence documented in this study extends from Mesolithic log boats dating to about 5000 B.C. to the wreck of the Lusitania of the Cunard Line torpedoed off the southern coast by a German submarine in 1915; some 1,200 lives were lost, including many American citizens, and the public outcry that followed was one of the factors to bring the United States into World War I. This is a very broad canvas and all the more so because the authors always make a laudable attempt to place the Irish evidence in its wider European context.

One Mesolithic log boat from Lough Neagh in the north of Ireland has been radiocarbon dated to about 5300 B.C., but this primitive dugout type was used throughout the prehistoric period and well into historic times. The largest example, 15.24 m in length, is dated to the Bronze Age. The most recent log boat is dated to about A.D. 1700 and reflects the remarkable survival of an evidently extremely effective means of inland communication. Less than 10% of the 350 recorded log boats have been dated to the prehistoric period, but no doubt many more early examples await discovery. No such early skin boats (the ancestors of the modern Irish currach) have been found, but the identification in archaeological contexts of bones of fish such as cod, which live in deep waters, might imply the use of this sort of craft as early as the Mesolithic.

Despite the fairly abundant evidence for the occupation of numerous islands around the Irish coast (a form of indirect evidence for coastal traffic not examined by the authors), physical evidence for boats other than the ubiquitous log boat is almost nonexistent throughout prehistory. Evidence from continental Europe and Britain is cited, however.

Excluding the log boat, there are only two significant pieces of evidence for prehistoric craft. One is a celebrated miniature model boat made of sheet gold dating to the end of the last millennium B.C. and generally thought to represent a large, hide-built, oared sailing vessel. The other is a fragment of a wooden boat of carved construction of Roman-period date from a midland lake and built by someone with knowledge of Mediterranean-style boat building.

The Early Medieval record (400–1169) is equally scanty. Documentary sources provide little useful detail, and the famous tale of the voyage of St. Brendan, who ventured sufficiently far into the northwestern Atlantic in an ox hide craft to encounter whales and icebergs, is not particularly illuminating. How far west such voyages actually went is unknown, but Tim Severin did demonstrate in 1976 that a skin boat could undertake a transatlantic journey. Material evidence is relatively meager, though various fragments of boats have been recovered from excavations in Viking settlements in Dublin, Wexford, and Waterford. There are some representations of boats on carved stone crosses as well.

Reference to later Medieval ship types, the cogs and galleys common in European waters, appears in 13th- and 14th-century documents. There is also some iconographic evidence, but actual archaeological remains are scanty. In succeeding centuries the majority of finds are due to the famous maritime disaster of 1588, the Spanish Armada. More than a dozen Armada ships were wrecked off the western and northern Irish coasts, and while the majority are unlocated, several have been explored. The Santa Maria de la Rosa survived as a mound of ballast with parts of the lower hull in the Blasket Sound, County Kerry. While nothing remained of La Girona off the Antrim coast, a huge quantity of artifacts was recovered from the wreck site, including cannon and jewelry. A third Armada vessel, La Trinidad Valencera, off the Derry coast, has also been located and investigated.

Later shipwrecks recorded in these waters include vessels of the East India Company in the 17th century. Admiralty records in London document several wrecks of this period off the Irish coast and the locations of one or two have been identified. The wrecks of two British naval vessels of this era have been discovered as well. The end of the 18th century saw an attempt by Revolutionary France to establish a military presence in Ireland, a strategic ploy in their war with England. One ship of this fleet of 48 vessels was wrecked in Bantry Bay; the remains of the frigate La Surveillante have been geophysically surveyed, and various artifacts have been recorded.

Though skin boats and small wooden sailing craft remained in general use, the growth in trade in the 19th century and the advent of the steam engine, iron hulls, and screw propellers were new and dramatically important developments on a larger scale. One wreck off the southern coast is that of the Irish-owned Sirius, the first steam-powered vessel to cross the Atlantic from Europe to America when the voyage from Cork to New York took 18 days in 1838. Obviously, the story of every 19th-century wreck could not be told and the writers had to be selective, but archaeologically minded readers might have liked to have learned more about a shipload of classical antiquities from Rome lost in Dublin Bay in 1806, where they still remain.

Well illustrated and clearly written for a popular audience, this is, as the authors admit, a first survey of uncharted waters. Given the fragmentary nature of the evidence, it was ambitious to try to cover some 7,000 years of sailing craft in and around the island, but the long narrative is an enthralling one. It is a timely reminder of the importance of the archaeology of wrecks in amplifying our understanding of a time when seas and rivers played a more vital role in the lives of most communities.

John Waddell
Department of Archaeology
National University of Ireland, Galway

Book Review of Boats and Shipwrecks of Ireland, by Colin Breen and Wes Forsythe

Reviewed by John Waddell

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 110, No. 1 (January 2006)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1101.Waddell

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.