Ships and us

Ships, sailors and their voyages have played a critical role in the development of mankind. Battles between ships and fleets have changed the course of history for as long as it has been recorded. World commerce continues to be moulded by the ability of ships to transport goods and people from one corner of the world to another. More regrettably, they also remain an instrument of force in order to subdue an opponent. Conversely, it should also be said, that warships can and do perform humanitarian duties during time of conflict.

Shiprwecks Vesper and Bolivar, Kish Bank. Courtesy of the Irish National Seabed Survey

Through the ages, countries, syndicates, individual ship owners, captains and crews, have amassed fortunes from lucrative voyages. And many did not. Regrettably, not all events that flowed in the wake of maritime development were for the good. This is clearly evidenced during war, slave trading, and the plunder of wealth from the Americas and the East which promoted discord and envy amongst rival nations. The advances made by science, industry, and the tenacity of explorers have been spread throughout the world by ships. In terms of any single development by man to date, it might be said that the ship has remained unrivalled.

Quite divorced from these notable events, ships and shipping might be described as being just another form of commerce and travel, and fraught with the dangers and casualties one might expect to be associated with it. Agreed shipping practices and regulations were at first non-existent, and were slow to develop and overcome the free reign and regretful consequences of greed in this regard. A result being, that thousands of vessels, their crews and passengers, goods and riches, have been lost through neglect and criminal abuse.

Although the foregoing is certainly true, since man put to water by canoe, raft, or steamship, the loss of his craft has been dominated by three factors:- Man and his abilities, his craft and its condition, and weather. In the majority of shipwreck incidents (with the one exception of war), despite a presence of human negligence or of a vessel being poorly maintained, the loss of a ship was accompanied by unfavourable weather. 

Arguably, the knowledge and appreciation of the rich tapestry of civilisation has been greatly influenced by the maritime. Regrettably, the value of this unequalled milestone in the development of the Irish nation, remains to a large extent untapped. There is nevertheless a hope that the brilliant and groundbreaking work being done by the partnership of the Marine Institute of Ireland and the Geological survey Office of Ireland in mapping and surveying the seabed around Ireland, will remain well funded and continue to produce similarly impressive results similar to those already achieved.

Romance of the Sea

An unexplained affinity of some kind has existed between man and the sea since time began. I like to call it, a Romance. The expanse of the ocean, representing an element of both peace and fear, an invitation to harness its power, a highway stretching beyond the horizon on which he might be carried to unknown lands and riches beyond dreams. Visions of expanded trade perhaps, adventure, and certainly, the unknown. Or even to reach the place where the Gods dwell.

An astrolabe, or early mariner's sextant. Used in the 16th century to navigate. Discovered by divers on the wreck of the Spanish Amarada vessel, Girona in county Antrim.

What has endured most prominently, are the tales and folklore of shipwreck, stories that have grown and reached millions through literature and the cinema. It remains impossible to attribute only a single reason why the colourful swashbuckling stories from the 18th and 19th centuries continue to excite and thrive. In particular, are the stories surrounding the activities of pirates, corsairs and buccaneers from around the world. Ireland figures prominently in this regard, with its own stories of pirating around its coast. One of her best known pirates, and only one of the very few women who plied this dangerous career, was Grace O’Granuaille from the coast of Mayo. She represents a truly magnificant figure of triumph over diversity. During a time when only men sailed in ships, she sailed the seas trading and attacking ships along the wild Atlantic coast of Ireland and Spain. She gained the respect and admiration of her contemporary peers, and even their fear.

Why accounts of the final moments of a vessel being dashed onto the rocks, sometimes within yards of land and refuge, and the desperate efforts by crew and passengers to escape their fate, continues to excite the imagination in the way that they do. The tales of lost riches, heroism and cowardice, brave rescue, the agony of parents and loved ones, witnessing their spouse and children being torn from their arms and cast into a raging sea by the immense force of storm and wave.

Divers, Wrecks and Dreams

Since ships went down, man has dived to either save them or save what was in them. The history of diving is a subject involving a number of the sciences and has been addressed comprehensively through the ages by ‘philosophers’, academics, and amateurs alike. Notwithstanding, it might be helpful to the reader to outline some of the subject’s more interesting milestones, especially those concerning operations around the coast of Ireland.

It might appear that there are few incidents of consequence concerning diving and salvage that took place in Irish waters. This is of course not the case. One can immediately point to some of the interesting salvage/ investigations performed by the Royal Navy in Irish waters during both world wars. Amongst them, been operations on sunken submarines and the retrieval of precious metals from sunken merchant ships. The diving operations on the controversial Lucitania and the epic retrieval of gold bullion by commander Damant out of the liner Laurentic being just two cases in point. 

These aside, there are also some interesting examples of earlier diving operations around the coast of Ireland that successfully retrieved silver and gold treasure from foreign vessels. By a mile, and apparently with some mystery surrounding any success, the most interesting example occurred in June 1783. Having wrecked the previous March, attempts were made to recover a large amount of silver from the wreck of the Imperial East Indiaman, ‘Count de Belgioioso’. Bound for China, she was said to be, ‘one of the richest ships ever sailed from Liverpool’. This particular story contains all the juicy ingredients. Adventure, intrique, the struggle with inadequate equipment, ‘marauding corsairs from Bray and Wicklow’, sunken treasure, and more. The ultimate price was paid however, when the divers, Charles Spalding and his nephew Ebeneezer Watson died in their diving bell whilst attempting to salvage the large treasure. The timber bell had been down on the wreck which was ‘sunk deep in sand’ at the Kish Bank off Dublin, when it got into difficulties. Suspecting some difficulties, the bell was raised and both men were found to be dead.


An inquest later heard blame appropriated to the negligence of the diving vessel’s captain, poisonous gas or ‘effluvia’ that escaped into the bell from the ‘putrid bodies in the wreck’, a failure to deliver enough air, the demon drink no less and so on. The truth was, the task was beyond their capabilities, their knowledge and the capacity of their equipment. Diving was at that time on a cusp, not yet having achieved the long sought after ability to deliver compressed air directly from the surface to a diver below. 

The  Future

Mainly as a result of the advances made in sonar and diving technology, and in the case of Ireland, the ongoing study of the seabed by the Geological Survey Office, the study of shipwrecks has shown a dramatic increase during the latter part of the 20th century. This appears to have fallen into mainly four categories.

The hunt for treasure that lies in sunken ships from ages past and from World War losses, when valuable metals such as gold and silver, brass and tin etc., were being transported.

Another reason has been the growing interest in maritime and local history, and genealogy. Because so many thousands of people were transported in one way or another aboard ships, during significant periods of emigration and so on, tracing family origins has become a fascinating compulsion for many. In this respect, the knowledge of 'shipwreck' is often sought in the pursuit of a historical trail of lineage.

Technological advances have since enabled man to accomplish many of the dreams. To probe the limits of the oceans, to discover its hidden wonders and recover its natural resources. And not forgetting many of those lost treasures. Discover ‘lost’ continents and to reveal lost traces of sea battles that shaped world events. To turn the final pages of mysterious voyages, and fatal tragedies.

Lastly, and already mentioned, such projects as the ongoing detailed study of the Irish seabed by the Geological Survey Office of Ireland. Who, in conjunction with The Marine Institute of Ireland have already produced a vast wealth of new marine and geological data, including the discovery of many shipwrecks. A great body of this work is available on line.

We exist during a time when maritime technology is conquering the deep at an expediential pace, and it will undoubtedly help to uncover the most fascinating secrets that have eluded all previous endeavours by adventurers of the deep.