Ireland’s entitlement to claim such high achievements in other disciplines must be few and far between. It is for this reason, if no other, that this quite splendid new publication is to be welcomed.
The joint venture between the Geological Survey of Ireland and the Marine Institute produced INFOMAR ― this country’s first national mapping project. As a result we now have a vast catalogue of, inter alia, photographic and sonar images of 300 shipwrecks, in total some 60 of which are featured in the book, along with essays of high quality.
The book also reflects heavy input from the National Monuments Service of the Dept. of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; the Dept. of Archaeology College Cork and an intriguing personal collection for over 15 years of ships from around the world by Dr Ian Lawler of BIM.
According to Karl Brady, one of the quartet of stated authors, there are some 13,000 wrecks in Irish waters but they decided to highlight 60 of the most important that were mapped during the seabed survey so far. 400-year span The coverage is vast – from the 16th century through to WWI and WWII.
References to these latter phases are particularly intriguing because security requirements at wartime prevented much, if any, reportage of major happenings. Thanks to INFOMAR’s generous contributions from its integrated mapping programmes, the book produces graphic imagery not before seen in public of how some of the shipwrecks lie on the seafloor today – tragic in their lonely isolation.
Take for instance the saga of the liner Athenia which, according to the accompanying commentary, ‘holds the dubious honour of being the first victim of submarine warfare in World War II’. She had left Glasgow for Montreal when war was declared on that fateful Sunday September 3, 1939. Without warning, she was attacked by a German U-boat.
Today, what is left of a once proud ship lies 388km northwest of Erris Head, Co Mayo. One of Ian Lawler’s significant post cards shows her sailing under blue skies. The accompanying multi-beam sonar depiction shows what remains of her in water so deep that it challenges the most modern equipment to produce detail. How a once proud liner carrying 1103 passengers on a great adventure could be reduced to virtually nothing!
And the Empress of Britain – another passenger liner one of the most luxurious vessels of her time and the largest merchant vessel lost in WWII. First she was bombed by a type of German aircraft known as ‘the scourge of the Atlantic’ and finally sunk two days later by a German U-boat off Bloody Foreland I Donegal.
Once again, an accompanying multi-beam view of her shows her lying in 160 metres of water. Nor did neutrality provide anything but scant protection to Irish shipping. The 825-ton steam coaster Kerry Head out of Limerick went to sea with the Irish Tricolour emblazoned on her hull, along with ‘Eire’ highlighted twice in huge letters to proclaim her neutrality.
Just over a year after the war started in 1939, she was bombed by a German aircraft southeast of the Old Head of Kinsale in Cork. She managed to survive that, but two months later she was bombed again and sank within sight of Cape Clear, Cork. Her crew of 12 perished in the attack.
HMS Audacious was a 23,000-ton dreadnought battleship so strongly built that she was considered unsinkable. Just off Tory Island, Donegal, in 1914 she struck a mine –̶ one of 200 or so layed across the main shipping route along the Northern Ireland coastline ̶ and went to the bottom. In this case there is a high resolution multi-beam view, one of the most dramatic in the book.
We have scarcely known tragedy of how the HMS Curacoa was sliced in two off Donegal in 1942 by the great liner Queen Mary acting as a troopship. Churchill himself personally ordered silence on this one for fear of despondence among the people. Of course the expansive courage extends to the Lusitania.
The depth is so complete; the depth of tragedy is totally compelling. This reviewer had the privilege of attending the launch of this book in the Custom House, Dublin. Assembled there, among many others intrigued by our maritime history and the work being done to reveal it. They are young folk and what binds them is their huge enthusiasm for their work. They represent a force of considerable talent with very positive views and that rare thing ̶ they love their work. It is surely most encouraging that these talented people are enjoying substantial official backing as witnessed by two government ministers at the book launch.
This book is their testament.