Achill Island Field Report 6: 19th century Ice House on Corraun, 21 June 2006

Today I have joined the Achill Archaeological Field School students for their weekly field trip, lead by Field Director Simon O Faolain and Managing Director and Field School founder Theresa McDonald. The students will be traveling to Corraun to see a number of historical and archaeological sites. Theresa has promised to show me a stone structure used as an ice house for Achill’s 19th century commercial fishing industry. This commercial marine activity was introduced to Achill by a Scotsman named Alexander Hector, who came to the island in 1855 to start a salmon-fishing venture.


Hector’s operations were located on various coasts throughout Achill and the neighboring Corraun peninsula. Last year we documented one of Hector’s fishing stations built at Annagh (north side of Achill), known locally as the “Scotch House.” This complex included a stone one-room structure with a fireplace and chimney, with an adjacent raised platform bounded by retaining walls that delineated a working area. Part of this space was further divided by a low stone wall extending from the building, and a shelf running along the exterior wall of the building. Hector introduced a device known as the bag net which proved very successful at catching large quantities of salmon. He had several bag nets deployed offshore Annagh and a number of other places along the coast. The ruined complex at Annagh, like those that once existed at Keel and elsewhere, would have served as a staging and working area for Achill fishermen, who would have used Hector’s boats and equipment and been supervised by Scottish overseers. The Annagh station may have been used to house fishermen or overseers, to store and maintain boats and other equipment, or to process fish and prepare it for transport to a centralized curing station at Keel or Achill Sound.

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Ruins of the fishing station at Annagh on the north coast of Achill.

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Site plan of the Annagh fishing station, known as the “Scotch House.”

Hector also had men and nets working several areas of Corraun’s coast. Corraun is the large peninsula on the mainland adjacent to Achill. Part of Achill Parish, Corraun has always been associated with Achill. At least one structure related to Hector’s activities remains on Corraun, the ruined remains of an ice house. Like Achill, Corraun features beautiful scenery and a wide variety of historical and archaeological sites.

After their morning lecture, I join the Field School students as we set out from Dooagh on the bus. Once we pass the town of Mulranny we turn south to follow the southern coastline of Corraun back towards Achill. Along the way we pass a site where an Spanish Armada ship, the San Nicolas de Prodaneli, reportedly was wrecked after this famous failed invasion in 1588.

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If only it were this easy to find an Armada shipwreck! The San Nicolas de Prodaneli, named after her commander and probable owner Marin Prodanelic, was an 834-ton merchant carrack built in Ragussa, or present-day Dubrovnic, Croatia. A member of the Levant (Mediterranean) Squadron, she boasted 26 guns and 355 men. Evidence in the archival records suggest she was wrecked at a place called “Fynglasse,” which is believed to be a location known as Tourglass on Corraun. Local memory also suggests a Spanish ship went down here. In future years we may return to search for this shipwreck, with sophisticated geophysical or remote sensing equipment such as a side scan sonar and magnetometer.

Continuing along the scenic drive along Curraun’s rugged coastline, we stop at a place known as Dooaghbeg, where the students file out of the bus and march down to the sea-cliffs. The two gables of the ice house can be seen ahead, protruding out of the ground by the sea. In the background is Clare Island.

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Upon closer inspection, we can see that the bulk of this structure is underground, which makes sense for a building designed to store ice for extended periods of time. Hector’s bag nets were so effective that it became a challenge to preserve large quantities of salmon long enough to transport it to a centralized curing facility located at Achill Sound. The ice stored in this semi-subterranean structure would have been used to temporarily preserve the fish, which might also have been stored in this building.

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According to documents and local memory, Hector’s employees at Keel village on Achill cut ice from Keel Lake during the winter, which would have been stored at an ice-house there. This indicates a significant climate change has taken place here since the 19th century, as the lake no longer freezes in the winter. At the ice house we are visiting today, ice was gathered by laborers who climbed to the top of Corraun mountain.

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Field School founder Theresa McDonald reviews the history of Alexander Hector and his fishing operations on Achill to the students gathered inside the ice-house.

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A series of mortises or put-log holes indicate the placement of a second-story floor located just above the interior doorway lintel. It is most likely that ice was stored below, but the function of the upper room remains unknown. This may have been storage for casks or other devices used to pack the fish.

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After leaving the ice-house, we walk along Corraun to a beach facing the Sound dividing Achill from Corraun. Theresa points out a shell-midden that may date to the Mesolithic, a testiment to the long-standing maritime occupations of this region. We have a great view of the island of Achill Beg (“Little Achill”), which hides the 1894 wreck of the Norwegian bark Jenny, and Achill itself.

Achill Island Field Report 3: On to Achill, 09-12 June 06

Achill, wind-swept and bare, heavily peat-covered, with great gaunt brown mountains rising here and there, and a wild coast hammered by the Atlantic on all sides but the east, has a strange charm which everyone feels, but no one can fully explain.

— Robert Lloyd Praeger, geologist


The drive from Westport to Achill is not an overly long one, within an hour or so I am crossing the bridge to this unique island that has become familiar to me after two summers of archaeological fieldwork. Achill is the largest and westernmost island off the coast of Ireland. It juts out towards the Atlantic, dividing Blacksod Bay to the north from Clew Bay to the south. The island is separated from Corraun Peninsula on the mainland by Achill Sound, a narrow tidal inlet known for its dangerously swift currents. The island was connected to the mainland in 1888 by a swing bridge, allowing small sailing craft to continue to use this shorter route between the two bays.

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Long renowned for its friendly communities, magnificent vistas and dynamic coastline, Achill is today a relatively well-known tourist destination which sees a regular influx of visitors during the summer months, while somehow still managing to retain a sense of isolation. The island’s natural beauty can be astounding, boasting Europe’s tallest sea-cliffs and lowest glacial lake. The ever changing skies, with their mountain-shrouding mists and colorful sunsets, have long attracted and inspired artists and writers. Even when it is cold and rainy, there is always something remarkable to see in the sky, and on those cherished days when the weather is sunny, the sky clear, and the sea deep blue those who didn’t know better would swear they were on an island in the Caribbean. Another unique feature is that during June it doesn’t get dark here until after 11 pm, due to the northerly position of the island.

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Cliffs along the Atlantic Drive.

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Sea-cliffs at Saddle Head, reportedly the highest in Europe.

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The lake known locally as “The Devil’s Cloak,” at Annagh on the north side of Achill. This is reportedly the lowest correy or glacial lake in Europe. The mountain in the background is Slievemore, the tallest on the island.

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Mist creeping over the mountains.

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Sunset over the village of Dooagh.

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The strand or beach at Keem Bay.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Achill has been continuously habited since at least the Neolithic, and its archaeological landscape features a wide range of sites including megalithic tombs, cashels, promontory forts, ogham stones, the ruins of several booleying villages, nineteenth-century manor houses, a fifteenth-century tower house, and a single crannog. An ongoing excavation and annual Field School sponsored by the Achill Folklife Centre has brought much attention to Achill’s archaeology and history, though until recently the island’s rich maritime heritage has been mostly under-appreciated.

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The Deserted Village, a nineteenth and early twentieth settlement on the slopes of Slievemore whose name remains unknown to history.

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The Achill Archaeological Field School has conducted excavations at the village for over a decade.

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The megalithic tomb at Annagh, a ceremonial and burial structure dating to the Neolithic period, ca. six thousand years old.

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The 15th century towerhouse known as Kildavnet Castle, guarding the southern entrance to Achill Sound. This was built as one of a chain of fortifications throughout Clew Bay by the O’Malley family, whose most famous member was Grace O’Malley the infamous Pirate Queen.

For now I drive to the far end of the island, to the village of Dooagh, where I will be staying. For the two previous years I stayed in the Folklife Centre’s facilities, with Field School staff and students. These are also located in Dooagh. This year, with financial support from the Irish Heritage Council, I will be renting a house of my own in the village. This will allow for an increased number of archaeologists participating in the maritime archaeological survey. Three other divers will be joining me during the month of July, more than I have had in the two previous summers of research.

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The road to Dooagh.

I am renting this house from the MacNamara family, who live next door. Like most of the islanders, their family has lived in this village for generations, and they are outgoing and very friendly. The house is perfectly suited for a research headquarters, with two bedrooms for project archaeologists and visitors, common areas that can be converted to an archaeological lab and dive locker, a fireplace for cozy turf fires, and a large kitchen. The house faces Clew Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, and the views from both the front and the back are great. Once settled in, I’m ready to greet my Achill friends, and prepare for a successful summer of research. Did I mention that the house is located one house away from Gielty’s Pub . . . ?

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The headquarters of the Achill Maritime Archaeology Project in Dooagh.

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View from the front of the house, facing south across Clew Bay and the Atlantic. The Minaun Cliffs are on the left, where the ship Neptune wrecked in 1860. On the horizon to the right is Clare Island, the final resting place of the Spanish Armada ship El Gran Grin.

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Even the view from the back yard is dramatic on this island.

Achill Island Field Report: Discovery of the Westport Quay Wreck

The following evening we set out to the quay at low tide to look for the wreck that local historian John Mulloy told us was abandoned and exposed on the foreshore. My host Mr. Shanley has also seen this wreck, though like many people living on a historic waterfront he hasn’t given much thought to it until an archaeologist comes around asking questions about it. The weather has been sunny and beautiful, something that is not necessarily the norm in Ireland. At the end of the pier on Roman Island we see the mist shrouding Croghpatrick, a mountain with religious significance which has long drawn pilgrims to the area.

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Ireland, unlike Florida where I am from, displays a significant tidal change. Around 8 feet of water goes out with the tide every six hours, exposing a large area of muddy ground that is known as the foreshore. This phenomenon is useful for maritime archaeologists, as it is easier to find shipwrecks and other maritime sites when large areas of the seafloor are visible. Even though the tide is beginning to come back in, it is not to hard to find the remains of this wooden vessel protruding from the mud off in the distance (in the center of this picture):

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After spotting the wreckage, we meet another local who tells us that when he was a boy someone told him the wreck was a vessel that was shipwrecked offshore the island of Inishturk. Much to the islanders chagrin, the hulk was taken from them by the Coastguard or “revenue men” and towed to Westport, where they were unable to sell it and it eventually was abandoned and burned. It is not uncommon to get conflicting stories concerning the identities of old shipwrecks. Either of these two stories could be true, partially true, or inaccurate. Was this wreck a lighter or a salvaged shipwreck? Closer inspection might help solve the mystery.

The following day I return to the quay in the morning, to catch the low tide. We have secured permission for me to borrow a small boat moored at the pier to get out as close as possible to the wreckage. As the boat is stored without its fuel tank, I use its oars to row out the long waterfront, much as generations of watermen did before me. Struggling somewhat in the tidal current and winds in a boat not designed for rowing, the process is too slow despite my eagerness. Gradually the wreck comes into view.

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By the time I reach it, the tide is coming in, but there is still time to take some photographs, make some observations, and record a few key measurements. The exposed wreckage represents a sizable vessel, measuring almost exactly 20 m (65.6’) in length, and it is at least 6 m (19.7’) wide.

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It is listing sharply to one side, though without further inspection we cannot tell which end is which, or to which side it leans. Its substantial timbers are covered in kelp, which is common in the summer months when it grows thickly on rocks and other submerged materials. One side is more or less intact, with frames or ribs exposed well above the mud, while most of its other side and indeed most of the hull itself is buried. The buried portion of the wreck likely has been well-preserved by the muddy sediments. We are not planning on digging any of it out, as its muddy covering is the best way to protect the timbers from deterioration.

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Many of the frames have survived on the exposed side of the vessel, and some extend upwards from the sediments as high as 1.85 m or about 6’. These frames provided structural strength to the ship, and their curvature defined the shape of the hull. The fact that they have survived to such a length means we will be more likely to reconstruct the original shape of the hull. A lighter would have typically been shallow-drafted or displayed a relatively flat bottom in order to negotiate shallow waters.

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The longitudinal timber visible in the above picture (running along the base of the frames) might be a keelson, or central strengthening timber. It is also possible that this timber is a stringer, or timber offset from the keelson, which in this case would be buried further beneath the mud. Taking the time to clear the kelp and closely inspect the hull will make it easier to distinguish which timber is which.

The frames measure 5” across (sided dimension) and 5 to 6” deep (molded dimension). Each frame is made up of various overlapping members attached to each other side-to-side. The shipbuilders used round-shanked transverse iron bolts to attach the frame pieces (futtocks and floors) to each other. When the frames were complete, outer hull planking was attached to the outer surface of the planks with square-shanked iron spikes. Round iron bolts were also used to hold this planking in place. They were driven through the plank, frame, and an interior set of planking known as ceiling planks. The picture below shows the outer surface of one frame pair. Visible are a transverse iron bolt which would have held a now missing frame member, and two planking spikes.

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Observing and recording these kinds of details will lead to a better understanding of how this vessel was originally constructed, and will provide clues into its age, function, and identity. But for now my time is up—the waters are rising quickly, ending this preliminary inspection. As I row back to the pier, the timbers of the mystery wreck behind me are slowly submerged.

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It has now been almost a full week in Westport. While I am planning on returning to the Westport Quay Wreck again during the two-month project, it is time to get to Achill. I have spent two previous summers there, and there is something about that island that leaves visitors thinking about returning. As the sun sets over Achill I cannot help but anticipate returning to this island, with its rich history, friendly community, and spectacular views.

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