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.


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.


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.


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.




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.


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.


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.


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 5: Hike to the Napoleonic Tower, 19 June 2006

We’ve had a few days of bad weather, and so haven’t gotten much work done. It has made for some interesting sights, though. Here the mist creeps over the crest of the mountain and threatens to engulf a holiday home below.


We’ve had a few days of bad weather, and so haven’t gotten much work done. It has made for some interesting sights, though. Here the mist creeps over the crest of the mountain and threatens to engulf a holiday home below. 


The following day turns out to be nice, however. I have a friend visiting, John Bennett. He is an archaeologist who first came to Achill as a student in the Achill Archaeological Field School in 2003. John is a newly accepted graduate student at the University of Boston, and for the last two years he has participated in the ongoing archaeological excavations at Pompeii as an assistant field director. He has stopped by Achill for several days on his way to Italy for this summer’s Pompeii excavation, and has agreed to help with my research during his visit.


 As I am interested in all aspects of the maritime landscape, not only those underwater or on the foreshore, I have always wanted to hike up to the ruins of a lookout/signal tower dating to the time of the Napoleonic Wars. It is situated on the top of a hill above the villages of Dooagh and Keel, some 194 meters above sea level, with a commanding view of both Clew and Blacksod Bays. These towers were a vital aspect of British imperial seapower in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. From its lofty perch, tower personnel could keep an eye out for enemy ships for miles out to sea, and relay messages from British ships on either side of the island, thus providing a reliable communication link between Clew and Blacksod Bays. This was done through a telegraph system using signal flags displayed in various positions to transmit coded messages.

In addition to providing a communication link for naval vessels, the tower dominated the local landscape and thus served as a prominent symbol of imperial authority overlooking the island. Residents of the Deserted Village, Dooagh, Keel, and other villages throughout the island would have seen this tower high above them on a daily basis. In this respect the structure served as a panopticon or all-seeing eye, reminding locals—who often chafed under British rule—that the authorities were always watching.

We start our hike near the Deserted Village, and make our way up Slievemore which, at 671 m is the tallest mountain on Achill. John wants to first visit a site he and another student discovered while hiking the mountain in 2003. This is a series of stone hut-like structures situated high on the mountain, overlooking Keel Bay. As they have never been excavated, their age and function remain a mystery. They could be prehistoric, they could be monastic spiritual retreats dating to the early Medieval period, they could have served as hiding places during Viking raids, they could be shepherds’ shelters dating to the later historic period, or they could be something else entirely. From a distance they are difficult to make out. 


But closer up these semi-subterranean huts can be more easily discerned. The roof of the structure in the foreground has collapsed inwards, and two more huts are visible in the background. They were almost invisible when initially discovered, as they were covered with thick fern growth.


We continue the hike by turning west and heading towards the tower, which is visible on the next hilltop. As we march towards it, we pass over the Deserted Village below. The Achill Archaeological Field School has conducted excavations at a number of houses and other structures in the village since 1991. The Village, located at an elevation of between 50 and 80 m above sea level, consists of three concentrations of roofless stone houses connected by a relict roadway spanning a length of 1.5 km. It is the largest standing post-medieval deserted village in Ireland and possibly in all of Europe. Seventy-four houses remain standing of some 137 which were recorded on an 1837 British Ordnance Survey. It was occupied as early as the mid-18th century and abandoned sometime shortly after the Famine (1845-1850), its residents having moved to the village of Dooagh, probably to take advantage of its proximity to the sea. The Deserted Village continued to be occupied on a seasonal basis as a booleying village as late as the 1940s. Booleying was a practice where cattle were driven to upland locales during the growing season, to provide them with fresh mountain pasture for grazing and to allow lowland crops to mature undisturbed. Although we have learned much about the daily lives of the islanders who lived here through years of excavation, much of the history of this village, including its original name, remains a mystery.


Passing the village, we continue on the slope of Slievemore heading west. Before us, the tower (denoted by the black arrow) can be seen overlooking Blacksod Bay. It would have been visible not only from the Deserted Village but from much of Blacksod and Clew Bays.


Off in the distant expanse of Blacksod Bay looms another British sentinel: Black Rock Lighthouse.


The rugged nature of the surrounding maritime landscape is evident all around us. This is a view of the rocky shore fronting Blacksod Bay to the north. Off in the distance is the Belmullet Peninsula, which juts to the south and divides the Atlantic from the upper portion of Blacksod Bay. Sea caves like the ones visible in these pictures had long been used to smuggle goods into Achill to avoid paying customs dues, though the placement of the signal tower and Coastguard stations were designed in part to thwart this illicit activity.



Finally cresting the hill, the partially collapsed signal tower appears before us.



The tower is situated in a rectangular yard enclosed by the remains of a stone fence, delineating an area about 26 m by 50 m. The tower is roughly in the center of the enclosed area. This neat and orderly layout is typical of British military architecture, and can also be seen in the nineteenth-century Coastguard stations remaining on the island. Many archaeologists have suggested that this kind of imposing and symmetrical architecture was designed to impart a sense of orderliness and reinforce British authority and imperial ideology on the landscape. The low height of the wall, and lack of rubble indicating it was ever significantly higher, suggests that it may have served more of a symbolic rather than defensive role.



The tower is square, with exterior dimensions of 5.75 m by 5.75 m, and interior dimensions of 4.3 m by 4.3 m. Surrounding its remains are piles of rubble, suggesting it was once significantly taller. The north and south walls, facing the two bays, each featured two windows, though these have mostly collapsed. The east and west walls were solid.


John takes a break from measuring architectural features, and enjoys the view to the south over Clew Bay that British sentinels once shared.


A number of interesting architectural features are visible inside the structure. On the east wall was a central fireplace flanked by two inset niches which appear to have held storage shelves.


The image below shows the interior southern wall, where the remains of the two windows can be seen, along with a series of mortises (holes) in the wall below the windows which would have held wooden floor beams. These beams would have been planked to create a floor surface to walk upon, and the area beneath, at least 1.5 m in depth, would have served as storage space. A shaft in the eastern wall, to the right of the fireplace, provided ventilation to this area under the floor. Another ventilation shaft on the left side of the fireplace provided fresh air to the main chamber. 


There is little evidence on the interior walls for an upper story. We would expect to find another series of floor beam mortises or put-log holes in the walls at the height of the upper floor, if there indeed was one. There is one large mortise in each wall (above and to the right of the fireplace), suggesting that there was at least one large beam crossing overhead, but it would not have been enough to support a floor, and its placement to one side, as opposed to the center, is also curious. There must have been a function for this beam, possibly to hold a ladder or suspend articles from, but it remains a mystery for now. It is also quite possible that the tower was significantly taller, and that as the upper portions of the walls are all missing the upper story floor mortises are no longer extant. The amount of rubble inside and around the tower indicate that this is a likely scenario. Fragments of roof slate found in the rubble outside suggest that its roof would have been slated, a common type of roof for this kind of architecture. Islanders’ cottages would have been thatched at this time, a cheaper but less durable form of roofing.

The picture below shows the east and south walls, depicting the fireplace (left), arched shelving niche, overhead beam mortise (left of shelving arch, and above and to the right of the fireplace), the sub-floor ventilation shaft (below shelving niche at corner), the floor beam mortises (bottom right, situated just above the ventilation inlet), and one of the two southern windows (missing its upper portion).


Looking out the southern windows, which command a view of Clew Bay, with the Minaun Cliffs on the left and Clare Island on the right. Another signal tower was built on Clare Island.


Outside the tower, in the western area of the enclosed yard, is a large depression measuring some 3 m across. Located about 12 m from the tower, it may have served as a latrine for the soldiers stationed here.


After we have recorded all of these features, we take a different route down the hill, through the old early twentieth century amethyst and quartz mining station. We make our way to the old road (ca. 1914) built for this operation. It runs right through the Deserted Village on its way to the sea, where minerals from the mine were shipped out from Purteen Harbour. These links between mountain and ocean remind us that on an island, even upland activities were part of an ongoing relationship with the sea.


Achill Island Field Report 4: Return to the Wreck of the Successful, 14 June 2006

Today’s plan is to visit the wreck of an old fishing trawler named the Successful. This vessel may have been originally built as early as the late nineteenth century, though it certainly operated through the first decades of the twentieth century. Around 1950 it was a derelict vessel in Westport, and it was bought by the Sweeny family of Achill Sound for only five pounds.

The Sweenys were involved in a variety of maritime enterprises including commercial fishing and shipwreck salvage, and the Successful was intended to support theses activities. While moored in the Sound, however, it ran aground during a storm and was abandoned after recovery efforts proved fruitless. Successful was both steam- and sail-powered, representing a short-lived hybrid vessel type during a period of rapid technological change in the British commercial fishing industry. The introduction of large steam-powered trawlers constituted the last stage of the transition from traditional subsistence fishing to commercial fishing that took place in the British and Irish isles over the nineteenth century.


This picture above is from a book titled The Deep Sea and Coast Fisheries of Ireland, with Suggestions for the Working of a Fishing Company by Wallop Brabazon, published in 1848. It depicts a schooner-rigged sailing trawler of the type recommended by Brabazon for a profitable fishing endeavor in Irish waters. The boat is depicted underway hauling its trawl or nets. The Successful was a similar type of vessel, though it had two masts and an unknown rig. It also had a propeller driven by a steam engine. While the engine is missing (likely salvaged either before the vessel was sold to the Sweenys, or after its loss in the Sound) a boiler does remain on the wreck. It is very small for a ship this size, suggesting that Successful may have been underpowered, and might have used its small engine mainly to assist in maneuvering and to supplement sail power while underway. The ship may have been originally built as a sailing vessel, and had the engine added during a refit, in order to gain some more profitable years from an otherwise obsolete vessel. When investigating this wreck we are thinking about these kinds of research questions, and Successful promises to lend insight into how technological innovations were adapted in this localized maritime setting.


The wreck is located on the foreshore, the area of the sea-bottom exposed during low tide. It is situated in the Sound, north of the bridge and the town of Achill Sound (visible in the background of this picture). This makes it readily accessible to project archaeologists. Joining me today is Leonie Roy Archambault, an archaeologist who was a student in the 2004 Achill Archaeological Field School. She has returned to Achill to assist in the Field School, and has agreed to help me today on the shipwreck site.


The wreckage is covered with a thick growth of kelp and other seaweed. Our first step is to remove this growth by picking it off by hand, in order to visibly inspect the site. We spent some time recording the wreck remains last year, and the kelp has grown back since then.


Leonie removing kelp from the wreck remains.


We have less than a six-hour window to work on the site before the tide rises again and covers the wreckage. As we continue our tedious work, objects previously obscured by kelp become recognizable, like the winch pictured below before and after clearing. It was likely used to deploy and haul in the trawl net during fishing operations.



Other recognizable features include the two-bladed propeller and a boiler which would have originally been in a vertical or upright position.



Many other objects remain unidentified, even after being cleaned of marine growth. Here archaeologists inspect a heavy molded plate or fitting of unknown function.


Leonie still can manage a smile after plucking kelp from sharp metal objects for four hours straight.


As the tide begins to rise, most of the wreckage is exposed and clear of kelp. Now it will be much easier to observe and record details of the hull and other artifacts for the ongoing process of documenting this shipwreck.


We have recorded much of this wreck last year, though we have not yet attempted to document the rudder and attached steering apparatus, a complex feature which appears to have collapsed with and upon articulated transom timbers. Making detailed scaled drawings of this area will be one of our first tasks on this shipwreck this season.

The day has turned out to be a beautiful one. Once back home, the view of Minaun Cliffs beyond the bay at Dooagh is breathtaking.


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.


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.


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.


Sunset over the village of Dooagh.


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.


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


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.


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.


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 . . . ?


The headquarters of the Achill Maritime Archaeology Project in Dooagh.


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.


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.


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):


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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Achill Island Field Report: Arrival in Westport and Clew Bay

This is the first of a series of regular updates I am writing so that those interested in the Achill Island Maritime Archaeology Project can follow our activities and share in our discoveries as we make them. My name is Chuck Meide, I am the project director, a graduate student at the College of William and Mary, and the Director of LAMP (the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program, based out of the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum). I am also an archaeologist with the Institute of Maritime History, the institute which, along with those mentioned above and the Achill Folklife Centre, is sponsoring this project. Welcome to the first update for the project!

This is the first of a series of regular updates I am writing so that those interested in the Achill Island Maritime Archaeology Project can follow our activities and share in our discoveries as we make them. My name is Chuck Meide, I am the project director, a graduate student at the College of William and Mary, and the Director of LAMP (the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program, based out of the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum). I am also an archaeologist with the Institute of Maritime History, the institute which, along with those mentioned above and the Achill Folklife Centre, is sponsoring this project. Welcome to the first update for the project!


Achill Island is situated between Blacksod Bay to the north and Clew Bay to the south. Clew Bay presents a beautiful vista, and allegedly has 365 islands, one for each day of the year. Situated on the mainland at the eastern margin of Clew Bay is the town of Westport. This became one of the most important commercial centers in the West of Ireland during the nineteenth century, especially after the close of the Napoleonic Wars. The trade at Westport was vital to the islanders on Achill. Achill boats provided fuel for Westport in the form of turf (stripped from the bogs), in exchange for limestone (which was burned to produce lime for fertilizer) and manufactured goods. Many of the ships wrecked in the treacherous waters around Achill were bound to or from Westport. Because of its proximity Achill islanders, who took every opportunity to salvage timbers and cargo from wrecked ships, had access to goods from around the world

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I have decided to spend a few days in Westport, getting organized for the fieldwork ahead and conducting some background research on the maritime history of the town, which was historically interconnected with the surrounding islands. I will be staying at the home of a local family, the Shanleys, who for the last century have owned one of Westport’s oldest businesses, Shanleys Drapers. Like all the retail shops that once lined the town’s main street, this family-owned clothing shop would have been dependant on ships to bring in the materials and goods available to local townspeople.

Wandering around the town, the importance of its historical relationship with the sea is evident everywhere. This is the quay or waterfront where ships would have unloaded their cargos. Today the Clew Bay Heritage Centre can be found here, which is worth a visit for anyone traveling to the area.

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Goods were stored in these stone warehouses, which front the quay and have been converted to modern shops.


These are the same warehouses seen in this old photograph of the quay, taken sometime between 1890 and 1905 (image courtesy of John O’Shea).

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By the waterfront an old anchor is on display. It dates to the nineteenth century, and likely came from one of the ships entering the harbor from Clew Bay.


On Monday I paid a visit to the home of John and Sheila Mulloy. They are both local historians; John is the President of the Westport Historical Society and Sheila is the editor for their journal, Cathair Na Mart. John has agreed to spend the afternoon talking with me about the history of maritime trade on the Bay. His family ran a shipping business out of Westport and nearby Newport for the last two centuries, so he is uniquely knowledgeable about this topic.


John also shared his collection of 19th century nautical charts and historical documents, which I can make a quick record of with a digital camera. Among many other things, I learn from John that Achill Islanders were very involved with the trade in and out of Westport. The following document is an 1855 record from the Westport court house listing the owners, ships, and tonnages of vessels involved in the local trade. Many of these names are of well-known Achill families, including Kilbane, Gallagher, and Patten.

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Mr. Mulloy tells me that many Achill men operated their hookers (a local type of sailing vessel) as lighters. A lighter was a smaller or shallow-drafted vessel used to shuttle cargo back and forth for large ships that were too large to enter the harbor. Deep-drafted vessels, such as the Confidence shown below, would wait further out in the harbor for lighters to carry their cargo to the quay at Westport. The Confidence was a ship used by Mr. Mulloy’s family until it was confiscated by Germans in the First World War.


Tools and other manufactured goods brought on these ships were thereby available to local townspeople and others in the countryside at family-owned establishments such as the ironmonger and grocer’s shop owned by the Mulloys (image courtesy of the Clew Bay Heritage Centre).


Ships navigating the Bay needed the help of local seamen who were familiar with these waters. This was especially important considering the large areas of shallow water, often completely exposed at low tides, and the strong tidal currents throughout the area. Achill Islanders typically served as pilots for the outer Bay. An Achill pilot would row out in a traditional boats such as a curragh or yawl to meet incoming ships. Often a pilot would compete with another pilot in a different boat, and the first one to reach the incoming merchant ship would get paid to guide it into the inner area of Clew Bay. From there the ship would meet a pilot for the inner Bay. According to Mr. Mulloy these pilots did not compete with each other but followed a system where they took turns leading ships the rest of the way into Westport Bay. From here an incoming ship would either dock at the quay or, if it was too large, moor at an anchorage and wait for lighters to offload its cargo.

Mr. Mulloy noted that one of the last lighters to be used in the Westport trade was abandoned in the harbor, where its remains can be seen at low tides. He says it has been abandoned for a very long time, longer than his lifetime, which means it may have been used in the very early 20th century or the late 19th century. These kinds of vessels, probably locally built and operated, were a vital link in the trade that connected Westport and Achill to the rest of the world. The designs of vernacular or locally-built working watercraft have for the most part been lost to history, even though they were once so widespread they were an everyday sight. I am interested in finding this abandoned vessel if it still exists. Before heading to Achill, we will try to locate this wreck.

IMH receives grant from the Irish Heritage Council

The Institute of Maritime History has received a 5,000 euro grant from the Irish Heritage Council for its upcoming field season on Achill Island, Ireland. The Achill Island Maritime Archaeology Project, a joint effort with the College of William and Mary and the Achill Folklife Centre, has been focused on documenting the island’s rich maritime history since 2004. The title of the grant is “The Archaeological Investigation of Economic Relations on the Nineteenth Century Maritime Cultural Landscape of Achill Island, Co. Mayo.” The upcoming 2006 season will stage field investigations of a variety of maritime archaeological sites both above and below the water, including the ruins of commercial fishing and Coastguard stations, and the wrecks of the Neptune (English bark, 1860), the Jenny (Norwegian bark, 1894), and the Charles Stewart Parnell (Irish ketch, 1928).