Donegal remembers 1811 naval disaster

A remote community on a rugged Irish headland have come together to commemorate an almost forgotten naval disaster on their shores more than two centuries ago.

The sinking of HMS Saldanha in Lough Swilly, Co Donegal, with the loss of around 250 lives in December 1811 is one of the worst maritime tragedies to have happened in Ireland or Britain.

Locals on the northerly Fanad peninsula, which juts into the Atlantic ocean, have raised €1,500 to erect a memorial on the site where the washed-up bodies were buried, now the 18th hole of Portsalon golf course.

The extraordinary gesture is being put down to a new relationship between Ireland and Britain in the wake of recent pivotal events, culminating in the historic state visit of the Queen to the Republic last year.

Hazel Russell, from Rathmullan, which overlooks the Swilly, said: “It wouldn’t have taken place 10 or 20 years ago. With the peace process and everything else, everything has changed.”

Most of the 253 crew on the HMS Saldanha were conscripts, press-ganged from their homes in Britain, but a number of sailors were from Co Donegal. Many were married with children and would have descendants alive today.

After locals raised a granite plaque marking the event at a nearby scenic coast road last year, the Royal Navy got in touch to thank them for commemorating a catastrophe that “snagged at the conscience of the nation”.

Rear Admiral Chris Hockley, Flag Officer, Regional Forces, said the scale and loss of life sets the tragedy apart from others.

The lofty connections of the youthful captain, William Pakenham, a brother-in-law of the Duke of Wellington, “ensured that society acted to avoid future tragedies, taking steps that continue to benefit both Ireland and Britain to this day,” he said.

Lighthouses were erected around the Irish coast in the wake of the huge loss of life, among them Fanad Lighthouse which still stands sentry over the entrance to Lough Swilly.

Ms Russell, one of the organisers behind the memorials, said a new sense of shared history between Ireland and Britain, along with an enduring sense of injustice at the fate of the forgotten crew members, provoked locals into doing something.

“There’s a historical interest here and a good nature in the people,” she said.

“We feel it is such a shame Capt Pakenham was buried in Rathmullan with full military honours, in a beautiful big tomb, but yet the 250-odd others were buried in unmarked graves.

“There was no acknowledgement of them having lost their lives.”

Folklore has it that Pakenham, 29, actually made it ashore but died from poisoning on the beach when a local attempted to revive him with a drink of a poitin, an illegal homemade whiskey.

His parrot, which had a silver collar inscribed with the words “Captain Pakenham of His Majesty’s Ship Saldanha”, also survived, only to be shot a week later by a nearby gamekeeper, legend says.

The new mass-grave memorial on the golf course is to be officially unveiled next Sunday December 2.

It carries a short history of HMS Saldanha and the names of all the officers and crew, information retrieved from the National Archives in London.

The doomed vessel was sailing from Buncrana to enforce a naval blockade against Napoleonic France in the north Atlantic when it became engulfed in furious seas and fierce gales near Ballymastocker Bay.

Smashed against the submerged Swilly rocks, the warship’s cannon broke loose, wreaking havoc below deck while the powerful waves ripped the hull apart.

Sailors had little chance of surviving the freezing, dark waters swirling around them.

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