Treasures out of the blue

Sunken ships in our waters are heritage sites. The work of preserving their artifacts is chronicled in a new pictorial guide by the geological survey, says Noel Baker

Treasures out of the blue

THE most spectacular and important shipwrecks in Irish waters are detailed in the book Warships, U Boats and Liners: A Guide to Shipwrecks Mapped in Irish Waters, which is published this week.

The book, a joint venture between the Geological Survey of Ireland and the Underwater Archaeology Unit at the Department of Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht, includes photographic and sonar images of 300 shipwrecks.

Underwater wrecks have dotted our coastline for centuries, but the interest in them, from abroad and at home, has increased hugely.

In the autumn of 1588, the mighty Spanish Armada took up positions off the west coast of Ireland and was almost blown to bits by westerly gales.

Its remnants lie below water, awaiting discovery.

Last August, the RV Keary, a 15m aluminium catamaran operated by the Geological Survey of Ireland, stationed itself a few hundred metres off the coast of Rutland Island, near Burtonport, to search for a wreck that may have been part of the Armada.

The dive was carried out by the Underwater Archaeology Unit (UAU) of the National Monuments Service, and led, for the third year in a row, by Corkwoman Connie Kelleher. This site, and that of a French vessel a few hundred metres away, are two of the best preserved wrecks off the Irish coast, but they hold secrets. Archaeologists have not confirmed that the well-preserved wreck was part of the Armada, but there are indicators.

Connie, one of three State underwater archaeologists in the UAU&, said: “We have one side bow to stern [intact] and it’s 18m long at the bottom.

“She was a medium-sized vessel, so she might have been 30m, and she was a war ship.” Musket-shot balls and burnt material have been discovered, so it is a fair guess that she burned.

The answers are not definitive. There is a historical reference in the Naval Chronicle to cannons having been found at the site. It is thought that the locals, at the time, went out and took what valuables they could, before the wreck site disappeared from memory, resting untouched under the water until local men, Oscar Duffy, Liam Miller, Paudie Ward, Liam Macauley and Michael Early, chanced across it while on a dive in 2009.

Trawling a wreck site is a serious business.

The divers — usually two at a time — work off a grid made up of squares 6m by 10m in size. All artifacts undergo first-stage conservation, so are cleaned and recorded in detail, before being taken to the National Museum of Ireland for full conservation.

On that August day, diver Rex Bangerter was joined underwater by Clonakilty diver, Julianna O’Donoghue.

It took two people to ready Julianna before she dropped into the water, after which the only visual signs of her progress were the bubbles on the surface and the multicoloured tubes linked to her buoyancy-negative suit: the blue tube for air, the yellow for depth, and the two red tubes for communications with the ship’s radio, and to link her helmet camera to the onboard monitor.

Occasionally, Darth Vader-style noises were emitted from the console on the main desk in the cabin.

It was the job of dive supervisor, Brian MacAllister, who had calculated that he had spent seven and a half years underwater, to monitor everything. Even in shallow depths, with the wreck just 6m below the surface, diving is complex. Come up too quickly and you might suffer an embolism. The hoses run to a maximum of 200m, and the divers walk everywhere — no swimming.

It was a family affair on board the Keary during dives. Connie’s brother, Nigel, was part of the team and he had a nice line in marine quotes. “Proceed to the ocean floor to see the great monolith and abyss,” he said.

Connie’s husband, Rob, busied himself fixing the TV monitor, which remained on the blink during my visit. The extra optics are useful, as the footage is retained and rough copies are edited. As Brian said: “After three hours [the divers] are getting tired, they’re not thinking straight, so you can make a decision for them.”

In addition to the divers under the water, a dredger on board the Keary dragged up material from the wreck area, catching items such as small crabs, stones and potentially vital relics, which were then combed through by Dominic Gallagher and Connell O’Callaghan.

“It’s a precautionary measure,” Dominic said. “The diver will do their best to spot everything.” Last year, lead shot was found by using this filter, which Connell said is “homemade — it doesn’t need to be complicated”.

We waited — well, I did. Connie put on scuba gear and went down with her camera to take pictures, as Nigel spoke about the tight-knit nature of the diving and conservation community. “It’s not a full-time job,” he said of State-backed dives like this. “I was on the Keary last year when they did it. We are used to working with each other.”

Connie re-emerged from the water, having been down for 50 minutes. While down, she had a sneak preview of what Rex had found.

“It’s really trying to figure out how best to preserve these [items] long-term and the wreck site itself,” she said.

“A university could use it for a field school to teach them how to record and excavate. It is worth investing in. Some people would say we should be giving it [the money] to education, but my argument is this is education.” The dives only last a few weeks, and funding is a factor, but as Connie said: “We can always argue against funding heritage — whether natural or built heritage, but if we don’t continue to address it, protect it and actively manage it, Ireland’s rich cultural resources will be lost. This is a finite resource. Once a species or a heritage site is gone, it can’t be replaced.”

Finally, Rex emerged after four hours underwater, bringing his blue box of finds onto the boat. On inspection, it contained charcoal from the barrel hoop, a piece from the rigging, rim fragments and rope, and pottery — Iberian and possibly dateable. “Beautiful,” Connie said, inspecting the rope. “Still together after all these years.” Nigel said of the rope: “I wonder where are the hands that touched it. Long dead is right.”

Connie said: “This year, we recovered more, very well-preserved rope, more pottery similar to last year, and which looks to be late-16th century Iberian ware. The cylindrical object was a piece of leather from a shoe and we found more afterwards, so that really gives a very real, tangible link to those who served on board the ship and highlights the need to be respectful to the site and what we do on it, as it could well be a grave for souls lost during the wrecking of the ship in Rutland.”

Just a few days later, the Rutland dive was over for another year, with the wreck site still hanging on to some of its secrets.

As Nigel said: “They could come across a coin tomorrow that could date it. But if it’s from 1902, they’re shagged.”

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