The Wrecks of Clew Bay

The Spanish Armada

In 1588, during ‘The Pirate Queen‘ Granuaile’s lifetime, two ships of the Spanish Armada, the San Nicolas Prodaneli and the 1,126 ton El Gran Grin – the latter being one of the largest ships in the entire Armada – sank at the mouth of Clew Bay. These were two of twenty-six Armada ships wrecked along the Irish coast. The Gran Grin, carrying 329 men and 28 guns, drifted onto the rocks at Clare Island. According to English accounts, the captain and about one hundred crew made their way to safety on the island, but were killed on the orders of one of the O’Malley chieftains. The remainder of the crew were said to have drowned.

The Spanish Armada

This story depends solely on one written account. Yet other versions permeated history, including one which suggested that the Spanish were anchored offshore at Clare Island for six days before the ship was wrecked by a massive storm. Another suggests that the men were taken as prisoners on the island, that dozens were killed trying to escape and the remainder handed over to the notorious Richard Bingham. Yet another story led to the belief that the Gran Grin was actually wrecked near the Corraun peninsula, on the north side of the bay, but was mistaken for the 26-gun San Nicolas Prodaneli, and that the ship’s treasures were picked clean by the O’Malley and Bourke clansmen. Whatever the ensuing circumstances, it is agreed by historians that both ships sank in Clew Bay. Oddly enough, there is no mention of Granuaile or her response to any of these events.

The Fancy, a Man O’ War vessel originally belonging to Charles II of the 1694 Spanish expedition from Corunna, but usurped by Henry Everly (Long Ben) and used for piracy, is recorded arriving at Inishlyre in June 1696 with 20 pirates on board. It is not certain what happened to the ship but it is thought to have been abandoned or wrecked.

In 1835, the 91-ton schooner Uxbridge, en route for Inishlyre harbour, ran ashore on the island of Inishgort at the back of the lighthouse. According to the Evening Freeman on Saturday 2nd.March 1835, ‘the weather was so thick that the light could not be seen at the time. Immediately on the circumstance being made known, the boats belonging to the Chance and Hawk, Revenue Cruisers and the Coast Guard boat at Inishlyre proceeded to her assistance, when the former boat with much difficulty, reached the vessel, and succeeded in rescuing the whole of her crew from a watery grave. The vessel was from Glasgow, bound for Westport and laden with coals and metal ware, and neither vessel or cargo was insured’.

In 1860, the Leguan, a Glasgow based 349-ton vessel was en route from Grenada to Greenock with a cargo of rum, sugar and molasses. She was caught in a gale and drifted into Clew bay. She was at risk of going ashore at Lecanvey, near Westport, so the master, William Buchanan, had the masts cut. Three pilot boats went out to the stricken vessel despite the bad weather. The men boarded the vessel but their three boats sank. The Master of Leguan was unable to get ashore until 6 a.m. the following day. While he was ashore trying to get an anchor and a steam tug, a fire broke out on his vessel. The fire spread rapidly so the crew, fearing there was powder on board, left the vessel. She became a total loss. An inquiry ordered at Westport found Master Buchanan at fault for anchoring when he could have gone to Inishgort. He was also blamed for going ashore when the officer left on board was not capable of holding the vessel. The cause of the fire was not discovered. The crew of the three pilot boats were rewarded with £5 by the Merchant Mariner Fund.

In 1886, the Spirit, a 26-ton cutter owned by Patrick Hopkins, sank off Carrowmore Point on Clare Island. The newly built ship had been loaded with herrings, which she was not built to carry. The load subsequently broke the ship’s back.

In June 1894, a vessel carrying about one hundred Achill Island ‘tatie hokers’ – migrant harvesters bound for Scotland – overturned when the young passengers rushed to the side to see the Glasgow-bound steamer SS Elm near Westport Quay. Unable to lower the mainsail in time, the boat foundered and thirty-two people drowned.

In 1899, the 52-year old, 44-ton wooden sloop Flora of Westport was at anchor at Inishlyre with two crew aboard when she was hit by the schooner Kate of Westport in a WSW force 9 wind and she became a total loss.

In 1904, the Pearl, a 36-ton wooden smack, caught fire and burned in Inishlyre harbour.

In 1928, the 200-ton ketch Charles Stewart Parnell, which serviced the lighthouses with coal and other supplies, caught fire and sank near Inishlyre island. It now lies in twelve metres of water between Islandmore and the channel between Inishgort and Collan Beg islands. Local legend has it that there is an enormous lobster living in the ship’s boiler and has been trapped in there for over thirty years, as it is too big to escape.

The Clare Island to Westport ferry Rossend was washed ashore during a storm in 1993. The bow now lies on the northern side of the island.

There are many other wrecks in the Clew Bay area, which despite the protection offered by the massive Clare Island at the head of the bay, is often at the mercy of brutal storms sweeping across the North Atlantic. This, together with the numerous shingle bars, submerged rocks and drowned drumlins around the inner bay, makes navigation around this area fraught with danger.

NEXT POST – The Islands Seen from Croagh Patrick

The Southern Wilderness

The Southern Wilderness

As a pilgrim approaches the shoulder of Croagh Patrick on a clear day, waves of mountain ranges stretch towards the southern horizon.

Looking southeast from the Reek, towards the Partry Mountains, with Lough na Corra in the foreground
Looking southeast from the Reek, towards the Partry Mountains, with Lough na Corra in the foreground

There is only one village of any size in the thirty spectacular kilometres between the Reek and Leenane, the gateway to Connemara. This is Drummin (An Dromainn, meaning “The Ridge”). At the time of writing, Drummin had a small church and a public house. It was also on this plain between Croagh Patrick and the next mountain ranges of Partry and Sheeffry that a young nun, Sister Irene Gibson, lived in a forest home as a hermit for several years up to 2003, in an unsuccessful attempt to set up a hermitage near the village.

It is said that after Saint Patrick fasted on the Reek for forty days, that he threw a silver bell down the south side of the mountain knocking the she-demon Corra from the sky into a lake, sited at the base of the mountain and known locally as Lough na Corra.

Looking southwest from the Reek, the first mountain range that comes into view is that of the Sheeffry Hills (Cnoic Shíofra, meaning “Hills of the Wraith”). This desolate and remote ridge affords spectacular views of both the Reek and the magnificent ranges to the south and west, including the Mweelrea group, the Maumturks, Ben Gorm, Devilsmother, and the Twelve Bens of Connemara. The highest peak, Barrclashcame, is actually eight metres higher than the summit of the Reek.

Connemara's Twelve Bens and Killary Harbour from Barrclashcame in the Sheaffry Hills
Connemara’s Twelve Bens and Killary Harbour from Barrclashcame in the Sheaffry Hills

Looking southwest from the top of the Reek, one can see the deep gorge that forms the break between Connaught Province’s highest mountain, Mweelrea (813 metres), and the Sheaffry Hills. This is the valley of Doolough (Dubh Lough – The Black Lake). This beautiful valley was once the scene of tragedy during the great famine, when starving residents were forced to walk for many miles in brutal winter conditions to request certification as paupers from the decision-makers who were staying in Delphi Lodge, at the southern end of the lake. The commonly accepted story is that they were instructed to appear at 7:00 a.m., then sent back towards the town of Louisburgh, some twelve miles distant. Several were too weak to continue and fell by the side of the road, where their bodies were later collected. Today, the monument in Doolough valley has an inscription from Mahatma Gandhi: “How can men feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings?”

Winter Sun at Doolough
Winter Sun at Doolough

Beyond Doolough is Ireland’s only fjord – Killary Harbour. On a fine day, the Killary is visible from the Reek, as are the magnificent Twelve Bens and the tooth-like mountains of Maumturk.

Derryclare Horseshoe - Lough Inagh 

There are no direct roads from the Reek to the mountains of Mayo and Connemara. By car, it is necessary to either go via Westport or Louisburgh. The Western Way hiking trail does cross the valley, however, and intrepid walkers can follow this path without fear of motorized traffic.

Western Way Map
The Western Way near Croagh Patrick

The area south of Croagh Patrick seems placid today, but as evidenced by tales from the Tochar Padraig, or Patrick’s Causeway, which joins the main pilgrimage trail up the mountain from the southern side, this region has many stories of great hardship and persecution from not so long ago.

NEXT POST – The Wrecks of Clew Bay