A wonderfully vivid picture of Lough Swilly

Spectacular view along Fahan creek toward the beach at Lisfannon.
Spectacular view along Fahan creek toward the beach at Lisfannon.
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Surrounded by the scenic hills of north Donegal, Lough Swilly is one of the jewels in the crown of Ireland’s landscape.

The lough provides a calm harbour from the ravages of the North Atlantic and has been an important stopping point in this vast ocean’s maritime trade routes.

View of Dunaff Head at the mouth of Lough Swilly.

View of Dunaff Head at the mouth of Lough Swilly.

The countryside enveloping Lough Swilly continues to change as human activities come and go and it is rightly called a ‘living landscape’.

For example, some of the agricultural land that was so carefully drained and cultivated in the nineteenth century is now of such little value that it being reclaimed by the sea. In contrast, in other parts of the lough, new sea defences are being built to protect houses and roads.

A new wonderfully illustrated book, ‘Lough Swilly’, published by Four Courts Press, not only gives us a unique glimpse into the rich resources of the lough but also allows the reader to appreciate the beauty and richness of this truly wonderful waterway.

The book’s editor Professor Andrew Cooper, and his co-authors, have many years of experience and knowledge of Lough Swilly. That experience is brought together to give an overview of the lough’s many values.

A beautiful view of the beach at Portsalon from the road over Knockalla.

A beautiful view of the beach at Portsalon from the road over Knockalla.

Crucially, the book concludes that the lough faces many challenges if it is to continue to be valued by society.

These pressures are more varied and more intense than at any time in the past, mainly because it is more accessible but also because of a bigger range of competing activities.

As Cora Harvey, then Mayor of Donegal, points out in her foreword to the book, there are also important challenges from the effects of climate change that pose difficult choices for everyone.

Professor Cooper, of the University of Ulster, and his team of experts explore Lough Swilly from the evolution of the present landscape during the geological past through to contemporary human uses.

Set on important global migration routes for fish and birds, the lough has a rich diversity of wildlife, including the Basking Shark.

Its position on the Atlantic seaboard of Europe has also influenced its human history. Far from the remote landscape that it is now regarded to be, it was once a major oceanic hub for trans-Atlantic maritime trade.

Its importance in this regard is evidenced in its fortifications and shipwrecks and the fact that, for a time, the headquarters of the British Grand Fleet was at Buncrana.

Various chapters provide a vivid picture of the history of the lough and its maritime archaeology.

They also describe the modern inhabitants of Lough Swilly and contemporary activities - fishing, fish farming, conservation, recreation and tourism - and concludes with some insights into present challenges to preserve the lough’s value for future generations.

A particularly interesting chapter in the new book focuses on Lough Swilly’s wrecks and “shipping casualties”.

The lough’s location on the busy North Atlantic shipping route, and its role as a harbour of refuge to be headed to during difficult weather at sea, resulted in it having more than its fair share of shipping accidents.

Maritime records reveal the 62 wrecking incidents within the lough or a short distance from its mouth over the last three centuries. Approximately three quarters of these belong to the nineteenth century, when shipping traffic was at its height.

The corpus of wrecks includes a wide variety of nineteenth century boat types, with battleships, brigs, barques, schooners, cutters, trawlers, steamers, tugs, smacks and ketches.

The casualties encompass vesels en route to, or on return from, Glasgow, Liverpool, London, Scandinavia, Canada, New York, the West Indies and other places.

Extreme weather conditions, catching fire and enemy action were the main causes of wrecking.

One of the main hazards was the Swilly Rocks, near the north west entrance to the lough, which has claimed at least seven known victims but probably many more whose details remain unknown. The sea around Dunaff Head has also claimed a significant number. At both locations, many of the ships were heading to the lough for shelter.

Strandings account for quite a number on the list, with ships being driven onto the shore at Fahan, Buncrana and Inch Island. In these cases, it was normally possible to retrieve much of the cargo and salvage some of the ship.

The locations of only a small number of the lough’s wrecks have been precisely pinpointed and ongoing research may be able to locate more. This is a matter of some urgency as this once-in-a-lifetime heritage resource is in danger of being pillaged.

The two wrecks whose memory is enshrined in local folklore are those of the Saldanha in 1811 and the Laurentic in 1917.

The Saldanha, a Royal Navy frigate of 38 guns and a crew of about 300 men, was driven by a north-west gale on to rocks off Ballymastocker Bay on the night of December 4, 1811. Wreckage including pieces marked Saldanha littered the strand and accounts state that more than 200 bodies were washed in.

The only survivor was the ship’s parrot, captured a few months later near the site of the wreck and identified by a medallion around its neck engraved with the name Saldanha.

The armed merchant cruiser, the Laurentic, was lost on January 26, 1917, sunk by torpedo at the mouth of the lough with the loss of 350 crew, 68 of whom are buried in a mass grave in the Church of Ireland graveyard in Fahan.

The Laurentic was carrying 3,211 gold bars with an estimated worth of £300 million today. Between 1917 and 1924, 3,168 of the gold bars were recovered.

‘Lough Swilly’ will be launched at Rathmullan House on September 8.