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Laurence Dunne Archaeology,
3, Lios na Lohart, Ballyvelly,
Tralee, Co. Kerry, Ireland
Nov 19, 2014
(Image shows a model of an East Indiaman made circe 1740 in Holland)
During low spring tides in September and October 2014 Laurence Dunne Archaeology were engaged by the Underwater Archaeology Unit (UAU) of the National Monuments Service under the direction of Dr. Connie Kelleher to assist in a survey and targeted excavations of a 17th century shipwreck that had become partially exposed on Ballyheigue Strand. The work was undertaken as a rapid response to reports from the public that individuals were removing artefacts from the vulnerable shipwreck.
The name of the ship is not definitively known but current research indicates that it may have been the Wind Trader, an East Indiaman, which operated on the Baltic-Bristol-American trade route that was wrecked at Ballyheigue circe 1729. Recent records show that sections of the shipwreck have occasionally become visible in the sand since the 1960’s. At these low spring tides locals have removed quantities of intact and broken ceramics including Westerwald and Frechen stoneware from Germany and fine table wares from Bristol, numerous magnums of port, barrel staves and several other artefacts.. In the mid 1970’s substantial quantities of artefacts were removed many of which adorn the houses of Ballyheigue today. Recently several wonderful artefacts recovered from the Wind Trader by local historian Eddie Roe were deposited in the Kerry County Museum, Tralee after his death. In the course of our recent work almost 250 artefacts were recovered
In 1987 the National Monuments Act was amended and since then it is illegal to remove or interfere with shipwrecks that are over 100 years old without a licence from the National Monuments Service.
Our current research show that around 238 shipwrecks occurred between Brandon Point, Kerryhead and Tralee. Of that total there are around 26 recorded shipwrecks in Ballyheigue alone with another 9 at Kerryhead, five on Banna Beach and 10 at Barrow. In the overall Tralee Bay area there is an amazing total of 181 shipwrecks recorded so far.
The majority of the shipwreck records understandably date to the 18th and 19th centuries during the age of sail as by that time ships and their cargoes began to be insured. Lloyds List of records is one of the major research resources for shipwrecks. Bad weather aside, a major contributory factor to the large number of shipwrecks during the age of sail was due to poor navigation as there were virtually no accurate sea charts completed until the 19th century. Early cartographers placed the Magharee Islands and Fenit Island in the wrong place and in some maps Kerryhead does not appear at all. Many shipwrecks occurred because vessels assumed they were entering the Shannon Estuary for Limerick by staying south of Loop Head when in fact it was Kerryhead that they were off.
Shipwrecks were regarded as a commodity item in the medieval period as documents from 1314 record that Robert DeClahull, sheriff of Kerry, paid the Exchequer £6 10s in rent ...for having the wrecks of the sea of Offerbe for many years. Offerbe is derived from Uí Fearba, the ancient medieval name of the area. The situation had not changed by the end of the 16th century when the Earls of Desmond owned the ‘rights of the wreck of the sea’ from Beare to the Shannon which was regarded as a valuable asset.
Tralee Bay is an extremely dangerous bay to be in a storm and was even more so in the age of sail. The bay is shallow and has many islands, reefs and rocks. The earliest description of Tralee Bay was recorded by Charles Smith in 1756 and who also provided a map. Smith writes...’The east side is a flat, low land, called Magheriebeg, off which are 7 small islands called the Hogs...By giving the Hog Islands a berth, and sailing east by north you come into Tralee Bay, little frequented by ships, being dry at low water; however small vessels lie safe aground in it. The channel is towards the middle of the bay, the entrance is between two small islands, called the Sampier Isles to the north, and the mainland to the south. All the maps of Ireland and sea charts place Fenit Island, which they call Fenor, in the middle of this bay, whereas it lies close to the shore on the north side, between which and the main there is a small creek for ships, which must be entered from the north, but the passage is so narrow and foul, that it cannot be entered without a good pilot.’
A number of ships wrecked, including the Wind Trader, were East Indiamen. These were very large three masted and three decked armed cargo ships operated from the Baltic and Netherlands trading between major ports like Bristol and Liverpool to the East Indies and to the Americas.
The most famous of the Ballyheigue shipwrecks is the Danish East Indiaman the Gyldenlove more commonly known as the Golden Lion that stranded on Ballyheigue Beach on the 28th October 1730. The ship was en route from Copenhagen to Tranquebar, India, under Capt. Johan Heitman, with 12 chests of silver bullion worth £16,000 / £50,000, 60 tons of iron and corn. Seen to be in difficulty it was guided in with lights put up by Mr. Crosbie of Ballyheigue Castle and driven into shallow waters and was beached during the storm. The captain, chaplain, officers and 60 crew were rescued. The recovered silver was later stolen and was subject of much conspiracy and legal transactions.
It is anticipated that further archaeological monitoring and surveying of the shipwreck will be undertaken at low spring tide opportunities in 2015