One of the most treacherous coastlines in Europe

For anyone who has ever gone for a fishing trip out of Kilmore or one of the villages between there and the Hook, and happened on a fine sunny day with the blue waters of the ocean, let it be the mouth of St Georges Channel or the rolling waves of the broad Atlantic, glistening in the sunlight must surely think that they are in one of the nicest stretch of waters in the world.

How wrong would they be, for any seafaring man from the area will tell you that you are sailing on some of the most treacherous seas off the coast of Europe, while we say a prayer for the unfortunate men who lost their lives recently let us take a look at some of the stories that are told by the sea-men from Dunmore East to Carnsore Point or crewless vessels and the ships that disappeared in the night
Before we start on the stories let us take a look at a rough description of the south Wexford coast as given in the geographic description of the area. They describe the stretch of water along the south Wexford coast to be one of the most treacherous and dangerous stretches of the coast of any country in Europe. The hidden rocks and sand banks are described as death traps waiting to close on some unfortunate ship that would have sailed or been washed into their grasp. They warn of the dangers of sudden changes in the direction of the wind and the danger of the under-currents that sweep around the islands off the coast. There are stretches of rock only just covered by water that would rip the bottom out of a boat in seconds. Then there is the danger of fog which sometimes reduces visibility to a few yards. In the days of the sailing ships and even up to this day ships have been lured to a disastrous end by making a mistake in the lighthouse they were passing. Especially in the days of the sailing ships, before the modern equipment was installed, many a ship after completing a long voyage from America or some western port mistook the Hook light for the Huskar or the Luskar for the Eddystone light and turned into what they thought was Plymouth Sound on the south coast of England. Without naming all the little islands and rock beds off this coast let us take an extract from the Dublin Magazine of July 1764.

For many centuries before the advent of steam this coast (Then follows the names of several rocks, sandbars and shallows) which were the graveyard of many a gallant frigate and merchant vessel. They were wrecked on the treacherous coast where there is no shelter from the prevailing SW winds, and no harbour or refuge of any sort until you come to a bay between Greenore and Rosslare point, and to get there in stormy weather, sailors had to give a bold offing to Tuskar and its shelving rocks. The bay is open to the NE winds and its shifting sands are still a menace’. (Things have changed a bit since then as far as the ships are concerned, but the sea is still as dangerous as it was in the old days).
There are few people from Carlow or the neighbouring counties who have not been in Courtown, Blackwater or Morris Castle on the east coast and would say they were the nicest places you could find, yet out a bit to sea the water covers some of the most dangerous sand banks in Eastern Europe. Actually the Blackwater sandbanks caused one of the worst shipping disasters at the turn of the last century (1800 to 1900) when several lives were lost. A ship outward bound from Liverpool for the USA struck them in a storm. About 900 lives have been lost on the Wexford coast in the past century that are known about, but wreckage washed up on the southern shore would indicate that there was many a wreck from which there was no survivors.

To return to the Hook Lighthouse itself, it is one more place that has a strong connection with Carlow. While the lighthouse is called the Hook, the headland on which it is built is called Rinn Dubhain or the headland of Dubhain. While Dubhain open many monasteries in Wexford and other places and was also responsible for the building of Lighthouses. It was he and his monks who built The Hook. It dates from 1172 and is the oldest lighthouse in Europe. It is also one of oldest operational lighthouses in the world, there has been a beacon here since the 5th century. It was Dubhain who converted it into a lighthouse. The present stone tower was built by William Le Mareschall, Earl of Pembroke, St Dubhain sailed up the Slaney and built a church on the bank of that river near Youngs bridge. As a matter of fact this is how Kildavin got its name Cill Dubhain, Kildavin (The Church of St. Dubhain) His feast day is in February.

Kilmore is a beautiful village and the people who live there are, to my knowledge, decent honest folk. It so happens that, through another walk of life, I got to know and respect them. This was how I got to know many of the danger points along the south coast and was told Hook and a little beyond it. The stories told of the bravery of lifeboat men, of life saving rescues, of lives lost in attempts to save others (as most readers will know, this has happened in our own time). Then there were stories of strange happenings just off the coast when ships were seen to strike some of the islands in the night and yet when dawn came there was nothing to be seen. Other stories told of ships that had been wrecked and then washed back out to sea where their hulks were quickly covered with sand and silt and after some time, it could be months or years the hulk would appear again, tossed back by the unrelenting waves.
The old saying “Never judge a book by the cover” could be brought to mind by the peaceful look of the sea on a sunny day, but even on such a day the undercurrents, the sandbanks and the rocks are still waiting to take more lives, to wreck more homes, to have children fatherless and another widow to mourn her loss. To get a true picture of what that peaceful stretch of water can do there is a book everyone should read, it is called “The Cruel Sea.”

Courtesy of Willie White and the Carlow Nationalist