Strange stories from the sea for the festive season

For most north Carlow people who took a holiday at the seaside or went on a Sunday afternoon for a bit of sea air, their destination was Courtown Harbour.

For those from the south of the county it was Tramore or one of the Wexford resorts along the south Wexford coast. The big difference between the seaside villages was that along the south coast and Tramore you were looking out over the open Atlantic where the waves can be mighty if the seas are stormy and can sweep over anything in their path. On the east coast at Arklow, Courtown or Blackwater the seas may may not be as high but the sand banks off the coast were often the death trap of ships in the days of sail.

I often wonder how many people who went to spend an evening on the beach at Courtown in the old days (come to think of it, not so old), went to visit the wreck that lay near the far end of the north strand. As children, we often got a strong dressing down from our parents for climbing aboard her. There was always the danger of falling through some hole or getting trapped below deck where it was great to play Hide and Seek. It was only in later years that I learned (or I think I did) how she (strange how we almost always refer to a ship as Her) came to be left to rot on the beach at Courtown. It appears that the name of the ship was the ‘Meridian’ and that she struck the rocks known as “the Smalls” in thick fog. She was abandoned by her crew who were picked up by another vessel and brought to Milford Haven. Now for the strange part of the story, the ‘Meridan’ did not sink. Not only did she not sink but she actually freed herself from the rocks, and drifted unmanned across the Channel an came ashore at Courtown where she later became a total wreck. I wonder how many boys and girls from Carlow remember playing on that old ship and letting their imagination have them in command as she sailed the Spanish main or was a pirate ship under the Skull and Cross Ponco in the Caribbean.
The sea has strange coincidences for it happens that another ship, also named ‘Meridian’ and also unmanned came ashore at Carnsore Point several years later.

Another strange story that was told to me by a very close relative concerned the first World War, 1914 to 1918. It was sometime in 1915 and he was on a Tug Boat out of Wexford, heading for the Tuskar Rock lighthouse. They had cleared Greenore Point, well out to sea, when a ship was seen steaming towards them at speed. As she came closer it was recognised as a warship and in accordance with the law of the sea at the time the Tug Boat hoisted her colours and identity. The first sign that there was something strange about her was the fact that although they passed near enough to see figures on her deck, she did not respond her signal. She was gone from view in a few minutes and they carried on to the Tuskar. While the supplies were being brought out towards the lighthouse the strange behaviour of the warship was mentioned. To their great surprise the lighthouse men informed them that no warship had passed the Tuskar that morning let alone a short time before. This gave them food for thought, the whole crew of the Tug had seen her, what was the answer, they never found out, it remained another mystery of the sea.

Sailors, especially in the days of the sailing ships, were among the most superstitious people on earth. Signs and omens were taken with the greatest attention and often their warning of danger such as storms etc., were taken very much to heart. Many of the signs that were given along the Wexford coast were associated with the supernatural. An extract from “Tales of the Wexford” by Richard Roche, tells of the strange lights said to be seen on St. Patrick’s Bridge at the little Saltee Islands before a storm, and a ghostly tug boat was sometimes seen off the north-west coast of the Island, usually heralding a storm. Yet another ghostly craft could be ‘seen and heard’ between daylight and dark returning to a landing-place called The Ring on the Great Saltee. This happened regularly, it was said after a ship wreck on the south coast of the island when some workmen launched a cot at the Ring and tried to rescue people from the wreck. But the cot and its crew never returned. Frequently afterwards, according to the legend, the boat was seen returning to its moorings and the sounds of the oars grinding in the rowlocks could be clearly heard.

Another story told about the sighting of a ‘phantom ship’ by a watchman on board the wreck of the “Bayard” off Carne, reportedly saw ‘a large shop standing directly for ‘Tacumshane beach’. The night was still, with no breeze at all, yet the fully rigged ship continued to hold her course for land, despite the fact that the watchman raised blue warning lights on the wreck. The phantom made for the ill fated “Lingdale” another wreck in the same locality, and then seemed to go aground at the Coome Rocks, near Carnshore Point. When two local men put out in a small boat and rowed to the spot there was not trace of any ship.

There are few people who are in any way associated with the sea, especially fishing people, who have not heard of the legend of St. Martin and the Wexford fishing fleet. This legend has been handed down from generation to generation over the years. St Martins feast day is on November 11th, and no Wexford fishing boat will put to sea on that day. The story goes that on St. Martins Eve 1702, to use the words of a poem by John Boyle O’Reilly “Came a mighty shoal of herrings to the shores of Wexford Bay”. The fishermen of the bay decided to break with tradition and put to sea. As they rowed out from the harbour the figure of St. Martin appeared before them on a white horse, waving them back to port. Two crews obeyed the warning and turned back to the shore, the others cast their nets and prepared to make one of the biggest catches they had ever taken. Before they could haul in the nets a fierce storm came up and swept them to destruction. The story goes that 70 of the fishermen died on that night.

We end this article on ships and the sea with a piece of fact that Carlow is connected with. It was once said that England was protected by walls of oak. This was of course the oaken ships that formed the British navy.

The building of these ships came from the forest of the Leveroch which stretched from the Blackstairs to the Wicklow mountains. An 18th century full rigged, three deck ship-of-the-line required the wood from about 3,500 oak trees for its construction. This meant the destruction of several hundred acres of prime oak forest to make one ship at a time.

Courtesy of the Carlow Nationalist