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. Patricks
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 OReilly 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