Historical Diving in Ireland
by Dr. Edward J. Bourke, Shipwreck HistorianThis article was first published in The International Journal of Diving History Volume 3 Number 1 July 2010
- Tom Steele depicted on the O’Connell monument – in his cap
While there were few diving inventors or innovators in Ireland, it is remarkable that many of the early diving pioneers worked around the Irish coast. Local entrepreneurs and salvors were quick to exploit the invention of the helmet in the early 19th century and rapidly took on salvage work on their own account.
Even before the helmet, the wrecks on the Irish coast were salvaged by bell divers and some accounts of their work survive. The main focus of the salvage was cannon – the scarce nuclear weapons of their age and second only to coin. This was for two reasons – good cannon were difficult to forge and very scarce, but also because of the troubled and rebellious nature of Ireland cannon had to be recovered to prevent their use by Irish insurgents. This article is very much a co-operative effort and John Bevan, Mike Fardell and several other members of the HDS have spotted references to diving in Ireland which I was merely able to put into context. The pioneering work of Alan Roddie on Jacob Johnson
is also acknowledged.
The Armada Salvage
Several accounts relate to the recovery of material from the Spanish Armada of 1588. In the year of the loss of the Armada Sir George Carew wrote from Dunmore Castle, Co. Clare.
“Already we have salvaged three pieces of artillery of brass. Yesterday we fastened our hawsers to a cannon of battery or basalyke, as we supposed by the length, for they lie at four fathom and a half of water, which was so huge that it break our cables. Our diver was nearly drowned, but Irish aqua vitae hath such virtues as I hope for his recovery. If the diver of Dublin were here with his instruments I would not doubt to bring good store of artillery from hence. For if I be not deceived out of our boat we did plainly see four pieces more.” He also complained at the expense “of sustaining the divers with copious draughts of usequebaugh [whiskey]”
- Kitching at Lough Ine
In the same year Sorley Boy MacDonnell recovered three brass cannon and two chests of treasure from the wreck of the Girona in county Antrim. Much later, in 1797, a quantity of lead and some brass guns were raised from the wreck of an unknown Armada ship at Mullaghderg in County Donegal. Two miles further south, in 1853, an anchor was recovered from another unknown Armada wreck. The coastguards used a vessel, the Harbour Lights, in this work. It is possible that Mr. Quadling may have been involved. Jacob Johnson, working for the Venetian Government, recovered cannons from the Santa Justina off Waterford in April 1620, although the actual work seems to have been done by a Señor Labarre. Many further contracts for work followed in England. By 1630 he was back in Ireland at Castlehaven, removing guns from the Santa Anna Maria and the Leopard. Mr Salmon, a local, salvaged guns and goods from shallow water, but the Privy Council ordered Johnson to recover the guns. Johnson attempted to work on Armada ships in 1625 at Broadhaven, but his efforts were frustrated by locals who would not reveal their location.
a 5th rate 32 gun ship, launched at Plymouth in 1696 was wrecked on a rock (now known as Looe Rock) when leaving Baltimore harbour in south-west Ireland on the 30th April 1697. Ordnance Board Minutes for the 18th August 1719 report that “some of her guns being taken up … the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland [is] desired to Order some proper person to view the same, & the Price of Salvage [to be] paid here…”.
Subsequently, HMS Weymouth
was ordered to collect the guns, taking on board three of about 17cwt each and two of about 25cwt, which were shipped to Plymouth in October. On the 5th January 1720, the Ordnance Board ledger records a payment to John Lethbridge of twenty one pounds two shillings & eleven pence “For his Trouble & Expense in taking up 5 Guns that were lost in the Looe Man of War…Weighing 5 tons 5 cwt 2 qrs. 26 lbs 3”.
A Captain Townsend, possibly of Castletownsend, was court-martialled in 1697 for selling two guns from the Looe. There is no information on what his role in the salvage had been.
In June 1783, Spalding and his nephew Ebenezer Watson suffocated while experimenting on further improvements to their diving bell in Dublin Harbour. The two men were hoping to gain access to the Belgioso, an East Indiaman, which sailed from Liverpool and sunk at Kish Bank in Dublin Bay the following day. Spalding worked from the Renown
of Harrington (Captain Joseph Bacon). The unfortunate pair appear to have been overcome by fumes from rotting hay in the cargo. They were buried at St. Andrews church in present day Pearse Street in Dublin, but the exact location of their grave is unknown. Spalding’s negro associate and his wife, who was also a diver, worked on the wreck using Spalding’s apparatus in August 1783. Braithwaite came to Dublin and demonstrated his machine in the Liffey but was prevented from diving on the Belgioso
. Braithwaites were the last (reported) to visit the site in 1786. The insurance documentation on the Belgioso
has recently been located and customs records indicate that some goods were recovered, but there is no mention of specie which was the object of the diving operations. It should be mentioned that the barrels of coin had been fitted with a float and rope, to indicate their position should the ship founder
- Copeland Terrace
Mew Island is 200 yards from Copeland Island with its lighthouse at the entrance to Belfast Lough and comprises about 10 acres of rocky pasture; it lies very low, and is extremely dangerous to mariners. In the sound between it and Copeland Island is a flat rock with only three feet of water on it, called the Pladdens and a rapid tide sets through the sound4. Off this island the Enterprise, of Liverpool, a homeward-bound vessel from the coast of Guinea, was totally wrecked in 1801; she is said to have had on board £40,000 in dollars, which, with all her cargo, lay buried in the sea till 1833, when Mr. Bell, by means of a diving apparatus, succeeded in recovering about 25,000 of the dollars, five brass guns, and other valuable property. Mr Deane the inventor of the new diving apparatus, was then engaged by the underwriters to recover part of the cargo,
“… and has succeeded as well as the stormy weather would permit. His task was a difficult one and if he received only half of the value of what he rescued (such, I was informed, being the agreement) he would be adequately remunerated for the risk and exertion he had undergone. Being overtaken in a snow storm, I took shelter under the side of his small vessel which had been cast on shore and was undergoing repair. A pretty correct idea of its diminutive size may be formed from the fact that he and twenty men were engaging in preparing to haul it down the nearly level sand into the water. Mr. Deane favoured me with the sight of his apparatus, consisting of a helmet which rests upon his shoulders, with lenses in the front, and an opening at the back, in which is inserted a pipe that conveys air to the face. An air pump worked by four men, is fixed in the deck of the vessel, and supplies air to the diver by means of a pipe. He descends by a rope or ladder (according to the situation he may be in) to the bottom of which weights are attached, and is clothed in flannel, in addition to his usual dress. He also puts on an India rubber dress, with leaden soles to the feet; thus he is entirely invested with a covering impervious to the water. Signals are given by means of cords, and are well understood between the diver and his men. A confidential person on deck, frequently repeats the signals, and, if the diver should omit to answer any of them, he is immediately drawn up. From the great clearness of the water on this coast, he can see to a distance of fifty feet distinctly, a much greater distance than he has observed elsewhere. Mr. Deane stated that he had never, in the course of his vocation been molested by any large fish, but that at one place on the coast of England the great conger eels swam by him perfectly harmless. He always, however adopts the precaution of taking down with him a large knife, for the purpose of defence in case of attack.”
The divers involved in the salvage became quite wealthy and Copeland Terrace in Whitstable was built with the proceeds. This exploit is wrongly placed in Galway by some references.
- Steele’s diving bell invention
was an eccentric landlord in Clare who patented some diving bell improvements and tried Deane’s apparatus at Kilkee. He also patented an underwater lamp and a ‘Communicating Diving Bell’
. He mentioned using an adaptation of the ‘Hammond Light’ underwater, when working on the Mary Rose and the Intrinsic. Steele’s pamphlet
on making the River Shannon navigable included drawings of an all-new diving bell to be employed to remove rocks. There is a suggestion that he had this bell tested on the coast of Wexford but there is no account to be found, although he seems to have used this bell with some success in later years
Steele dived with Deane in Kilkee in 1836 and his adventures are described in the Connaught Journal (9th June,1836) and the Limerick Star (3rd June1836).
“Mr Steele went by appointment to make an experimental descent off Kilkee, with the helmet on Tuesday, and has been we understand delighted by the trial. The swell was so strong that the hooker employed by Mr (Charles) Deane, the Shamrock of Kilrush, had to return from Ben O’Knuck as it would have been impossible to work that day, and Mr Steele made his experiments with the greatest privacy, when she came to her anchorage in the bay of Kilkee. He expresses himself very warmly with the friendly care taken of him by Mr. Deane, who on one occasion had him drawn up without any necessity, and without receiving any signal for that purpose, merely because he had formed a supposition of the possibility of danger.”
A Limerick newspaper published a unique description of the gear used by Mr. Deane.
“His appearance before going down is exceedingly grotesque owing to the quantity of clothes in which he is enveloped, and the very large helmet he wears. His first dress is composed of flannel to preserve warmth, and is doubled: he has got outside this a large pair of waterproof Indian rubber trousers, reaching as high as the chest with short sleeves of about a foot in length, it grows gradually tighter towards the extremity of the legs each of which terminates in a boot. He next wears a jacket of the same composition, reaching somewhat below the waist round which a large belt of basket work, covered with green baize, is tightly bound: this jacket has got a collar as high as the ears, which he tightens with a handkerchief. The wrists are bound so very tight as to render it scarcely bearable until he has got under water, when all annoyance vanishes. To protect the India rubber he wears over it a suit of coarse canvas, which is bound round him with straps of leather, and likewise terminates in boots. He has also large worsted stockings and a pair of very strong shoes, with a quantity of lead sheet in each. The helmet, or as our friend Andrew Marrinan calls it, the copper bonnet, which he wears and the construction of which has excited so much interest, is made of a metal resembling tarnished steel. It is very large, with a view affording room for a sufficient quantity of air inside, and resembles somewhat, a human breast, being made to rest on the sides, back and chest. The tube through which a constant supply of fresh air is conveyed from above, is attached to the back of it, and through a valve in the front immediately below the mouth, he emits the used air. There are three glasses one at either side and the third in front, about three inches in diameter, through which we understand he can plainly discern every object below. To the extremity of this helmet are attached two breadths of canvas, bound round the body with straps and from the neck he has got suspended two large weights each probably two stone or over, the one resting on the back the other on the chest. These are for the purpose of facilitating his descent.
From the side of the pilot boat from which he descends, is let down a rope ladder with weights at the end of it, and on this he walks down. Every provision is made for his safety a rope being tied around his waist, by which on a sign being given, he can immediately be drawn up. He has been known to remain below for as long a period as eight hours without any apparent difficulty. A large portion of the cargo has already been recovered, consisting of a great quantity of steel bars and rods also some 60 sheets of copper, with five pair of railroad wheels and patent axes each pair worth £23.Owing to the inclemency of the weather, for some days back, these gentlemen have been obliged to suspend their exertions, but will resume when the sea is less troubled. They also propose going down to the wreck of a brig, lost off Battle Island, some years since, and laden with a very valuable cargo of gold dust and elephant’s teeth. It is said that this wreck has been frequently seen by fishermen at low water.”
As late as 31st August 1842, the Limerick Chronicle reported that “Dean’s diving bell apparatus will again be at work next summer over the wreck of the Intrinsic at Kilkee, and had the submarine operation been prosecuted under favourable weather this season much valuable property could have been recovered”.
The Lady Charlotte
- Coins retreived from Lady Charlotte
This very valuable vessel, wrecked on the Barrel rocks, about six miles to the north-west of Cape Clear, was on her voyage from Lima to Liverpool, conveying a large freight of specie, when she ran on the Barrels rocks on 29th October 1838. Captains Reeves and Mackie were dispatched from London and Liverpool to take charge of the property on the part of the underwriters, and on arriving at the wreck they found her remains guarded by Captain Carter, of Her Majesty’s Revenue Cutter Chance, and the Officer and crew of the Coastguard Station at Long Island, under the command of Lieut. Baldwin. The spot where the specie lay was discovered about 24 feet below the surface of the water, over which the sea rolled with great violence, but, notwithstanding, the boats of the Cutter and the Coastguards hooked up about 36,000 dollars and seven large plates of silver of 1cwt. each.
“A few days afterwards Messrs. Deane and Edwards, with their diving apparatus, as also a Mr.Davy, arrived in their vessels, and were immediately employed by Messrs Mackie and Reeves, and as the weather has much improved they have they have succeeded in raising a large quantity of treasure to the amount of £70,000, in gold dollars, silver bars, and broken silver, also several sacks of silver ore. The exertions of the officers and crews of the cutter and station have been severe and all have distinguished themselves in encountering the great risk and exposure attendant on being in an open boat among breakers in this season of the year, on so wild a part of the coast, and the great amount of treasure recovered is a convincing proof of the great vigilance of the parties. The specie is on board Her Majesty’s cutter the Chance, in Long Island Sound, under the charge of her commander.”
Deane complained about another group of coastguard divers.
“We are authentically informed that the apparatus alluded to was purchased in shares and belongs to Mr Dumbrain, Mr Quadling and several other officers of the Coastguard here, and it appears that other officers are about to have Diving Apparatus and adopt the same system of searching for wrecks for their own private advantage, now as we have always been given to understand that according to the prescribed rule and order laid down for the regulation and government of the Revenue Service, it is therefore most pointedly and positively inserted that no officer or man belonging to the Revenue or Coastguard Service shall upon any consideration or pretence exercise, practice or follow any trade, profession or calling whatever.”
- The Vanguard
Barabas E. Quadling served with the coastguard at Courtmacsherry (1835–43), Caherciveen (1844–45) as LCO, at Knightstown as CO (1846–51) and Keele (1852–57). One phrase in Deane’s complaint speaks volumes “…the apparatus alluded to was purchased in shares and belongs to Mr. Dombrain, Mr. Quadling and several other officers of the Coastguard…”
Mr. Quadling would have been in top rank company with Sir James Dombrain who became Comptroller General of the service. James Dombrain was the naval officer who set up the service in Ireland and in his retirement was a shareholder in the Waterford and Tramore railway company. He also became a Commissioner in Irish Lights. Quadling was renowned for his energy and was awarded both silver and gold Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) medals, for his rescue work in 1840 and 1842 respectively
Henry Davy from the cutter Eliza
of Crookhaven petitioned the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty on 26th May 1839
. Proposing to search for the wreck of the L’Impatiente
and use his diving apparatus to raise guns, he sought permission to retain anything recovered. On 30th May he wrote again revealing that he had raised a 9-in mortar from the wreck. He sought to retain this, “as it will scarcely cover the costs of the operation”. He also intended to abandon work because of the heavy swell and exposed site. L’Impatiente
was a French frigate bombardiere – part of a large fleet that attempted a landing at Bantry Bay in 1797. She was wrecked almost under the bridge at Mizen Head en route back to Brest.
- The Puffin raised at Ringaskiddy
The Connemara Expedition
Reports were published of a diving expedition to the Connemara area, west of Galway, in July of 1834, but the promoters are unnamed and the expedition was obstructed by authority.
“The Sarah, of Pwlheli, was lately fitted up with a diving-bell and suitable apparatus for the purpose of raising 11 vessels wrecked close to the Galway shore during the last severe winter, amongst which are understood to be the Thais, Falmouth packet; the Whitbread of London, the James of Tynemouth, the Rival of Glasgow, which had Don Pedro’s troops on board. Along with a Philadelphia ship, a sloop from Scotland and a revenue cutter. These vessels are much in the way of fishing nets. The coastguard of Inislacken seized the Sarah as she lay in ballast in Roundstone harbour ready to go to work and forbade any further work relating to raising the wrecks in the name of Admiralty.”
The American ship Havre
, commanded by Captain Vennard was en route from New Orleans to Liverpool with 1564 bales of cotton when she took fire seven miles off Cork on 8th February, 1840. A quantity of gunpowder in the after part of the ship blew up with a colossal explosion barely ten minutes after the pilot left (F.J. 12th February 1840 p.2). The wreck is reported to have been dived in June 1840 by Charles John Brunker and ‘Captain’ Moseby, ‘R.N.’, but no more is known about this exploit.
- Searching for the Invincibles knives – Chapelizod 1886
Diving became a routine operation barely 20 years after the Deanes’ work and the 1850s saw several recorded diving operations in the Dublin area. William Campbell came across in an attempt to raise the Queen Victoria
wrecked at Howth. His experience is described in a rare account to the newspaper denying a fanciful story published elsewhere. A diver inspected the hull of the Tayleur
in 1854 on behalf of the Inspector of Iron ships before the Board of Trade inquiry to determine the extent of damage. A Mr. Shannon merchant of Dublin organised salvage of the Tayleur but no account of the divers involved was found. The Argyle, sunk near the east pier at Kingstown was blown up in a series of explosions by Captain Abbinett who supervised a diver, a Mr William Moses, between the 4th and 7th July 1854. Both had come across from England.
In 1859 Richard Blower was sent by the United States Steamboat Company to look after the wreck of the Pomona
with Joseph Rodriguex acting as tender or assistant. Their evidence was presented at the inquest into the 400 lives lost. A mysterious note appears in the Circular of the Boston Submarine and Wrecking Co. in Nov 1854. “One of our engineers, with the same kind of apparatus as ours, assisted to take up, on the coast of Ireland, in the winter season and in five weeks time, four and a half tons of gold and silver.”
The diver may have been Jeremiah Denis Murphy, 1832–1895 (1832, Mar 2, baptised in Courtmacsherry, Co Cork, Ireland and moved to Boston as child). However the shipwreck remains a mystery. Silver was recovered from the Crescent City
in 1871 by divers Martin Lacy of Wexford and Mr Thomas Truscott of Liverpool, but by then such work was considered a routine operation.
Cdr. Damant’s team, that was assembled and worked from 1917 to salvage the gold from the Laurentic
, deserve their place in the Pantheon of salvors, the salvage vessel HMS Racer being their home for the duration. The exposed site and cold rough waters worked against them, but they were blessed with superb visibility. Despite the wreck being smashed and collapsed by a storm they dug through layers of decks to find the gold over a period of five years completing their work in 1923. The diving was completed without accident, despite the 40 metre depth, mainly because of the new science of decompression. The Italian salvage company Sorima
worked on wrecks in the 1930s, while mystery surrounds possible Royal Navy work on the Lusitania and Empress of Britain in the 1950s. Another epic of salvage in Irish waters was the recovery of the submersible Pisces
by a pair of Vickers submersibles off the Cork coast. The rescue of the crew of two from 1,575 feet deep was a brilliant achievement by an international effort in August 1973. It involved transport of submersibles by air from USA, Canada and the UK to Canadian and British vessels berthed at Cork. The crew being saved in the nick of time just before their air ran out
1. Jacob the diver
, Alan Roddie, The Mariner’s Mirror
, 62, 3,1976.
2. Richard Larn, Shipwrecks of Great Britain and Ireland.
3. National Archives (UK): WO47/32 Ordnance Board Minutes, 1719; WO48/59 Ordnance Board
Ledger 1719–20; NMM: ADM/L/452 Lieutenant’s log of HMS Weymouth.
4. The Beam
, House magazine of Irish Lights; A hand book for travellers in Ireland
, James Fraser, Wm. Curry & Co, Longman, London, 1844; Another Whitstable Trade
, John Bevan, Submex 2009.
5. Conquest of the Sea
, Henry Siebe, Chatto & Windus London, 1873. cited by David Masters in Wonders of Salvage
6. Cormac Lowth, Tom Steele,
in the Dublin Historical Record
7. Patent No 5273. 1825 Oct 28th 1829, Steele’s Diving Bell.
8. Steele pamphlet on navigation of the river Shannon.
9. Thomas Steele, Patriot Extraordinary,
in Dublin Historical Record,
Vol. LIII. No. 2. Autumn, 2000. ISSN 0012-6861.
10. Thomas Steele, Clareman Extraordinary,
in The Other Clare, Annual Journal of the Shannon Archaeological and Historical Society,
Vol. 22, 1998.
11. Philosophical Magazine & Journal. No 341, September, 1826.
12. Mechanics Magazine, October 12th, 1839.
13. Kilkee ingenious diving from the Limerick Star, in the Connaught Journal 16th July1836.
14. The Infernal Diver, John Bevan, Submex 1996, ISBN 0 9508242 1 6.
15. Lifeboat Gallantry by Barry Cox
16. ADM1/4549 (1839 PRO.D), Henry Davy letters.
17. Sorima, Historical Diving Times, No. 43, Spring 2008.
18. No Time On Our Side, Roger Chapman, Nautical Publishing, 1975 ISBN 0245 52573 4.
Dr. Edward Bourke is an industrial chemist working in the Irish brewing industry. He is a scuba diver and historian of both diving and shipwrecks. He has written five books on shipwrecks around Ireland, including the 3-volume standard work on the subject, Shipwrecks of the Irish Coast. He is currently working on a pictorial history of Irish shipwrecks and studies of Irish history in the 1920s.