The Lough Swilly Tragedy

A few years ago, I happened to be spending a long weekend in Donegal when I heard the story of ‘HMS Saldanha’. She was a 36-gun ‘Apollo-class’ frigate of the British Royal Navy, which was launched in 1809 and was commissioned in April 1810 and placed under the command of Captain John Stuart, who remained in command until his death on 19th March 1811. Captain Reuben Mangin took temporary command of the ship during the Spring of 1811. Finally, the ship was assigned to Captain William Pakenham’s and its short career came to an end when it was wrecked on the rocky west coast of Ireland in 1811.
Earlier, on 11th October 1811, ‘HMS Saldanha’ and ‘HMS Fortune’ combined to take the French privateer ‘Vice-Amiral Martin’. The French ship carried 18 guns and a crew of 140 men, and it was on its fourth day out of Bayonne and was yet to encounter a British merchantman. It was reported that the French privateer had superior sailing abilities to most ships of her size, which had in the past helped her to escape pursuing British cruisers. In a subsequent report it was stated that though each of the British ships was doing at least 11 knots (20 km/h; 13 mph), the enemy privateer would have escaped only for the fact that there were two British vessels involved.

Along the North-western coast of Ireland lies Lough Swilly, a glacial fjord that cuts into the Donegal coastline between the western side of the Inishowen Peninsula and the Fanad Peninsula. It is considered a safe harbour for ships and is famed far and wide for the beauty of its scenery. However, although once inside the lough itself, the anchorage is safe, the entrance to the Lough is considered by many to be a very difficult and dangerous passage. The coast being here is known as being “iron-bound”, with several treacherous reefs of rocks lying near the shore, or partially covered by the sea. The present-day entrance to Lough Swilly has two lighthouses to protect it, with one on Fanad Point, and the other on Dunree Head. The various reefs and shoals in the entrance are well-marked by buoys, which today make the entrance to the Lough a much safer passage than it had been during the days when ‘HMS Saldanha’ was moored there.

Lough Swilly

In the latter part of 1811, ‘HMS Saldanha’ under the command of Captain Packenham, was stationed in Lough Swilly as a naval guardship, alongside the sloop-of-war, ‘HMS Talbot’. Their usual anchorage was off the little village of Buncrana, and occasionally the ships would weigh anchor to undertake a short cruise around the coast of the County Donegal for a few days. Their crews had been stationed in the Lough for such a long time that several officers had brought their wives to reside in the village of Buncrana. There were, of course, one or two of the officers and several of the men who had married local ladies, and all of them had gained the friendship and regard of the local gentry and may of the inhabitants of the surrounding area.

Early on the morning of the 30th of November the ‘Saldanha’ and the ‘Talbot’ left their moorings off Buncrana for a three days’ cruise around the coast. However, although the morning was fine and bright, just afternoon the weather became dark and threatening. Before that short November day closed, a great storm had rolled in from the Atlantic Ocean spilling its anger over both sea and land. Local folklore still recalls that terrible storm as the ‘Saldanha Storm,’ and there are many sad stories recounted of hearts that raced with anxiety and strained eyes that tried to peer through blinding spray and rain for the lights of the returning ships.

It was nearer to the mouth of Lough Swilly, on the shore opposite Buncrana, close to Ballymastocker Bay that those lights were seen at last. Along that shoreline the Fanad people gathered in great numbers, knowing that the bay hid a very dangerous reef of rocks, and upon them, the ‘Saldanha’ was Shipwrecked on the night of 4th December 1811. There are no reports any effort was made to save the doomed vessel and, officially there were no survivors out of the estimated 253 crew aboard the ship, with approximately 200 bodies being subsequently washed up on the shoreline at Ballymastocker Bay.

There are stories saying that one of the crew did make it to the shore alive, but the stories also tell of the ‘wild people’ (local wreckers) placing him across a horse, after giving him a draught of whiskey. The stories are unclear as to whether this was done in ignorance or in order to ensure he would die. Many bodies came continued to come ashore from time to time and were buried with great reverence in the old churchyard of Rathmullan, where the grave and a monument can still be seen.

Initial reports on the events in Lough Swilly that stormy night suggested that ‘HMS Talbot’ had also been wrecked, but it transpired that these reports were mistaken. The winter storms that swept through the Lough caused parts of the sunken wreck of the ‘Saldanha’ to come to the surface and be forced on to the yellow sands of Ballymastocker Bay. In the August of the following year, it was said that a servant in a big house some twenty miles from the wreck site shot a bird, which turned out to be a parrot with a collar, on which was engraved “Captain Packenham of His Majesty’s Ship Saldanha.” Then, as the years passed by, further storms would leave fragments of the ship’s planks and various personal items belonging to the crew strewn across the shoreline. On the night of the 6th-7th January 1839, there was another fierce and destructive storm, similar to that which the locals had called ‘The Saldanha Storm.’ On the morning of the 7th January, when the coastguards conducted their patrols of the bay’s shoreline, they recorded that the entire bay was strewn from end to end broken beams, timbers, and chests; All that remained of that doomed ship.

One interesting story from that time tells us that one of the coastguards searching the shore found a small worked case that ladies called a ‘thread-paper’, and he brought it to the wife of his commanding officer. The little case was beautifully made and still contained some loosely coiled and knotted lengths of silken yarn and a few rusty needles. On the back of the ‘thread-paper’ were embroidered three initials, lovingly created by the hand of the woman who had presented it to a member of the ‘Saldanha’ crew.

Over twenty years after the case had been found the lady to whom it had been given, now a widow returned to live in Scotland. While taking a few days holiday in the country-house of some friends in the south of the country, the lady began to converse with a young man who was also a guest at the same house. The lady and young man began to talk about Ireland, Donegal, and the wonderful scenery to be found there. At one stage of the conversation Lough Swilly was mentioned and this sparked the young man’s interest. He asked some questions about the area and then disclosed that his mother had lost a brother in the Lough many years before, having gone down with the wreck of the ‘Saldanha.’ The widow told all that she knew concerning the ‘Saldanha’ incident and revealed to the young man that she had a relic of the ship in her workbox. She took out the ‘thread-paper’ and, asking the name of the young man’s uncle, found that the name agreed with the three initials embroidered on the little case.

When the young gentleman told her that his uncle had been a midshipman on board the ill-fated ‘Saldanha’, and that he was his mother’s favourite brother, the widow woman put the small thread case into his hand. As she did this, the lady explained how she had come into possession of the case and told him, “Take that home to your mother, show it to her, and ask her if she had ever seen it before. If she should recognise it, she is very welcome to keep it. But if it did not belong to her brother you can return it to me.” The young man left the house the next morning and went home. A few days later, however, he wrote to the widowed lady and told her that his mother had immediately recognised the case as being her own work, which she had given to her beloved brother when he had last left home. It was a relic of a person loved and lost and he thanked the lady for restoring it to his mother after fifty long years. Although small and of no intrinsic value, this little case had been kept and returned to its original owner as though it had been some precious family jewel.

The Bull Kelly

On one of the many rocky islands that lie off the West coast of Ireland lived a fisherman called Kelly. He was a muscular man who was fond of his drink and his tobacco, and he would take his ill-temper out on his wife by beating and by throwing things around the house. All other men on the island were afraid of Kelly and would not stand up to his bullying ways and the called him ‘The Bull’. But Kelly would go out to sea every day that there was fair weather and catch as many fish as he could, which he would subsequently bring to Kilclough and the fish factory there. These trips were, of course, ideal opportunities for ‘The Bull’ to stock up on his supplies, especially his tobacco and whiskey, and the odd grocery item that his wife might need for the house.

For several days the weather had caused the sea to toss and boil, while wind-driven rain and grey skies made it difficult to see very far ahead. ‘The Bull’ had run out of tobacco and alcohol several days previously and further inflamed his already famed fiery temper, making him even more violent and it was his poor wife that suffered the consequences. Then, one day, a loud knock came to the Kelly’s cabin door and his bruised, long-suffering wife was ordered to answer it. When she opened the door to the visitor, she came face to face with a red-haired man whom she did not recognise. “Is he in?” asked the man in a deep gruff voice.

Paddy!” she called out, “there’s someone to see you.

Who?” asked ‘The Bull’ but before he could get an answer the red-haired stranger was by his side.

It’s only me,” he spoke softly to Kelly, taking him totally by surprise.

The sudden appearance of the red-haired man was believed to be an unlucky omen, but Kelly was in such an ill-temper that he never thought about omens. “What is it you want?” he snapped at the stranger.

What will you give me to go over to Kilclough and bring back what you are in most need of?

Kelly laughed loudly. “Nothing!” he said. “I will give you nothing for whatever means you use to go there I am more than able to use that means also.

Alright,” said the visitor with a knowing smile on his face. “Get on your coat and come with me down to the shore. I will show you how to get across the sea, but as only one of us can go, you must go alone.

Without hesitation Kelly pulled on his heavy sea coat and followed the red-haired man out of the cabin door. Together they followed the path down to the stone-covered shore where the waves were rolling in. Then, out of the mist, there came a large herd of horses with men and women on their backs, galloping along singing loudly and laughing. The ginger-haired man now turned to Kelly and told him, “Get up there now on a horse and it will take you across the water.”

Although he was suspicious of the stranger, Kelly got up on a horse as requested and in an instant the animal jumped out over the sea and landed in the centre of Kilclough. Overjoyed with his good fortune ‘The Bull’ ran to the store and bought both his tobacco and whiskey supply and within minutes he was back to his horse. To his surprise the other riders were assembled by the seashore and eager to be off. So, ‘The Bull’ got up on his horse again and they all immediately jumped into the seas. On this occasion, however, they came to a halt midway between Kilclough and home, where there was a large island of rock beyond which the horses could not be made to pass. There was great disquiet among them all and they decided to call a meeting to decide the best way forward. “There is a mortal among us,” one of the riders called out to the rest. “Let us drown him now, so we can pass!

They gathered around ‘The Bull’ and lifted him from his horse and carried him to the top of the rock and threw him down into the sea. Then, when he returned to the surface, he was grabbed by all the hands and the crowd called out, “Drown him! Drown him! We have the power over life and death here and he must be drowned!” But just as they were making ready to throw him from the top of the rock for a second time the ginger-haired man pleaded for his life and with a strong hand led him to the shore.

As ‘The Bull’ walked up from the shoreline towards the cabin again the red-haired man spoke softly to him. “You are safe now,” he said, “but just remember that the spirits are watching you at all times, and should you ever again beat your wife, or throw furniture and things about the home in a foul temper you will discover that you shall die upon that rock.” With these words the stranger disappeared. But from that time onward ‘The Bull’ was as meek as a mouse, for there was now a great fear on him. Each time that he passed the rock in his boat he would stop and say a wee prayer for his wife. By adhering to this, Kelly kept the evil away and they both lived together happily until they reached a good old age.

To you, the reader, this may sound like a simple tale, but it is a story with a good moral behind it. The red-haired man might be thought to be an unlucky omen, but it is the one who saves, helps and rescues any mortal who is unhappy, or finds themselves helpless in the hands of the fairy folk. The story, however, demonstrates how the threat of justified retribution from the anger of fairies can reduce the tyranny of one person over another who is weaker.

Winter’s Death

A Poem for Our Time

Winter Scene

As thus the snows arise; and foul, and fierce, 

All winter drives along the darkened air; 

In his own loose revolving fields, the swain 

Disaster’d stands; sees other hills ascend, 

Of unknown joyless brow; and other scenes, 

Of horrid prospect, shag the trackless plain: 

Nor finds the river nor the forest, hid 

Beneath the formless wild; but wanders on 

From hill to dale, still more and more astray, 

Impatient flouncing through the drifted heaps, 

Stung with the thoughts of home; the thoughts of home 

Rush on his nerves, and call their vigour forth 

In many a vain attempt. How sinks his soul! 

Winter Trees

What black despair, what horror fills his breast! 

When for the dusky spot, which fancy feign’d 

His tufted cottage rising through the snow, 

He meets the roughness of the middle waste 

Far from the track and blest abode of man, 

While round him might resistless closes fast, 

And every tempest, howling o’er his head, 

Renders the savage wildness more wild. 

Then throng the busy shapes into his mind, 

Of covered pits unfathomably deep, 

A dire descent! beyond the power of frost; 

Of faithless bogs; Of precipices huge 

Smoothed up with snow; and what is land, unknown, 

What water of the still unfrozen spring, In the loose marsh or solitary lake, 

Where the fresh fountain from the bottom boils. 

These check his fearful steps; and down he sinks 

Beneath the shelter of the shapeless drift, 

Thinking o’er all the bitterness of death, 

Mix’d with the tender anguish nature shoots 

Through the wrung bosom of the dying man—

His wife—his children—and his friends unseen. 

In vain for him the officious wife prepares 

The fire, fair, blazing, and the vestment warm. 

In vain his little children, peeping out 

Into the mingling storm, demand their sire 

With tears of artless innocence. Alas! 

Nor wife, nor children more shall he behold—

Nor friends, nor sacred home. On every nerve 

The deadly winter seizes; shuts up sense, 

And, o’er his inmost vitals creeping cold, 

Lays him along the snows, a stiffened corpse, 

Stretch’d out, and bleaching in the northern  blast.

Boreen in the Snow

ANONYMOUS IRISH POET