The Underwater Archeology Unit and Ireland’s Submerged Cultural Resource
Ireland has a rich underwater cultural heritage located in its marine, coastal and inland waterways. Marine sites include well-known shipwreck discoveries like the 1588 Spanish Armada wrecks lost off the north and west coasts and the 1796 French Armada wreck, La Surveillante, in Bantry Bay, Co. Cork. Other recent finds from the inland waterways have included an early-medieval bridge at the great monastery of Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly, the processional cross from a crannog site in Tully Lough, Co. Roscommon and the beautiful Lough Kinale book shrine from another crannog site in Co. Longford.
First set up as the Maritime Survey Unit in 1997 to quantify Ireland's shipwreck heritage, in 2000 the Underwater Archaeology Unit (UAU) was established within the National Monuments Service to manage and protect Ireland's underwater cultural heritage. The brief for the Unit includes the quantification of the underwater resource, underwater survey, excavation, dealing with threats to the underwater heritage and assessing development impacts in order to manage and protect this aspect of Ireland's heritage.
The UAU has in recent years carried out numerous surveys and excavations on underwater archaeological sites: These include the following:
- The 1588 Spanish Armada wreck La Trinidad Valencera in Co. Donegal
- The probable remains of a previously unlocated 1588 Spanish Armada wreck off Rutland Island, Co. Donegal
- The early 16th Century, largely intact, remains of a small coastal trading vessel in the River Boyne, at Drogheda, Co. Louth
- A possible 17th Century Dutch East Indiaman wreck in Broad Haven, Co. Mayo
- An early-medieval crannog in Lough Derravaragh, Co. Westmeath and a number of crannogs in Tully Lough, Co. Roscommon.
- An early-medieval bridge at Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly.
Shipwreck Inventory of Ireland
The Underwater Archaeology Unit (UAU) is engaged in the compilation of an inventory of shipwrecks recorded in Irish waters. The Shipwreck Inventory of Ireland includes all known wrecks for the years up to and including 1945 and approximately 12,000 records have been compiled and integrated into the shipwreck database thus far.
The Shipwreck Inventory is principally a desktop survey with information gathered from a broad range of cartographic, archaeological and historical sources, both documentary and pictorial. An inventory of wrecks covering the coastal waters off counties Louth, Meath, Dublin and Wicklow was published in 2008.
Wrecks over 100 years old and archaeological objects found underwater are protected under the National Monuments (Amendment) Acts 1987 and 1994. Significant wrecks less than 100 years old can be designated by Underwater Heritage Order (UHO) on account of their historical, archaeological or artistic importance as is the case with the wreck of the RMS Lusitania lost off the Old Head of Kinsale in 1915. UHOs can also be used to designate areas of seabed or land covered by water to more clearly define and protect wreck sites and archaeological objects.
Under the legislation all diving on known protected wreck sites or with the intention of searching for underwater cultural heritage is subject to licensing requirements.