Ireland's diverse underwater cultural heritage
Ireland’s waterways – both marine and freshwater – have been central to the development of life on this island since the first water craft crossed the seaways from Britain and the Continent almost 10,000 years ago. Waterborne vessels of various shapes and sizes have explored the coast and used the rivers as route ways into the interior where settlements were established, resources exploited, trade developed and conflict often took place over territory and control of the same resources and waterways.
With such a long standing maritime legacy, it is no surprise that significant numbers of shipwrecks have been recorded from around our coast and while ongoing work by the Underwater Archaeology Unit of the National Monuments Service has created an archive of over 18,000 wrecking events it is estimated that the true figure could be as high as 30,000 wrecks. These losses off the Irish coast represent a wide variety of vessel types including logboats, currachs, medieval ships of all classes, fishing and trading vessels, steamships, submarines, warships, ocean-going liners and approximately 1,800 wrecks relating to WWI and WWII.
Other cultural remains, such as submerged landscapes, harbours, jetties, landing places, fish traps, kelp grids, bridge sites, crannogs and tidal mills all attest to Ireland’s rich underwater cultural heritage. Evidence for this underwater heritage is found in Ireland’s designated waters (covering over 900,000 km² of seabed), along the Irish coastline (over 7,000km long), in the thousands of kilometres of rivers, over 12,000 lakes, canals, wetland environments, bogs and beneath reclaimed areas of land which were formerly seabed.
The underwater cultural heritage is a finite and irreplaceable resource, with both natural and manmade pressures threatening its preservation, which can include expanding marine development, threats from treasure hunting, unregulated salvage or greater erosion of our coastal areas as a result of climate change.
The National Monuments Service is tasked with addressing the protection and preservation of our underwater cultural heritage and in this regard the Underwater Archaeology Unit (UAU) of NMS has a wide remit, including quantification of the record, research, underwater survey, excavation and regulation. The UAU maintains the Wreck Viewer and Wreck Inventory of Ireland Database (WIID) which holds records of over 18,000 known and potential wreck sites and this is used as a tool to help manage and protect historic wrecks. The UAU also assesses potential development impacts on underwater archaeology by making recommendations to the relevant planning authorities and other regulatory bodies on developments which have the potential to impact on underwater archaeology.
Wrecks over 100 years old and archaeological objects underwater, irrespective of their age or location, are protected under Section 3 of the National Monuments (Amendment) Act 1987. Wrecks that are less than 100 years old and the potential location of wrecks or archaeological objects may also be protected under Section 3 of the 1987 (Amendment) Act by the placement of an underwater heritage order if the wreck, area or object is considered to be of sufficient historical, archaeological or artistic importance to merit such protection. For example, in 1995 the wreck of RMS Lusitania, torpedoed by German submarine U-20 off the Cork coast in 1915, was protected under the relevant provisions of the Act, and was less than 100 years old at the time.
Diving or general interference with any wreck which is more than one hundred years old or an archaeological object which is lying on, in or under the sea bed or on or in land covered by water is prohibited except in accordance with a licence issued by the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht under Section 3 (5) of the Act. A licence is also needed under the same provisions of the Act to survey a wreck or archaeological object or a wreck that is protected by an underwater heritage order. Therefore a licence is required to dive, survey or disturb any protected wreck site or for targeted searches for archaeological objects underwater. The Minister may, at her discretion, grant or refuse to grant a licence and may attach appropriate conditions which are legally binding and specified in the licence.
Archaeological excavation and the use of detection devices
Archaeological excavation and/ or the use of detection devices such as metal detectors to search for archaeological objects on archaeological sites including protected wrecks is regulated under Section 26 of the 1930 National Monuments Act and Section 2 of the 1987 National Monuments (Amendment) Act. Archaeological excavation licences or consents for the use of hand held metal detectors on protected wreck sites or for the purpose of searching for archaeological objects are only issued as part of a defined archaeological research project or survey or in connection with an archaeological impact assessment for planning-related cases.
Diving protected wrecks
Should individuals, dive clubs or dive centres wish to dive a protected wreck, a dive licence is required from the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Application forms for dive/survey licenses are available for download or can be requested from:
National Monuments Service (NMS)
Custom House Quay
A licence application should contain the applicant’s name and the applicant should apply at least 3 weeks prior to the proposed commencement date of the dive to ensure that the licence is processed in time. Generally dive licences are only issued for a specific calendar year and they are usually issued for individual wreck sites only.
Completed dive licence application forms for recreational dives should be accompanied by a covering letter containing the following information:
- Name and details of primary licence applicant (individual’s name)
- Location of the proposed dive including co-ordinates
- Detailed map/chart with dive location and wreck name clearly marked on it
- Purpose or aims of the dive
- A list of personnel covered by the licence
- Timeframe and frequency of the proposed dive
- Any other information that may be helpful in assisting NMS in processing the application.
A checklist of information to be included in the method statement to accompany a dive licence application for commercial and research related dives is included at the end of the dive licence application form.
A standard set of dive conditions is contained in the dive licence application form. The Minister may, however, at her discretion, grant or refuse to grant a licence and may make a licence subject to such conditions or restrictions as she thinks fit and which are specified in the licence. It should be noted that the licence holder is expected to be present when dives are taking place. In the normal course of events, a licence will only be issued for a single wreck or geographical area. A supporting case must be made in relation to applications that seek to cover multiple locations and this must be set out in the accompanying method statement.
The Wreck Inventory of Ireland Database (WIID) holds records of over 18,000 known and potential wreck sites in Irish waters. Wrecks in the database date to all periods; the earliest vessels represented being prehistoric logboats which are primarily found within Ireland’s inland waterways. With the intensification of shipping activity from the late medieval period onwards, the number of wrecking events off Irish waters increased exponentially with significant numbers occurring during the 18th and 19th centuries. This trend continued and the tumultuous events of the two World Wars in the first half of the 20th Century resulted in much larger numbers of vessels being lost in the waters surrounding Ireland, with an estimated 1,800 shipping casualties relating to both conflicts.
Information contained in the WIID is derived from a wide variety of sources including: UKHO wreck data; the National Museum of Ireland; 18th and 19th-century surveys and sea charts; Lloyd’s List and Lloyd’s Register of Shipping; historic newspapers; Parliamentary Papers; local and international journals; fishermen’s marks; charts and cartographic sources. Important information on wrecks has been obtained during targeted fieldwork carried out by the National Monuments Service’s Underwater Archaeology Unit (UAU), drawing on first-hand accounts from divers, fishermen, coastal walkers, independent archaeologists, other marine and inland-waterways users, often supplemented by the records held in the Dept. of Irish Folklore, University College Dublin.
The extensive seabed mapping programme carried out by the Geological Survey of Ireland and the Marine Institute as part of the INFOMAR project is very important, leading to the discovery of significant numbers of new wreck sites. It has also produced new high-resolution survey data on hundreds of other known wreck sites in Irish waters. NMS endeavours to ensure that the information in the Wreck Viewer is as accurate as possible. As only a relatively small percentage of wrecks have been accurately located to date, any information which can clarify positions or confirm new discoveries is greatly appreciated and new information will be updated to the viewer on an on-going basis. New information can either be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or posted to:
Underwater Archaeology Unit
National Monuments Service
Custom House Quay
Information regarding wrecks along the east coast of Ireland can be found in a volume published by the Department in 2008: Shipwreck Inventory of Ireland: Louth, Meath, Dublin and Wicklow (Brady 2008). Information regarding wrecks mapped in Irish waters by the Irish National Seabed Survey and INFOMAR mapping projects can be found in a volume entitled Warships, U-Boats & Liners published in 2012. Both publications are available to purchase through the Government Publications Sales Office or from any good bookseller.