The Land of Shipbuilding Saints and Scholars: A Reflection on Ireland’s Maritime History

The recent announcement that Harland & Wolff will once again produce ocean-going vessels comes as welcome news in a region steeped in maritime history.

Belfast’s historic shipyard will perhaps remain most famous for building luxurious transatlantic liners for the White Star Line, including the Olympic-class trio – RMS Olympic, HMHS Britannic and, of course, RMS Titanic. If the medieval hagiographies are to be believed, however, these behemoths were far from the first vessels to leave Ireland’s shores bound for the Americas. Nor were they the first ocean-going passenger ships to be built on the shores of Belfast Lough.

Unsurprisingly for a small Island on the edge of the Atlantic, Ireland has a maritime tradition stretching back thousands of years. Indeed, following the retreat of a one-kilometre-thick ice sheet, the settlers who (re)colonised Ireland during the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) period (9000-4000 BC) could only have done so by crossing the Irish Sea, presumably in dugout logboats. While sea levels were significantly lower than those of todays, making this a slightly shorter journey, it could scarcely have been any less daunting.

Hard evidence regarding the precise design of the vessels used by these earliest westward-bound seafarers is scant. Unlike the undisturbed, oxygen-reduced conditions that have preserved numerous ancient logboats in Ireland’s lakes, rivers and bogs, marine environments tend to be hostile to the long-term survival of organic artefacts. Indeed, the oldest Irish logboat yet to be discovered comes from the shores of Ireland’s largest freshwater lake, Lough Neagh, at Brookend townland, Co. Tyrone. It has been radiocarbon dated to c. 5368 BC, placing it in the late Mesolithic. Nevertheless, archaeologists have made a small number of discovers that support the possibility of sea-going logboats.

Radiocarbon dated to c. 3500 BC, two fragmentary logboats were discovered within a sea lough at Larne, Co. Antrim. They rested in peat which had been overlaid with marine mud, firm evidence that sea levels continued to rise during the Irish Neolithic (New Stone Age) period (4000-2500 BC). A similar bed of intertidal peat can be seen following winter storms at Portrush’s West Strand, Co. Antrim. The lack of navigable rivers in the vicinity of the Larne find has been used to infer that both vessels were likely to have been engaged in maritime activities. A third Neolithic logboat, over 9m long, was discovered submerged in the foreshore mud of Greyabbey Bay, in Strangford Lough, Co. Antrim.

The Neolithic period in Britain and Ireland was characterised by a shift from hunting and gathering to farming, with knowledge of agriculture brought from Eastern Europe c. 3700 BC. One consequence of the adoption of farming was the need to clear forests so creating fields and pastures for newly introduced crops and cattle. The full environmental impact of these early farming communities can be assessed by palaeoecologists using evidence gathered mainly from Ireland’s extensive wetland ecologies. This includes palynology, the study of plant pollen found in peat and lake sediments, and plant macrofossil analysis, the study of seeds and other small part of plants that survive usually in waterlogged conditions. Study of preserved insect remains, paleoentomology, also provides valuable environmental information as many species will only prosper in a narrow range of habitats. This multi-proxy approach allows for an accurate reconstruction of past climatic conditions, vegetation, and land-use.

Dendrochronology, the study of tree-rings, also provides invaluable information for the detection and interpretation of climate change. Early twentieth century American astronomer A.E. Douglass was the first to propose a correlation between climatic conditions and tree-ring growth. Mike Baillie and others at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), would go on to use samples from Irish oaks, including several preserved in ancient bogs, to build the ‘Belfast Long Chronology’, stretching back over 7000 years. Dendrochronology would become so reliable that it continues to be used at QUB to produce new international radiocarbon dating calibration standards, which facilitate adjustments essential to accurate interpretation. Regional variations in growth patterns can also be used for precise provenance determination. This combination of temporal and spatial characteristics is now used to great effect by archaeologists around the world.

In the early 1960s, Danish archaeologists recovered five ships which had been sunk during the Viking period, near the village of Skuldelev, to form a defensive maritime barrier across the mouth of the Roskilde fjord. One, labelled ‘Skuldelev 2’, was a 60 oar, 30 metre clinker-built longship, the quintessential Viking war machine. Tree-ring analysis of its timbers revealed that this chieftain-standard craft, with room for a crew of 80, was built around 1042 AD using oak felled in the vicinity of Dublin. Awe-inspiring as this vessel undoubtedly was, compared with royal-standard examples such as the ‘Hedeby 1’, it was little more than a skeið, a Hiberno-Norse ship of the line.

Notwithstanding the allegation by Giraldus Cambrensis that “the Irish, through their vice of innate laziness… did not bother to sail the seas or have much truck with commerce”, by the time of the Viking’s arrival, Ireland already had an established seafaring tradition. Brendan the Navigator, a sixth century Irish monk and patron saint of mariners, reputedly embarked from Co. Kerry in an ocean-going curragh to begin a seven-year voyage in search of the ‘Promised Land’. Such tales of epic Irish sea-voyages, known as immrama, remained enormously popular across Europe throughout the seventh and eighth centuries. The hero would sail west, far into the Atlantic to encounter strange lands and magical creatures before returning home to great acclaim.

It has more recently been suggested that St. Brendan was the first European to reach North America and, in 1976, a replica of his currach left from the Dingle Peninsula to successfully complete the 3500-mile journey to Newfoundland, so lending credence to this fancifully legend. The 11 metre, two-masted craft was constructed using an Irish ash and oak frame covered with 49 traditionally tanned oxen hides sealed with wool grease, cod oil and tallow. Accounts compiled in the sixteenth century claim that the Brendan made a second, more successful trip in a large wooden boat.

The construction of the Skuldelev 2 longboat coincided with one of four periods of depletion in the Irish oak record that occurred during the tenth and first centuries BC, and the ninth and seventeenth centuries AD. Explanations offered for these gaps in the chronology include, in reverse order: human agency (construction, iron working, and shipbuilding); human agency/catastrophe (profound population/environmental change due to volcanic activity); catastrophe; “an enigma”. With no written records, prehistory will always be somewhat enigmatic, but some rough estimates can be made regarding the scale of human activity in historic times, particularly in relation to shipbuilding.

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The historic record suggests that a Hiberno-Norse king in Dublin might have had direct access to 100 warships, with several smaller auxiliary fleets dotted around the Irish Sea coastline. Even with a replacement cycle of just 20 years, the collective demand this might place on local forests would not appear extreme. While numerically only slightly larger than this ‘Irish Royal Navy’, the demand each vessel of the seventeenth century British Royal Navy made on natural resources was of a different magnitude. Built in 1759, it has been estimated that Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, would have required as many as 6000 trees, 90 per cent of which were oak, mainly taken from the New Forest, Kent, and Germany. It appears possible, therefore, that due to human activity, not least shipbuilding, by the late seventeenth century Ireland may already have been largely striped of most of its ancient woodlands.

Several contemporary records refer to the fate of Irelands trees. Spanning the years 1603 to 1706, the Montgomery Manuscripts were compiled from the papers of a prominent Ulster-Scots family that settled near Greyabbey, on the eastern shores of Strangford Lough. These suggest that, while commercial felling for construction and shipbuilding certainly did increase significantly during that period, the primary motive for Ireland’s deforestation was to deny refuge to wolves and woodkerns, native Irish outlaws.

Whatever the cause, by the end of the nineteenth century Ireland’s broadleaf forest cover had been reduced from c. 80% about 6000 years ago to c. 1%. Nevertheless, throughout the seventeenth century this diminishing resource would remain essential to the burgeoning economy of the northeast of Ireland. In 1582, Sir John Perrot, described Belfast as “the best and most convenient place in Ulster for the establishment of shipbuilding”. His opinion was influenced, according to William Montgomery, by “its natural advantages including the magnificent woods of the district”.

While Speed’s 1610 maps of Ireland show Belfast as a relatively unimportant village, change was afoot. A mural by local artist John Luke in Belfast City Hall depicts Sir Arthur Chichester, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, reading to the assembled townspeople from the Royal Charter of King James I, which in 1613 gave royal assent to the formation of the Corporation of Belfast. In the background are representations of local industries, with an enormous wooden ship under construction preeminent. However, the earlies known ship to be built in Belfast Lough would not be launched for another 23 years.

In early September 1636, sixteen years after the Mayflower set sail for Plymouth bound for the New World, 150 or so Irish ‘Pilgrims’ assembled on the shores of Carrickfergus Bay, as Belfast Lough was then known, intent on following in their wake. Commissioned by Presbyterian ministers brought over from Scotland by Sir Hugh Montgomery, ancestor of the above William, a vessel was built using timber from the Clandeboye Estate, Co. Down. Its name, the Eagle’s Wings, was probably inspired by a line from Exodus 19:4, “Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself”.

Like their English counterparts, the wandering Ulster-Scots dissenters of Co. Down had previously fled to the Netherlands seeking relief from religious persecution at the hands of their respective established churches. Here they would have observed Dutch sailing ships of a similar type to the Mayflower, which was a simple cargo vessel known a fluyt. Indeed, given that they would carry similar cargos and passenger numbers and had much the same job to do, the Mayflower could well have served as a template for the Eagle’s Wings.

For two months the Eagle’s Wings met with fair weather until, closer to North America than to Europe, it was struck by a storm and lost its rudder and a mast and sprang a leak. Stoically, these calamities were interpreted as God’s disapproval of the venture and the company resignedly set a course for home. Their adventure is commemorated by a memorial plaque in Groomsport harbour.

Visible on the far shore of Belfast Lough lies the town of Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim, famous for its Norman castle and childhood home to Louis MacNeice who in his 1931 poem ‘Belfast’ wrote:

Down there at the end of the melancholy lough

Against the lurid sky over the stained water

Where hammers clang murderously on the girders

Like crucifixes the gantries stand

These lines refer, of course, to Harland and Wolff, Belfast’s world-renowned shipbuilders.

Founded in 1861 by Sir Edward Harland Gustav Wolff, what would become one of the world’s largest shipyards saw its heyday in the first half of the twentieth century. At its zenith, during World War II, there were about 35000 workers employed at the site, which was also engaged in non-maritime armaments provision including the manufacture of tanks and aircraft. The company built almost 200 vessels for use by the Royal Navy in its Belfast yard. The last substantial Royal Navy support vessel to be built there was the Fort Victoria, a Royal Fleet Auxiliary Combined Fleet Support Tanker and Stores Ship. Unfortunately, there were substantial delays to its delivery, not all attributable to Harland and Wolff.

On 6 September 1990, the Fort Victoria was targeted by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) who planted two explosive devices on board the almost completed vessel. Following a telephone warning, one of these bombs exploded in the engine room causing serious damage and fears that the vessel might sink. The second device, which failed to detonate, was announced by another telephone call 24 hours after the first. In its September 1990 edition, An Phoblacht published a statement from the IRA which read, “We will not accept a colonial power adding insult to injury to the Irish people in occupied Ireland by using the Six Counties for contructing [sic] military machiner [sic].”

Harland and Wolff did not of course restrict itself to the manufacture of military craft. Intended primarily to transport British emigrants to Australia, the SS Canberra was built in Belfast in 1961 for the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company’s (P&O) and become Britain’s largest post-war passenger ship. Completed in April 1968, the Myrina was the first supertanker to be built in the United Kingdom and at 320 metres, almost the length of 3 football pitches, it was then the world’s largest vessel.

Because of its extreme length, the Myrina was constructed in two halves, with the completed stern being released down the slipway to allow for work to commence on the bow. Nevertheless, with two of Europe’s largest drydocks, its vast fabrication halls and deep-water access, Harland and Wolff remained one of the largest heavy engineering facilities in Europe. By 2021, however, the number of employees at the yard had plummeted to just 401, engaged mainly in offshore energy and renewables and repair and maintenance.

The announcement that Belfast’s shipyard will once again be alive with the clang of shipbuilding is welcome news for the people of East Belfast, not least the residents of Titanic local government district electoral area (DEA). Named after one of Harland and Wolff ‘s most opulent creations, Titanic is, ironically, one of the city’s most impoverished regions, in parts rankings as low as 40 out of 890 on the 2017 Northern Ireland Multiple Deprivation Measure.

When compared with neighbouring DEAs, Titanic has the highest number of people with long-term health problem or disability that limits their day-to-day activities. It also has more than twice as many people living in rented accommodation, twice as many single parent households and the lowest level of secondary and higher-level qualification. Titanic also suffers from twice the rate of long-term unemployment.

It is hoped that the assembly of three 216 metre Royal Navy support ships at Harland and Wolff’s historic shipyard will eventually generate 900 much-needed jobs. It’s new Welding Academy, launched in partnership with Northern Regional College in February 2022, should significantly enhance the employment prospects of local people being trained to meet the anticipated increase in demand for skilled workers. It will, however, be essential to ensure that the benefits this project will undoubtedly bring live on well beyond the expected launch date of 2032.


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