Achill Island Maritime Archaeology Project, 2004-2006

“Achill, wind-swept and bare, heavily peat-covered, with great gaunt brown mountains rising here and there, and a wild coast hammered by the Atlantic on all sides but the east, has a strange charm which everyone feels, but no one can fully explain”.

 — Robert Lloyd Praeger, geologist

 Achill Island is Ireland’s largest island, located off the west coast of County Mayo.
In 2006 LAMP joined the Institute of Maritime History and the College of William & Mary to implement the final season of a three-year archaeological research project on Achill Island, off the west coast of Ireland. The third and final year of the project was the most ambitious to date, and was funded by a grant from the Irish government through the Irish Heritage Council. This is not the first overseas research project that LAMP has supported, as previous LAMP archaeologists had carried out research on the wreck of CSS Alabama in France, and subsequently LAMP has supported research with Flinders University in South Australia.

This glacial lake, located on Achill’s north coast at Annagh, is known as the “Devil’s Cloak.” Ruins from the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and historic period are scattered along its shores.

Achill is Ireland’s largest island, located off the traditionally remote coast of Co Mayo between Clew and Blacksod Bays.  Long renowned for its magnificent vistas, dynamic coastline, and friendly communities, Achill today sees a regular influx of visitors during the summer months while still retaining an atmosphere of isolation.  An ongoing excavation program implemented by the Achill Folklife Centre has brought much attention to the many archaeological sites situated across Achill’s rugged landscape. But until the start of the Achill Island Maritime Archaeology Project, the island’s rich maritime heritage had been mostly under-appreciated.

Achill’s rugged, rocky coastline has claimed many shipwrecks over the centuries.
The rocky coastline of Achill Beg (“Little Achill”), and island off the southern tip of Achill. In the background is Clare Island. The cove on the far left is the final resting place for the Norwegian sailing bark Jenny, wrecked in 1894.
Recording the exposed wreck site of the fishing trawler Successful at low tide.

Thousands of years of human activity on Achill have left their traces along the seafloor, foreshore, and coastline.  Prehistoric settlement sites flooded by rising waters and nearby coastal sites reflect ties to the sea of an ancient island people.  The ships of Viking raiders, medieval traders, pirates, privateers, and foreign invaders have all plied the waters around Achill, and their shattered hulls and cargos remain undiscovered offshore.  In addition to the three Spanish Armada wrecks known to have been lost in the area, other known shipwrecks in Achill’s waters date to later periods, including that of the Great Famine (mid-nineteenth century).

Guarding the sound between Achill and the mainland is the 15th towerhouse known as Kildownet Castle, associated with the family of the infamous Pirate Queen Grace O’Malley.

In addition to providing avenues of conflict, commerce, colonial expansion, and Diaspora, the sea has provided life and livelihoods for countless generations of islanders.  Rocky shores, sandy beaches, tidal flats, and natural harbors have fostered subsistence and then commercial fishing by boats, nets, and weirs, seaweed cultivation, salt production, and shipwreck salvage.  Irish boatbuilding dates as far back as 7,000 years, when dugout canoes were used by prehistoric mariners, and has evolved into two distinct Irish watercraft traditions: the planked boat, and the skin boat.  The latter, known as curraghs, were noted as early as the 3rd century AD by Roman chroniclers, and are still used on the island.  The maritime environment, as a provider of subsistence and as a connection to England, Europe, and the greater Atlantic world, has always played a major role in the shaping of the Irish sociocultural landscape.

LAMP archaeologist Brendan Burke recording an 18th century anchor recovered from the waters off Corraun Peninsula.
This derrick was used to salvage the 1939 wreck of the Aghia Eirini, which was dashed to pieces against the cliffs below
Diving the site of the 1894 Norwegian wreck Jenny, which is characterized by rocky, kelp-covered gullies in 35 feet of water
Project researchers encountered a wide range of well-preserved maritime archaeological sites dating to the 19th century, and as a result have explored how the sea and surrounding maritime landscape have shaped social and economic relations on Achill throughout the early modern period.  To poverty-stricken islanders off the remote western coast of Ireland, a shipwreck meant more than just a catastrophic event entailing a tragic loss of life; it also represented a source of otherwise unattainable material goods, a means of sustenance, and a connection to a wider world market.  Passing vessels participating in this global economic system were also sources of income for local watermen
LAMP archaeologist Sam Turner records the hull timbers of the “Train Wreck,” a small vessel with a cargo of scrap metal sunk in 90 feet of water.

serving as pilots, and might provide another avenue of consumer goods through informal bartering.  There has been a particular interest in the capitalization of traditional kin-ordered and subsistence-based fishing practices which took place throughout the nineteenth century, but especially after the introduction of a commercial salmon fishing industry by a Scottish entrepreneur named Alexander Hector in the 1850s.  This process was deliberately fostered by both coercive and conciliatory efforts of the British government, and led to the change of design of traditional Irish watercraft, the abandonment of such small boats in favor of introduced vessels of Scottish or Manx design, and the establishment of fish processing and curing stations on the island with the introduction of a wage labor system where none existed before.

LAMP Director Chuck Meide measuring the shape of the cargo pile comprising the “Train Wreck” located off Achill’s neighbor, Clare Island.
 Recording a complex of stone curragh pens, or low walled enclosures designed to protect traditional skin boats from strong winds. These pens date to the Great Famine.
Mist coming down the mountain behind the village of Dooagh.

The relationship between the local islanders and the British imperial government was often strained, and this tension regularly played out in the maritime landscape.  By implementing Britain’s maritime policies, the coastguardsmen often came into direct conflict with local interests.  The salvage of wrecked ships, long considered by the islanders an important source of commodities and the only source of timber for house construction, was clearly illegal by British law, and one of the primary purposes of the Coastguard was to protect the King’s right to material salvaged from wrecks.  This could lead to violence; in one incident the murder of a Coastguardsman by an unknown islander was thought to have resulted from a dispute over salvage rights.  In another instance, the Coastguard confiscated thirteen fishing curraghs, along with the nets, equipment, and catch of fish, on the grounds that the boats were not numbered or registered with the British government.  As this occurred in 1847, at the height of the Famine, it may have doomed twenty-six families to starvation.  The Coastguard, made up of Royal Navy men usually of the Anglican faith, often lent assistance to the evangelical Protestant mission established on the island at Dugort, which may have been another source of conflict within the mostly Catholic population.

Archaeologist Katie Sykes recording the lines or shape of a traditional Achill yawl, still seaworthy, around 100 years old.
Over the course of the project, archaeologists identified and documented a wide range of archaeological sites on the coast, underwater, and on the inter-tidal zone or foreshore that represented the physical remnants of economic activity on Achill’s maritime landscape. These include the stone ruins of British Coastguard stations and boathouses dating to as early as the 1830s, the ruins of a commercial salmon fishing station dating to as early as the 1850s, the ruins of curragh pens (boat storage structures) dating to the Famine period, the ruins of a stone house with a salvaged ship timber for roofing beams, a number of shipwrecked anchors, and the remains of a number of watercraft: a 100 year old Achill yawl still afloat, the 1894 wreck of the Norwegian ship Jenny, the early 20th century wreck of the fishing trawler Successful, the 1928 wreck of the lighthouse supply ship Charles Stewart Parnell, the unidentified wreck of a cargo lighter, and an unidentified wreck off neighboring Clare Island loaded with train components and scrap metal. In addition, researchers conducted oral history interviews and spent time in the archives collecting relevant documentary evidence. The results of the project have produced a wealth of new knowledge into this fascinating period of Irish history.


Project archaeologists also kept a project blog. Explore the following Achill Island Field Reports to see some beautiful photographs and written descriptions of the project carried out in the summer of 2006:

Field Report 1: Arrival in Westport and Clew Bay

Field Report 2: Discovery of the Westport Quay Wreck

Field Report 3: On to Achill, 09-12 June 2006

Field Report 4: Return to the Wreck of the Successful, 14 June 2006

Field Report 5: Hike to the Napoleonic Tower, 19 June 2006

Field Report 6: 19th Century Ice House on Corraun, 21 June 2006

Field Report 7: St. John’s Eve: Bonfire Night, 23 June 2006

Field Report 8: Archaeological Tour of Clare Island, 25 June 2006

Field Report 9: Arrival of Kevin and Lecture in Westport, 28-29 June 2006

Field Report 10: Recording the Steering Assembly on the Successful Trawler Wreck, 2-3 July 2006

Field Report 11: Recording the Anchor of the Sceptre, 3-4 July 2006

Field Report 12: Mapping Curragh Pens at Dooagh Pier, 7-9 July 2009

Field Report 13: Arrival of Norine and Mapping the Westport Quay Wreck, 9-11 July 2006

Field Report 14: Odds and Ends: Curragh Pens, 12-15 July 2006

Field Report 15: First Dive on the Jenny Shipwreck, 16 July 2006

Field Report 16: Two Shipwrecks Under Two Lighthouses, 17-18 July 2006


Check out our published articles:

Click here to read a summary of the project published in the Winter 2007 issue of Spyglass Magazine

Click here to read the article “Shipwrecked Anchors of Achill Island” in the Autumn 2006 issue of Archaeology Ireland 


Two major research reports were produced summarizing the results of this project. You may see the title pages, table of contents, and introductions by clicking on the individual references below:



Meide, Chuck

  2006  Achill Island Maritime Archaeology Project: Report on Archaeological and Historical Investigations,    2004-2005. Report prepared by the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia, for the Department of the Environment, Heritage, and Local Government, Dublin, Ireland.


Meide, Chuck and Samuel P. Turner

  2007  Economic Relations on a Nineteenth Century Irish Maritime Landscape: Achill Island Maritime Archaeology Project 2006 Final Report. Prepared for The Heritage Council, Republic of Ireland, by the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program (LAMP). St. Augustine, Florida.


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