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Sligo Shipwreck Mystery Solved – 250 Years After it Sank

17th December 2020
The remains of the large, wooden vessel on Streedagh Strand in Sligo,known locally as the ‘Butter Boat”, and now identified as a 1770 shipwreck named Greyhound which claimed 20 lives. One man - a Mr Williams ‘from Erris’ - was recorded as surviving the wrecking The remains of the large, wooden vessel on Streedagh Strand in Sligo,known locally as the ‘Butter Boat”, and now identified as a 1770 shipwreck named Greyhound which claimed 20 lives. One man - a Mr Williams ‘from Erris’ - was recorded as surviving the wrecking

The National Monuments Service says it has resolved the mystery of a shipwreck off Co Sligo's Streedagh strand where three Armada ships are known to have foundered in 1588.

Research has confirmed that a wreck of a vessel off Streedagh known as "the Butter Boat" was a Yorkshire coastal trading ship, the Greyhound.

The ship from Whitby port sank with the loss of 20 lives on December 12th, 1770 - some 182 years after the Armada fleet.

The National Monuments Service, which marked the 250th anniversary with the local community last week, says that the Greyhound tried unsuccessfully to seek shelter in Mayo's Broadhaven Bay during a storm in December 1770.

It anchored off Erris Head in Co Mayo, but the crew was forced to abandon ship, leaving a cabin boy on board.

The National Monuments Service says that "on learning of the plight of the cabin boy, local volunteers from Broadhaven Bay, together with the crew of a passing ship from Galway and some of the original crew of the Greyhound showed extraordinary bravery in an attempt to rescue the boy and the stricken ship".

"While the rescue team did manage to board the Greyhound and move the vessel away from the cliffs, it was driven further out to sea by the force of the storm with some of the volunteer crew still on board, including the cabin boy, and later that night she was wrecked at Streedagh Strand, 100km to the east, with the loss of 20 lives," it says.

Oak timbers from the wreck were recorded and analysed by Denmark-based dendrochronologist Dr Aoife Daly as part of the research, which also included liaison with the Irish Folklore Commission’s Schools Manuscripts Collection, archived in University College Dublin.

An account given in 1937 by a Streedagh local, 75 year-old Michael MacGowan, to his granddaughter, told of a ship, described as a “tourist boat”, driven ashore at Streedagh Point some 200 years previously.

Mr MacGowan said all the crew bar one attempted to clamber to safety over the rocks at Streedagh Point but were drowned after falling into a deep recess between the rocks.

Later that night the ship re-floated on the rising tide and was washed ashore on the beach at Streedagh, where it grounded in the soft sands and is the vessel still visible today known as the “Butter Boat”, he said.

When the tide receded the following day, the one man who remained on the boat, Mr Williams, made it to the safety of the shore and, according to Mr MacGowan’s account, he returned "home" to England..

Dating sequences obtained from two samples had placed the construction of the vessel firmly in the first half of the 18th century, sometime after 1712, the National Monuments Service said.

"The analysis also indicated that the timber used in the construction was probably sourced from the English midlands or possibly Yorkshire,"it said.

" This provenance of the ship's timbers along with the 18th-century dendro date, clearly rules out any association between the ‘Butter Boat’ and the 16th century Spanish Armada campaign," it says.

Minister of State for Heritage at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Malcolm Noonan welcomed the work put into confirming the events leading to the ship's loss.

“I know there is a huge amount of local interest in this wreck and that its identity has been a topic of debate for many years, with many calling it the Butter Boat and others thinking it part of the Armada, "Mr Noonan said.

He said he was struck in particular by "the value of folklore archives along with applied archaeological research in uncovering the full and tragic story of the Greyhound and those caught up in the tragedy’’.

“Its calamitous story illustrates starkly the perils of the sea but also highlights, how in times of trouble, the common bond of the sea brings people from different backgrounds together in an attempt to save lives," he said.

" I am proud that my department has been able to bring to light this story of tragedy and loss but also of extraordinary bravery, compassion, selflessness and heroism,"he said.

The commemoration with a wreath-laying at the wreck at Streedagh Strand on December 12th involved local residents, religious leaders and members of the National Monuments Service team.

"I am very appreciative of the continued community partnership between my our National Monuments Service and the Grange Armada and Development Association, Spanish Armada Ireland and Sligo Sub Aqua Club to promote, commemorate and keep watch over the internationally important wrecks of the Spanish Armada lost at Streedagh in 1588 and also the wreck that we now know is the remains of the Greyhound, "Mr Noonan said. 

"We hold in our honoured custodianship the memory of those lost in the Spanish Armada wrecks and to that, we now add the memory of those lost in the tragic wrecking of the Greyhound 250 years ago," he added.

Details of this and other wrecks around the Irish coastline are on the National Monuments Service Wreck Viewer here

The Irish Folklore Collection details are here

Published in Historic Boats
Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins is a print and radio reporter, and a former Irish Times western correspondent. She is the author of Search and Rescue: True stories of Irish Air-Sea Rescues and the Loss of R116 (2022); Everest Callling (1994) on the first Irish Everest expedition; Mayday! Mayday! (2004); and Once Upon a Time in the West: the Corrib gas controversy (2010). She is also co-producer with Sarah Blake of the Doc on One "Miracle in Galway Bay" which recently won a Celtic Media Award

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