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Shipwreck Mystery Solved – 250 years to the week it sank

Last Saturday morning 12th December, at low tide, a small group of assembled in the rain on Streedagh Strand in County Sligo around the wooden remains of well-known wreck which often becomes visible as the sands shift. The group was there to commemorate the loss of the boat for the very first time on what unbelievably turned out to be the exact 250th anniversary of its loss. The story of the wreck, which some thought was part of the fabled Spanish Armada, has only recently been uncovered by the National Monuments Service of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. It is a story of tragedy with the loss of 20 lives in December 1770, but also a story of great heroism, bravery and selflessness. At last, it can be told…

The story behind a well-known Sligo shipwreck has been a long time coming. Locally known as ‘the Butter Boat’, the skeletal remains of a wooden wreck on Streedagh Strand in County Sligo are regularly revealed when the sands shift and it is a well-known landmark for the many locals and tourists who visit the popular beach.

Research by the National Monuments Service of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage has now confirmed the identity of this historic wreck as the remains of the Greyhound, out of Whitby port in Yorkshire in England. The full and tragic story of its sinking on the night of 12 December 1770, 250 years ago have been marked for the very first time, with a moving ceremony at which locals honoured the 20 now known to have perished.

During a storm that December, unable to seek safe harbour in Broadhaven Bay due to the poor weather, the Greyhound was driven to anchor in a perilous positon beneath the towering cliffs off Erris Head in County Mayo. The crew was forced to abandon ship and, in a tragic oversight, a cabin boy was left on board.

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, the Greyhound 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.

Minister of State for Heritage at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Malcolm Noonan, T.D., has welcomed the uncovering of the full and tragic story of the Greyhound and the events that led to its loss 250 years ago.

“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. I am very pleased that through archaeological investigation, scientific analysis and historical archival research our National Monuments Service has been able to finally confirm the wrecks identity and the events of 12 December, 250 years ago,” Minister Noonan stated, adding the use of scientific data and local stories, passed down through generations, bore fruit.

“In particular I am struck 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. 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.”

At a ceremony on Streedagh Strand on Saturday locals, including religious leaders in the area, and members of the National Monuments team that solved the mystery paid tribute to those lost at sea, and laid a wreath on the wreck, remembering its known dead for the first time on what was its exact 250th anniversary.

“It was appropriate to commemorate the event and to remember all those lives lost so selflessly at Christmas 1770,” Minister Noonan concluded.“We were honoured to join with the local community in commemorating the tragedy of the Greyhound. I am very appreciative of the continued community partnership between my our National Monuments Service and the Grange Armada & 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. 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.”