The sea has been both the main highway for human transport, bringing in successive waves of emigrants, and the main source of trade, with Larne and Carrickfergus the major ports. Until the Antrim Coast Road was built, land links were so poor that there was a total dependence on the sea. There was a great tradition of seamanship in the area, with generations of the same family pursuing maritime careers. The Kanes of Islandmageee are an outstanding example. From the mid nineteenth-century, many of the Kane men went off on long sea voyages, progressing from sailing ships to oil tankers, while the women of the family stayed at home, looking after the family farm. They intermarried with the Niblocks, a family with similar traditions.
Ships were also built in the area. In the 1920s there were two shipbuilding concerns in Larne, the Larne Shipbuilding Company, and the Olderfleet Shipbuildings. Paul Rodgers of Carrickfergus was a renowned builder of schooners. The steel schooner Result was one of several built for James Fisher of Barrow. Launched in 1893, it remained in service until 1967. During the First World War, it became a fighting ship, renamed Q23, before reverting to its old name, and to peaceful trading. It is regarded as the finest small sailing vessel ever built in Britain, and has been at the Ulster Folk Museum since 1970.
Larne took over from Donaghadee at the Irish end of “the short sea route” when the Larne-Stranraer crossing opened in 1872. James Chaine was responsible for developing the harbour, repairing the original pier, harbour and quays, then extending the quays and building a new pier. He was one of the directors of the Larne Steamship Company, which started the new service to Scotland. He was also instrumental in establishing a rail link. He died at the early age of forty four, and the Chaine Memorial Tower, which dominates the entrance to the Port of Larne, was built in his honour. Larne remains a very busy port today. Although it no longer connects with Stranraer, you can still cross from Larne to Cairnryan (the fastest crossing, taking only a hour), to Troon, and to Fleetwood in Lancashire.
In recent times, the most serious shipwreck was the loss of the Princess Victoria, the car ferry that linked Larne and Stranraer. On 31 January 1953 the Princess Victoria sank, with the loss of 133 lives, with only 44 survivors. The ship had set sail from Scotland in stormy conditions, and one hour out to sea, the storm had forced open the stern doors, and water had started to flood the car deck, causing the ship to list to starboard. The captain tried desperately to get the ship to land, and it sank four hours later, only five miles from the Irish coast, off the Copeland Islands. It was remarkable seamanship to have taken the ship so near to safety under these circumstances, but the loss of life was appalling about forty three men survived and all the women and children on board perished. Two Members of Parliament, including Maynard Sinclair, the Deputy Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, were lost in the disaster.
Lessons were learnt from this catastrophe, which made a profound impression locally. There was a design fault in the stern doors, which should have withstood the storm, and there were insufficient scuppers, holes in the ship’s side to carry water from the deck, to prevent it from being flooded. Today, a ship would not be permitted to leave port in the dreadful weather conditions that prevailed on that day. There is a memorial in Larne to the twenty seven people from the town who died.
There have been a vast number of other shipwrecks over the centuries off the Causeway Coast and Glens Coast. Many of the wrecks have been uncovered, and wreckdiving is now recommended as an adventurous holiday activity. Some of the ships went down in the First World War, hit by torpedoes or mines, but the vast majority of the wrecked ships were engaged in routine, peaceful activities when they ran aground, or collided with other vessels. Very often they were transporting coal, something we have not, despite the fact that there are coal deposits in the area, been able to produce in large commercial quantities.
The Sumatru (1882) was, at over 1,500 tons, the largest sailing vessel wrecked off the Antrim coast. When the Peridot went down at Browns Bay, the entire crew was lost. In fact, it is impossible to say how many people were lost in these waters in the past, but there were dramatic stories, such as the “large smuggling cutter” lost in 1791, heavily armed with sixteen guns, more than a match for the revenue men, but having to surrender to the elements, wrecked on the Maidens with a cargo of tea, spirits and silk. The Gobbins at Islandmagee was a famous smuggling centre.
The most celebrated wreck is certainly the Girona. This was part of the Spanish Armada, which consisted originally of 130 ships, 65 of them warships. It set sail in May 1588, its mission to get to Holland, where a Spanish army was to board, and be transported to England, to occupy the country, and depose the queen. The fleet, berthed at Calais, scattered after being attacked with fireships; the mission being a failure, the orders came to return home.
This involved sailing north of Britain, and down the west coast of Ireland. Many ships were wrecked, and there were thousands of casualties. The Girona was the greatest loss to the Armada, about 1300 people being lost. In 1967 the wreck was discovered by Robert Stenuit, at Port na Spanaigh, near Bushmills. The findings from the excavation include bronze ordinance, hundreds of gold and silver coins, and a hoard of items of jewellery. All these discoveries were sold to the Ulster Museum.