Anthony D Buckley
‘It was like Eldorado here at that time’
Ulster Folk and Transport Museum Year Book 1977-78, Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, Cultra, 1979.
MORALITY is not always a simple matter. What is considered wrong in the eyes of one person is considered praiseworthy in the eyes of another. In particular, the law, enshrining, as it does, principles of right and wrong, is not always given unequivocal support in particular local communities. Communities have their own moralities which do not always coincide with the one the lawgivers would seek to enforce.
One example of such a divergence existed until recently along a part of the county Down coast. Here, it seems from time immemorial, the local population has regarded the cargoes of wrecked ships as being their own.
The coastline is a particularly dangerous one. In the days of wooden ships, vessels could be torn to pieces by wind and sea within minutes of their hitting the rocks, but even with the advent of iron hulls, there has been no shortage of shipwrecks, and indeed iron boats have the advantage for the would-be scavenger that they do not as quickly break up thus allowing the cargo to be removed more easily.
The authorities, represented by the local coastguard, did not altogether take kindly to the unofficial salvage work which began whenever a ship ran aground, and insurers too disapproved. But even here, there is the dark suggestion that local agents for Lloyds were not (at least in the more distant past) averse to helping themselves before they called in the services of professional salvagers.
Stealing from wrecked ships appears to have its roots in the oldest tradition of this coastline. Prominent and respectable families of the area, including one firm of agricultural merchants, are said to have made their original fortunes by siezing cargoes from shipwrecks. And there still exist the remnants of tunnels reinforced by timbers stretching to the more dangerous spots along the coast and used according to local tradition by 'smugglers'.
In the law-abiding times of today, one occasionally encounters mixed feelings toward the illegalities of the past. But even where disapproval is expressed it is usually mild in nature. To those who took part in these expeditions it seems to have been scarcely a crime at all. The threatening presence of the coastguard served merely to turn it into a game.
The 'pilfering' which in normal times had been a steady but subdued activity reached a sudden and final crescendo in the second world war when the blackout provided a new and terrible hazard to shipping. One lady had constantly kept a light burning in her window as a warning to ships. When the regulations forced her to extinguish it, she awoke only two weeks later to find a whole convoy of ships high and dry on a nearby beach.
As ships piled up along the coastline, the population, more in a spirit of adventure than of crime, siezed the opportunity to ease the rigours of wartime austerity. Tobacco, whiskey, butter, sugar and cloth were the most valued prizes. One ship loaded with sugar provided particular problems for the raiders, as the 'authorities' were near at hand. The solution was to hide the sugar in the crew's pillow cases and leave it on their bunks until p xxx
things be came quiet. Even so, one man was caught by the skipper carrying over a hundredweight of sugar on his shoulders. 'Sure,' he said, 'We was just having a taste of sugar.'
In this, as in other instances, the skipper was tolerant. He knew that the cargo, were it not stolen by the raiders, would be damaged and even dumped overboard as the ship was being refloated. In fact, it was the general wastage which took place in the course of salvage work which provided much of the justification for the raiders' activities. It was thought 'criminal' to let the goods rot on board and be jettisoned when use could be found for them ashore.
The good humour with which these adventures are remembered is illustrated by a story concerning a man who had only one leg. Seeing the coastguard boat coming towards him as he was 'salvaging' some tins of tobacco, and knowing full well that he was caught, he unrolled his normally empty trouser leg and filled it with tins of tobacco. This 'disguise' failed to convince the coastguard.
The activities of the raiders were not merely selfish. Accounts of such raids are interspersed with stories of the heroism shown in the rescue of crews. And there were unofficial rules. When, in one excess of zeal, the personal effects of sailors and passengers were stolen, the community was outraged. The goods generally went on to the local 'black market', but here we find that 'it wasn't a black market really'. Stolen cloth, groceries and tobacco frequently found their way into the homes of the poor and needy.
In the 'pilfering' from ships we find therefore not merely criminality but rather the spirit of Robin Hood. To the local community such activities were to be tolerated and even welcomed, while the role of the authorities was accepted as a natural hazard to be faced where possible with a smile.