This article was written by Billy Crowley for a booklet commemorating the Irish Sub-aqua Club's twenty-first anniversary.
An event which had considerable effect on the popularity of diving in the Dublin area took place on 19 July, 1959. It was the discovery by Irish divers, members of the Irish Sub-Aqua Club, of the wreck of the 'Tayleur' off Lambay Island.
It must have been a proud day for the 579 passengers and crew of the White Star Australian Packet Company's sailing ship 'Tayleur' when she was towed down the Mersey by the steam tug 'Victory' on Thursday, January 19, 1854. Their pride can be well understood; They were aboard the finest, biggest and most up to date ship ever built in the British Isles. She was a grand boat, barque rigged, four decks, 1,970 tons and the wonder of it all - she had an iron hull. It was her maiden voyage; she was bound for Melbourne with emigrants and approximately 4,000 tons of general cargo, with Captain Noble, skipper; Chief Officer, William Murphy, apprentices and seventy deckhands.
Of the deckhands, strangely only ten were competent seamen. The rest were made up of Chinese, lascars and Central Europeans, most of whom knew no English. Included among her passengers were one hundred women, the greater part of whom were Irish who, a bare seven years before, had lived through the worst famine ever to scourge these islands - the Great Famine of 1845-7 when 2,000,000 of their countrymen and women had perished from hunger and disease. What a cruel blow fate was to deal these unfortunates less than forty eight hours later, a blow that was to leave their proud ship a splintered shambles, with half her passengers and crew dead, among them those unfortunate women.
After the pilot left the 'Tayleur' she headed down channel and into a southwesterly gale. After several hours the Captain decided to give up his plan of sailing down channel and to go northabout. Orders were given to shorten sail, but it soon became evident that the crew were incapable of working the ship. To add to their difficulty, fog came down and visibility was reduced to about one hundred yards. The gale worsened and after two days she had departed so much from her course that, instead of being in mid-channel, she was quite close to the Irish coast. Early on Saturday the twenty first, word spread that land was near and fear arose that the vessel would run aground.
This fear was not unfounded for at 11:30 a.m. land was sighted, it was the bleak cliffs of Lambay Island. Frantic efforts were made to alter course, all to no avail. Two anchors were dropped, but their cables parted like twine. The vessel, now completely out of control, was rapidly drifting ashore. At 12:30 p.m. the 'Tayleur' struck the base of the cliffs with a terrible shock, in two fathoms of water at the north east side of the island on a promontory known as 'The Nose'.
There were shouts, screams, some passengers praying, others taking leave of their friends, husbands rushing around with their wives and children, some women with their babies lying prostrate on the deck unable to do anything but moan and beg for help. She struck a second time and stove in her port side and at the same time a heavy sea made a clean sweep of everything amidships. At this time she was very close inshore, so close in fact that three young men got ashore with a rope and spar with which they made a makeshift bridge and managed to get a good number to safety. The ship's doctor, a Dr. Cunningham, made heroic efforts by swimming ashore with those who had been swept overboard, only to drown when he was attempting to bring his wife and young daughter to safety. All three were caught in the undertow and drowned when quite near to the shore The Dublin newspaper 'The Free(?) Journal' makes gruesome reading in it's eyewitness accounts of the tragedy.
Soon after, the 'Tayleur' gave a violent lurch and sank back into deep water sending all who were still aboard her to a watery grave; all, that is, but two men who clung to the only rigging standing, the foremast. One of them was rescued only by the timely appearance of the Coast Guard. The other could not be taken until the following morning after fourteen hours on his watery perch. Of the 579 on board, only 282 were saved and many of these were permanently maimed and out of the one hundred women only three were saved.
Initial interest in this ship was aroused in Tom Shakespeare by a picture hanging in a shop in Skerries, County Dublin. Around about that time Tom spent a lot of time in Skerries and his attention was drawn to the picture, which was an artist's impression of the sinking of the 'Tayleur', and showed in harrowing detail a large number of people struggling to get ashore from the sinking ship. Another club member, Jimmy McKay, introduced Tom to a friend, Ronnie Warren, who was on very good terms with the boating fraternity of Rogerstown, which is one of the nearest points to Lambay and particularly in touch with the Lambay people as their supply boat berthed there.
Jimmy and Ronnie arranged a run for Tom and Billy Crowley to show one of their friends, Liam Butterly, how we went about this diving business. Liam, like most people at the time, knew little about aqualung diving. He took us in his boat to a point midway between Lambay and Rogerstown and we proceeded to demonstrate. We donned our gear and had a dive from the boat, probably our first boat dive at any distance from the shore. We were not very impressed.
We touched bottom on sand at about 12 feet. However, Liam thought it was a good trick and agreed to take us on a trip to the island at a later date to search for the 'Tayleur' wreck.
We duly arrived at Lambay the following week and searched a considerable number of bays and areas where the 'Tayleur' was reputed to be, with no success, which, in retrospect, was not very surprising, considering the fact that we had had no previous experience of such expeditions. We had a pleasant outing and decided to enquire further before our next attempt. By the following week, Liam Butterly had some exciting news. A local lobster fisherman had informed him that the lobsters caught in a certain bay which they fished regularly had a rusty hue to their underparts, which indicated that they might be domiciled in an iron wreck.
We set off for this new location in great excitement. The bay was reached and the anchor dropped. The anchor immediately stuck in something solid, so Tom and I were despatched over the side to check it out. Tom was first down as I was having a little trouble clearing my ears, an awkward business in those days as masks had no nose piece. By the time I joined Tom he was in no doubt that we had landed right on our target. We shook hands on the bottom and after a quick scout around we surfaced with some pieces of crockery which was strewn around. The visibility was not very good on that day, but we had no doubt about our find and returned home to announce to the rest of the Club that we had found our first wreck.
Most of the early souvenirs taken from the wreck were of crockery, including plates of Willow pattern design which were not very common at the time. On subsequent visits many other patterns were discovered, a very popular Chinese pattern Baronial Halls, Triumphal Car, Waterloo, to name a few. It was an exciting business digging around on the wreck.
We depended on our friends Liam Butterly and Simon Hoare for boat transport to the site for a long time after the discovery. A new member of the club, Tony Morelli, then appeared. He became a keen diver and in due course purchased a fifty foot trawler which he used for pleasure purposes and, on many occasions, took large parties of divers to dive on the 'Tayleur'. During one of these trips the wheel was discovered and for many years was on display in the club rooms in Baggot Street. Portholes became prized possessions. Deadeyes were popular. Lead pipes and, on one occasion, a large lead tank were raised. The same lead tank lay for years in the club premises and members used a hatchet to remove a lump whenever they needed lead for weight belts.
The most prized discovery was the 'Tayleur' bell. It was discovered by Jerry Byrne, who reported it to the rest of the Club. On inspection they decided it was the real thing, and promptly decided it couli not be removed as it appeared to be attached very firmly to a large mass of rusty iron. A trip was organized in Tony Morelli's trawler to try and retrieve it. It was a failure though Tony bent his anchor in an attempt to free it. It was agreed that whoever raised the bell would present it to the Club to be put on display in the club rooms.
On June 16, 1963, Ronnie Warren organised a trip in Simon Hoare's boat to make a determined effort to raise the bell. We prepared large bars sharpened to chisel sharpness to cut the bell loose. Ronnie, Jerry Byrne, Paddy Hughes and myself took off on the day. Ronnie and I hacked and swore on the bottom till our air ran out and then Jerry and Paddy took over. As we watched from the boat Paddy arrived up to announce that it was free. All I had left in my cylinder at that stage was the reserve but, in the excitement, I dashed down to see the bell free at last. Jerry and I put it into a potato basket which was lowered for that purpose. The basket toppled over and out fell the bell. We were not going to give up at this stage, so we both grabbed it and pulled ourselves up the guide rope to the boat where the bell was safely taken aboard. At this stage my reserve was really on its last legs.
The excitement over the Tayleur bell was greater than any I have seen since. lt was photographed and reported in the press. It was cleaned and polished over and over by various members, and there was great discussion as to its eventual resting place. There was even a suggestion that it be sold and offers were received. Luckily none were accepted and the bell was placed in the club rooms in Baggot Street where it hung from a specially made stand for a period. Unfortunately it was neglected and forgotten after the novelty wore off and one night it disappeared. Luckily it has been seen since and is currently on display in the Civic Museum in South William Street, together with a number of other artefacts from the 'Tayleur'. The name 'Tayleur' is stamped plainly across the side. It was the first item raised which proved conclusively the identity of the ship.
Some years later interest in the 'Tayleur' had waned when a new member arrived in the Irish Sub-Aqua Club, Myles Dockrell, who lives in Portrane. He took a great interest in the wreck and, over a period of years, has raised a great array of artefacts. Many of the more interesting items on display at the Civic Museum were raised as a result of his efforts.
In latter years the 'Tayleur' wreck has become a happy hunting ground for every budding diver from all quarters of the country. Unfortunately it has suffered greatly as a result. Its importance as an archaeological site has been destroyed from continuous looting of souvenirs. Perhaps artefacts which are now assembled together at the museum paint a picture of the ship and its time. At least it has given enjoyment to a lot of divers and I hope they have gained valuable experience from diving on it.
Billy Crowley, 1977