Nautical Saga — Oliver O’Hanlon on a mysterious shipwreck off Cork’s coast

The Saga had been on a mission to bring cargo from Europe to South America

A massive anchor overlooks the sea at Ballybrannigan beach in east Cork. It came off a Swedish ship that was wrecked and sunk off the coast of Cork nearly 130 years ago. For many years, the story of the ship was shrouded in mystery and spoken of in the same terms as the ghost ship Mary Celeste.

Just beside the anchor on the beach is an information board. It tells the story of the merchant ship in English and Irish. Built in 1875, the Saga was a two-masted sailing ship with square rigging on both masts (known as a brig). Before it was wrecked off the Cork coast, it had been on a mission to bring cargo from Europe to South America.

The Saga left Oskarshamn in southeast Sweden in November 1894 bound for West Hartlepool in Durham. On board was a cargo of timber, possibly to be used as pit props. It left West Hartlepool in December and stopped off at Burntisland in Fife, Scotland, to complete its cargo.

The ship then left Burntisland on January 10th, 1895, and set a course for Nickerie in what was then Dutch Guiana (present-day Suriname) in South America. On board was a general cargo. On January 25th, the ship met great storms in the English Channel which damaged its sails and rudder.

For the next fortnight, the ship was further caught up in storms which damaged it even more. The crew, which was made up of the Master Lorentz Peter Sjöstrand, the mate, a constable, an able seaman, three seamen, a deckhand and a cook, did their best to rescue the ship or find shelter.

On February 11th, 1895, the rudder was completely lost and the crew decided that the best thing to do was to abandon ship. They signalled a passing steamer and two sailing ships for help. Their efforts were in vain, however, as they were not noticed, perhaps due to the poor sea conditions.

The very next day, a Swedish schooner, the Hebe, noticed the signals from the Saga’s crew and rescued them. The men from the Saga eventually made it back safely to Sweden. The captain of the Hebe was awarded a medal for his part in the rescue.

The abandoned Saga ultimately made its way to the Cork coast and was spotted at Ballyshane on February 16th. On inspection, it was found to contain a ladies cabin with a violin and piano. With no one on board and some blood stains evident on the deck, speculation was aroused as to what could have happened to the crew.

On February 23rd, newspaper reports stated that the Saga was “still holding together, and has no appearance of becoming a total wreck”. Bad weather must have intervened, however, as the ship seems to have been wrecked in a storm.

An advertisement appeared in the Cork Examiner on March 1st 1895 under the heading “Wreck Auction”. It stated that material salvaged from the wreck of the Saga was to be auctioned off. Included in the list of items to be disposed of was 18 sails, spars and a quantity of rigging and ropes, as well as two boats.

As the full story of what happened to its crew was not known at the time, the Saga took on a mysterious aura in the local area where it met its sad end. It was spoken of in the same terms as the Mary Celeste, the American merchant ship that was discovered with nobody on board adrift off the Azores in the 1870s.

Around the same time as the Saga’s demise, an American ship sailing from Philadelphia to Cork was damaged after encountering fierce weather in the north Atlantic. At the end of January 1895, the Serene was caught in a heavy west south westerly gale. When it arrived in Cobh, its stern was smashed, its wheel was bent, its cabin was flooded and its companionway and skylight were crushed inwards.

Shipwrecks were not uncommon in the waters around Ireland when the Saga met its dreadful fate. With the increase in shipping activity from the late medieval period onwards, there was a corresponding increase in shipwrecks and this was particularly elevated during the 18th and 19th centuries.

According to the Wreck Inventory of Ireland Database (WIID), there are over 18,000 known and potential wreck sites in Irish waters. That includes everything from prehistoric longboats in our inland waterways to modern wrecks. There are around 1,800 shipping casualties in the waters around Ireland from the two world wars alone.

The Saga’s anchor was recovered by Patricia O’Connell in 2019 and donated to Cork County Council. Following research by Ms O’Connell and local historians, the real story of what happened to the Saga emerged. The anchor is a tangible link to our maritime history and a reminder of the power of nature.

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