The ’98 Barge
Local tradition has it that, during the time of the 1798 rebellion, Matthew Nesbitt, High Sherriff of Leitrim, sentenced three rebels from the Dromod area to be executed at Roosky.
Reprisals were planned and it is said that three barges were taken from the Nesbitt family’s harbour at Derrywillow on Lough Scannel (they also had at least two quays and one harbour at their Derrycarne property) and sunk in the lake.
During the extreme low water levels in 1949 a local fisherman found himself trapped for several hours when his punt ‘ran aground’ on a submerged barge in Lough Scannel and in 1959 (another year of low water levels) a local family found a source of winter firewood by salvaging the sides and deck of a barge in the lake.
These stories were related to me by a local school teacher in 2007 and naturally I agreed to his request to take him out in a dinghy to search for the wrecks. It was a clear day; I stood up sculling along and within five minutes of setting out spotted the keel and ribs of a fairly large vessel in about a fathom of water (this vessel obviously sank in pre-decimal times). We could see that the prow still stood and came to within a foot and a half of the surface, but the bulk of the remains were close to the lake bed.
Several weeks later we returned to the site with two friends; three of us were to snorkel over the wreck and take photographs and measurements, while the historian took notes in the comfort of the dinghy.
We found that the vessel was about 62 foot long (total accuracy was difficult in 5 ft of water with a slightly buoyant tape measure) and had a beam of 12 ft. The sides and transom were missing, presumably taken for firewood in 1959, and there was little debris outside the main wreck itself. There were 33 ‘ribs’ spaced a little less than 2ft apart and, instead of a keel, the barge had a keelson with the bottom timbers below it. Many of those planks were still attached to the keelson.
Several large rocks were lodged into holes in the bottom boards, prompting speculation that they may have been used to sink the barge 200 years ago, but they could just as well have been dropped in during the 1959 firewood salvage.
A large number of bricks were also noticed on the bottom boards and while, at first, these were thought to have been part of a cargo, our photos revealed that some were joined together with mortar, which raised the possibility that they were old bricks used as ballast. None of the bricks examined or photographed had ‘frogs’ (the depression used to hold mortar), which dates them to at least pre 1803.
The steel prow still stands over three and a half foot tall and there were metal tie bars at the transom ends, while a metal keelson band and other metal banding was found to run fore and aft for most of the vessel’s length.
The keelson itself was roughly hewn with knots and parts of branches protruding from it and several metal studs were embedded in it. There were numerous slots in the keelson and we think that these may have been used to locate the boards of a ceiling or ‘false floor’ to keep the cargo off the bottom planking. If this is so, then these boards could have floated out when the barge was sunk.
If the story about the time and circumstances of the sinking is correct, the barge could have been built with passages on the Grand Canal in mind, as that waterway was under construction at that time and the barge’s dimensions were within the canal’s limitations.
We left the barge alone after that visit as locals didn’t want ‘that crowd from Dublin coming down and interfering with it’. This attitude was born from reports of millstones being removed from villages and moved to store in Dublin. I agreed with them at the time but having read the article A bonfire at Collins Barracks on this site I tend to feel that there is little danger of any interest in this vessel from the powers that be. However I do feel that it could teach us a lot about boat building methods of that time. As the son of one of my fellow divers said, ‘There’s a PhD in that boat.’
Searches of the lake with an underwater video camera did not reveal any sign of the other two barges from the story, so it is possible that they never existed; however, a 62 ft barge (or two) is quite easy to hide in a lake the size of Lough Scannel.Malcolm Reynolds