From the Spanish Armada to World War I - tragic yet terribly interesting shipwrecks along the Wild Atlantic Way, along Ireland's west coast.

One of Ireland’s greatest beauties is the Wild Atlantic Way, a trail that stretches along the West coast of Ireland from Donegal to Cork with famously breathtaking views and historical attractions; "where land and sea collide."

Hundreds of ships have fallen victim to the Atlantic throughout history, and quite a number met their demise along the rough Wild Atlantic Way. Many are still visible on Irish shores and seabeds today for people to explore.

From the 1588 Spanish Armada to the greatest silver recovery in history, to WWII battleships and a 1903 ship that washed ashore in Kerry a few years ago; here are ten famous shipwrecks along the trail and their stories, courtesy of Fáilte Ireland. 

1. The HMS Transylvania

Many shipwrecks along the path were of British battleships off of Malin Head in Donegal, Ireland’s northernmost point, as the area was a lookout point for approaching German ships during World War I and II. The HMS Transylvania was a liner-turned-armed merchant cruiser, sunk by a German U-boat in 1940. 36 people died.

2. The SS Empire Heritage

Torpedoed in 1944, this ship is ideal for undersea explorers, as the wreck lies only 230 feet under the surface. One of its American Sherman tanks that fell off the ship can still be seen today on the ocean floor, as well as other military vehicles.

3. The HMS Audacious

This King George V-class battleship was sunk in 1914, 24 miles off the coast of Donegal. It was commissioned into the 1st Division of the 2nd Battle Squadron, but ran upon a mine laid by the German auxiliary minelayer “Berlin” before it saw any combat.

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4. The SV Arethusa

Going further south, the shipwreck of this British barque occurred in 1917. It was attacked by a German submarine off the coast of Co. Mayo, near Eagle Island. The crew abandoned ship before any lives were lost. They then filled the ship with explosive charges, sending it down to the bottom of the ocean along with 19,000 tons of timber it had been carrying as cargo.

5. The SS Gairsoppa

This British merchant ship was on its way to Galway when it was torpedoed in 1941, resulting in 85 deaths and one survival (a crewmember). The wreck is inaccessible to divers, lying 3,000 feet deeper than the Titanic and 300 miles offshore. However, in 2012, a mission was undertaken to recover its massive cargo of silver (17 million ounces, worth $245 million), which was the “deepest, largest precious metal recovery in history." 

6. The MV Plassy

You can see the remains of this ship washed ashore on the beach of Inis Oirr, the smallest of the three Aran Islands. This stream trawler was caught in a storm in 1960, but the entire crew was rescued by a group of local islanders called the Inisheer Rocket Crew. The ship had been carrying a cargo of whiskey, stained glass, and yarn.

7. The San Marcos de Portugale

The oldest ship on the list, the San Marcos de Portugale set sail in 1588 to assist the Spanish Armada’s invasion of England. It was damaged in battle and turned to go back home. On its way, it was broken upon a reef off of Co. Clare, and all but four survived. The four survivors were later hanged and buried in a mass grave known as Tuama na Spaineach, which translates from Gaelic into The Spaniards’ Tomb.

The site of the wreck was discovered in the 1970s, and various teams have made the trip down to the depths of the sea to explore it. “Spanish Point” in Co. Clare is named for this period in Ireland’s history. If you visit Spanish Point you can easily see the reef that caused the shipwreck.

8. The MV Ranga

This Spanish ship was wrecked in 1982 at the Dingle Peninsula in Co. Kerry after losing power in a storm on her maiden voyage from Spain to Iceland. Part of the wreck was removed for the filming of the Tom Cruise film Far & Away, but you can still visit the ship’s bow.

9. The Sunbeam

This shipwreck also happened in Kerry - the schooner was driven ashore in 1903 and washed up onto Rossbeigh Beach just recently at the start of 2014. The walk to this astonishing wreck is popular among the locals.

10. The RMS Lusitania

The Lusitania in 1910. Getty

The Lusitania in 1910. Getty

Perhaps one of the better-known Irish maritime disasters, the RMS Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk off the coast of Cork, by the Old Head of Kinsale, by a German U-boat in 1915. An enormous tragedy, this shipwreck resulted in 1,198 deaths; like in the Titanic, there weren’t enough lifeboats. Many victims of this wreck are buried in a mass grave in the Old Church Cemetery in Cobh, Co. Cork, and there’s a memorial in town in remembrance.

For more information, visit the Wild Atlantic Way's website.

* Illustration by Brian Fitzgerald.

*Originally published in May 2018. Updated in October 2023. 

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