12 June 2017
At what point does the Shannon Estuary become the Atlantic Ocean?
At the weekend, two of us took to the Wild Atlantic Way and headed west from Tarbert along the southern bank of the Shannon Estuary and out through Ballylongford for the coast.
Along the way, we stopped at Beale Strand, also known as Beal Beach, at the mouth of the Shannon.
This is a sandy and rocky beach that stretches for more than 3 km around the ‘dog-leg’ of the Shannon Estuary. An extensive and high dune landscape dominates the bend in the estuary and the beach provides opportunities for long walks around the headland.
But we were aware of the need for caution and discretion. Ten years ago, when a 20-year-old man and his eight-year-old brother and sister were rescued on the beach, it was said they had cheated this was described as one of Europe’s most dangerous beaches.
Although the long stretch of sand stretch for more than 3 km makes a wonderful long walk, there are extremely fast currents in this area that make swimming dangerous.
The shore between Beale and Fenit lay under a tropical sea 345 million years ago, and fossils of marine creatures like sea lilies are buried in the rocks.
I am told that at low tide a few wooden ribs stick out of the sand at the western end of the beach, a reminder of stormier times.
Beale Bar was one of the many hazards facing shipping entering the Shannon from the Atlantic at this point. If the tide was too low, ships could be grounded on the sandy, offshore shoals.
On a stormy night on 30 November 1834, the Limerick-built brig, The Thetis sought shelter in the bay having crossed the Atlantic from Quebec. The ship had a cargo of pine timber. Despite the valiant efforts of its captain, Captain Younghusband, the ship was driven onto the shores of Beale Strand, two of the masts broke, and nine sailors drowned that night.
The remaining crew members swam ashore. They were welcomed into the homes of local people in this part of north Kerry locals. Over time, the bodies of those who drowned that night were washed ashore and buried at Lissadooneen Fort.
When a salvage operation was carried out on the wrecked Thetis, it was discovered that the ship was carrying a cargo of contraband tobacco. The surviving crew members were arrested and tried in Tralee for smuggling.
When a salvage operation was carried out by the Garryowen, a stash of contraband tobacco was discovered deep in one of the hold of The Thetis. The surviving crew members were arrested, marched back along the coastline to Tralee, passing the wreck of their ship on the way, and charged with smuggling.
Another cross-Atlantic journey also drew attention to the dangers around Beale Strand 90 years ago in 1927. That year, the Irish pioneering aviator, Captain James Fitzmaurice made his first attempt to fly the Atlantic. The Princess Xenia, a Fokker Vila aircraft, was piloted by Captain Robert Henry MacIntosh, and Fitzmaurice was the co-pilot with Maurice W Piercey.
They were backed financially by an American millionaire William Bateman Leeds and his co-financier Captain Anthony Joynson-Wreford.
Despite warnings from weather forecasters, the crew took off from Baldonnel on 16 September 1927. But the turbulent weather got worse off the Galway coast, until visibility was virtually nil. They turned their plane back and landed at Beale Strand near Ballybunion. Their 5½-hour flight only took them 300 miles off the Irish coast.
McIntosh never got another chance to try again. Fitzmaurice on the other hand did not have long to wait before he would head west once more.
Today, the wreck of the Thetis can be seen just off the car park in Beale, about 250 meatres from Ceann Daoithe. All that remains are a few broken wooden ribs of the ship buried in the sands of time … but not visible during Saturday afternoon’s walk on the beach.
From Beale, we made our way by road, still a much safer mode of travel along this stretch of the Wild Atlantic Way.
In Ballybunion, we walked along the cliff edge above Ladies Bunch. Alongside the Blue Flag, a Red Flag was flying, warning visitors about the dangers of the water this weekend.
We opted for a stroll through the town, doubles espressos in the Coast Café and a visit to the Pugin-style Saint John’s Church before returning along the Wild Atlantic Way through Ballylongford and Tarbert to Askeaton.