250 British sailors who died at sea to be commemorated
A REMOTE community on a rugged headland has come together to commemorate an almost-forgotten British naval disaster more than two centuries ago.
The sinking in 1811 of HMS Saldanha in Lough Swilly, Co Donegal, with the loss of around 250 lives, is one of the worst maritime tragedies to have happened in Ireland or Britain.
Locals on the northerly Fanad peninsula have raised €1,500 to erect a memorial on the site where the washed-up bodies were buried. It is now the 18th hole of Portsalon golf course.
The extraordinary gesture is being put down to a new relationship between Ireland and Britain in the wake of recent pivotal events, culminating in the historic state visit of the queen to the Republic last year.
Hazel Russell, from Rathmullan, which overlooks the Swilly, said: "It wouldn't have taken place 10 or 20 years ago. With the peace process and everything else, everything has changed."
Most of the 253 crew on the HMS Saldanha were conscripts who had been press-ganged from their homes in Britain, but a number of the sailors were from Co Donegal. Many were married with children and would have descendants who are alive today.
After locals had raised a granite plaque marking the event at a nearby scenic coast road last year, the Royal Navy got in touch to thank them for commemorating a catastrophe that it said "snagged at the conscience of the nation".
Rear Admiral Chris Hockley, flag officer, regional forces, said the scale and loss of life set the tragedy apart from others.
The lofty connections of the youthful captain, William Pakenham, a brother-in-law of the Duke of Wellington, "ensured that society acted to avoid future tragedies, taking steps that continue to benefit both Ireland and Britain to this day," he said.
Lighthouses were erected around the Irish coast in the wake of the huge loss of life, among them Fanad Lighthouse, which still stands sentry over the entrance to Lough Swilly.
The new mass-grave memorial on the golf course is to be officially unveiled next Sunday, December 2.
It carries a short history of HMS Saldanha and the names of all the officers and crew.