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Stormy days and nights

It’s late February and a succession of storms has just swept across the Atlantic from Arctic Canada churning the vast ocean into a raging sea swell and sending gigantic waves thundering into the coast.

Nature’s full fury stirred up the boundless depths of the North Atlantic with the indifference of a playful toddler splashing bath-water in every direction.

A wave crashing over Enniscrone Pier during Storm Ciara. Photo: Anthony Hickey

Towering breakers crashing over piers, bashing beaches and re-shaping sand dunes were a spectacular reminder of nature’s boundless energy and a portent of a very uncertain future for coastal communities at the front line of climate change.

Storm Ciara blew for three days; gale-force winds with gusts between 100-130 km, and in excess of 140 km/h locally, dashing a heaving wall of two-storey waves onto the coast. Wind and tidal conditions lessened the impact of Storm Dennis, a week later, and, in between the storms, a Norwegian fishing vessel Manon took refuge in Killala Bay before returning to its homeport of Bergen.

A wave crashing over Enniscrone Pier during Storm Ciara. Photo: Anthony Hickey
Norwegian fishing vessel, Manon, took refuge in Killala Bay before returning to its homeport of Bergen. Photo: Anthony Hickey

Monster waves

Monster 15-metre waves, recorded by weather buoys far out in the North Atlantic, had lost little of their astonishing fury by the time they reached the Mayo and Sligo coastline.

Waves up to 12 metres slammed into Eagle Island off The Mullet and even the shelter of Killala Bay saw huge 9-metre surges crashing over Enniscrone Pier in a fearsome Wild Atlantic Way display.

The battered Enniscrone pier has withstood many of these sea poundings, a reminder of the engineering skills of those who designed and built the structure between 1884 and 1887, replacing an earlier breakwater that not surprisingly was destroyed in a storm.

Above the pier, I watched a storm-charged sea of mountainous, rolling white-topped waves, galloping ahead of a stiff westerly, furiously pounding the rocky shoreline.

At high tide, the roller-coaster sea swell tossed trailer loads of stones over the pier wall and scattered more stones over the elevated coastal walk as if they were mere pebbles. Along the beach, sand dunes were reshaped and sculpted into fascinating shapes by the surging sea.

Sunlight peeping through a crack in the dome of one of Storm Ciara’s smothering squalls drew back the curtains of greyish blue from Nephin. Photo: Anthony Hickey

Nature’s light show

Even more fascinating was to watch the curving slope of the pier’s shoulder deflect the huge breakers, forcing the colliding waves skywards.

In their recoil, the vaulting plumes of driving spray curved to frame the distant Killala wind turbines, briefly spot-lit from a dark and foreboding sky by the sun setting behind the Nephin Begs.

As I stood there enjoying another of those surf meets sky displays that no man-made fountain spectacle can ever match, my eye caught a glimpse of another magical ethereal performance far beyond Enniscrone’s rolling sandhills.

Nature’s changing moods never fail to gladden the heart. In the southwest, Nephin, dressed in a frayed cloak of snow, took centre-stage in a calming shifting scene of cloud and light above the turmoil along Enniscrone’s sandy shore.

Sunlight peeping through a crack in the dome of one of Storm Ciara’s smothering squalls drew back the curtains of greyish blue from the mountain to reveal a theatrical vista of pastel yellows and creamy clouds; a wondrous but fleeting natural light show.

In the coming days, hay-carts full of seaweed ripped from the rocky ocean floor will be thrown up on beaches by the incoming tide. Storm harvests that sustain the biodiversity of our shore life and over the centuries provided coastal communities with precious fertilizer and therapeutic treatments in the nearby seaweed baths.

History of Enniscrone Pier

Construction of the Enniscrone pier began about 1880-1 following years of campaigning by local fishermen for a quay at the small harbour where they tied up their boats.

The records suggest that prior to 1880 the main pier for the parish of Enniscrone and Kilglass was at Pullaheney about 5 km north of the seaside village.

Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) records: “At Pullogheany creek, on the east side of the bay of Killala small vessels land kelp and in summer it has tolerably good shelter in most winds behind the breakwater.”

The only public structures of note in Enniscrone mentioned by Lewis were the coastguard and RIC stations.

An advert, inviting tenders for the construction of a pier and other works at Enniscrone, was published in the Sligo Champion of July 24 1880.

It would appear that a breakwater was built about 1881, but by 1885 the structure was described as being “perfectly useless” following damage caused by the great storm of January 26 1884.

In its edition of February 2 1884, the Champion recorded: “The repeated storms of last week were both violent and destructive and that of Saturday put those which preceded it quite in the shade as regards vigour. It would be impossible to compute the damage done both in country and town. To venture through the streets about 4 o’clock on that memorable afternoon was to rush into the jaws of peril.”

The following week February 15 1884, the Champion published a letter by “An Onlooker” to the Freeman newspaper from Enniscrone, which complained about “official bungling” in carrying out repairs to the pier and feared that “the ten four-oared boats now using the roadstead may dwindle away to one….”.

The damage to the pier was raised in the House of Commons on July 20 1885 when Thomas Sexton (1848–1932), Irish Parliamentary Party MP for Sligo, said: “About 1880, a breakwater was built by the Board of Works at Enniscrone, at a cost of over £2,000, three-fourths from public funds, and the balance contributed from local and other sources.”

Mr Sexton claimed, “the breakwater was so designed and so constructed that, a few days after it had been transferred to the county authority, a large portion of the slip was torn away by the sea, and the harbour became so obstructed that boats could not get into it, and it proved to be quite useless..”

The Secretary to the Treasury, Leonard Henry Courtney, (1832–1918), disputed Mr Sexton’s claims, describing the storm damage as being “slight damage to the amount of only £60… by the great storm last winter, 15 months after its transfer.

He added: “Under the present scheme, the cut-stone formerly used will be available for new work, and the bulk of the breakwater will form part of the new pier; there will, therefore, be no waste of public money. No expression of local opinion on the new plan has reached the Government. The design was made by the Board of Works to meet the requirements of the Fishery Piers Commission; and if these two Bodies are agreed, there seems nothing to justify the expense of taking further opinion.”

In 1884, the Commission, appointed under the Sea Fisheries Act, held a public investigation at Enniscrone, and recommended a free grant of £6,000 for the construction of a pier.

However, over the succeeding decades, the condition of Enniscrone pier was regularly raised in the Commons and also at meetings of Sligo County Council with politicians highlighting slow progress in completing the structure to the satisfaction of local fishermen who wanted a further breakwater to enclose the harbour protecting their boats from the waves.

World War 2 Rescue

In the final days of British rule in August 1919, the Champion reported on a public meeting in Enniscrone which called for “better facilities and safeguards for fishermen at Enniscrone pier…. which was left in an incomplete state when the Board of Works finished it”.

Funding for a new breakwater never materialised and over the decades the Enniscrone fishing fleet which included nine trawlers in 1919 dwindle away as did the stocks of its main catch, herring and mackerel.

Over the decades, the pier has become synonymous with Enniscrone and while today it is mostly used for leisure-related activities, during its 130-year history it has witnessed many historic events.

The biggest rescue of stricken seamen to take place in Co. Sligo during World War 2 took place at Enniscrone pier on July 30 1940.

A lifeboat from the S.S. Clan Menzies, torpedoed by German submarine U-99 off the Galway coast, was taken in tow off North Mayo by the Irish vessel, S.S. Kyleclare on passage from Galway to Ballina

The 52 men on board were landed safely at Enniscrone Pier that evening where they all were looked after royally. You can read more about the Clan Menzies rescue here.

By Anthony Hickey

Follow writer and photographer, Anthony Hickey, as he travels around his native Co. Mayo, Ireland.