Irish shipwreck shake-up gets underway

ireland shipwrecks
Ireland’s Wreck Viewer. CRED: Ireland National Monuments Service

Shipwrecks in Irish waters with no known owner are to become state property if new legislation proposed by the country’s Heritage Department is approved, while existing commercial salvage law would no longer apply to any wrecks deemed to be historic.

“If enacted, this legislation will substantially strengthen protection of archaeological heritage for the enjoyment of future generations,” Minister of State for Department for Housing, Local Government & Heritage Malcolm Noonan has told a parliamentary joint committee.

Last week (27 January) Noonan put before the commitee a plan to replace the country’s National Monuments Acts 1930 to 2014 with a new Monuments & Archaeological Bill. 

The proposal includes replacing overlapping systems with a single Register of Monuments, which would include historic wrecks and “underwater cultural archaeological objects”. If defined in this way, a wreck would be legally protected through a licensing requirement. 

Noonan also wants to introduce a statutory reporting scheme for newly discovered archaeological sites, with all finds to be reported to the National Museum of Ireland, and to bring in provisions to prevent the illicit import and possession of stolen cultural property. 

Heritage conventions

Ireland would also be enabled to bring to bear international conventions relating to the protection of cultural heritage. 

The 1972 UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural & Natural Heritage, which was ratified by Ireland in 1991, would give the term “World Heritage Property” a basis in Irish law for the first time. And the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property; and the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects would be ratified.

Historic wrecks and underwater archaeological objects with no known owner would be designated state property, while commercial salvage law – in particular rights to be recognised as salvor-in-possession or to claim salvage rewards – would no longer apply to historic wrecks.

Under a new integrated licensing system, a single licence could be used to authorise a range of activities regulated under the bill. A statutory appeals process would be brought in to cover regulatory decisions.

At least three statutory inventories (architectural heritage, archaeological sites and historic wrecks) would be introduced. Penalties for offences under the proposed bill would extend to up to five years’ imprisonment and 10 million euro fines.

Irish government bills have to pass through five stages in both the Dáil and Seanad before being signed into law.

Some 15,000 shipwrecks are known to lie in the North Atlantic around Ireland, though the majority have not been mapped. In 2018 the Ireland National Monuments Service introduced an online Wreck Viewer showing the positions of more than 3,500 known sites over a 920,000sq km area, dating back as far as the 16th century. These are reckoned to represent 22% of the total in the Irish government’s records.

Among them is the most famous, the British transatlantic liner RMS Lusitania, which was torpedoed by a U-boat in 1915 and lies at depths beyond 90m. The war grave is protected under the National Monuments Acts.

In 2015 the wreck’s American owner the late Gregg Bemis accused the Irish government of “abandoning the shipwreck to pirates and treasure-hunters” because of strict rules that he claimed hampered his ability to organise scuba diving to recover artefacts. 

But the following year a telegraph thought to hold clues to the Lusitania’s sinking was located and then dropped and lost while being lifted during a recovery mission. 

The then heritage minister came under pressure when questions were raised in parliament about why a diver had been allowed to carry out the recovery unaccompanied by an archaeologist.

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