8th January 2019 – The Anecdotal History of the Skerries Wherry

The Anecdotal History of the Skerries Wherry

by Sean T. Rickard – 8th January 2019

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What distinguishes a dedicated local history researcher from the crowd? Is it the mad gleam in the eyes? Possibly! But in the case of Skerries Historical Society’s January speaker, it’s the love for his subject that shines through. Sean T Rickard waxed lyrical on ‘The Anecdotal History of the Skerries Wherry’ to a full house. For sailing buffs he talked tonnage, hull shape and rigging – for the non nautically minded he explained that the wherry can trace its ancestry back to the Viking longship – with influences from Dutch and North American schooners. For the patriotic, let the record show that the Skerries Wherry, also known as the Irish Wherry, owes nothing of its heritage to the English river wherries.

What makes the Skerries Wherry special? She was remarkably well adapted to sailing in the Irish Sea in poor or rough weather – whether for the highly respectable task of carrying the mails from Howth to Holyhead, or for the somewhat less respectable occupation of smuggling, which was rife in the 18th century when the Skerries Wherry was in her prime. She was also, of course, used for fishing at which the Fingallians excelled. They were invited over to the Shetland islands in the 1750s to show the locals how to fish using the longline technique and had several successful seasons until the local Laird Stewart, of Simbister, decided that these upstart Irishmen were a threat to his dominance and waged war on them, confiscating landed fish and the salt used to cure them and even resorting to using a gunboat and shore cannons on them. 

Perhaps it was this that drove Fingallian sailors into becoming smugglers and privateers – although it was a lucrative business and they didn’t need much pushing. One famous local smuggler, Captain Luke Ryan of Rush, commanded the Friendship, a wherry which was later renamed the Black Prince, registered in Dunkirk. It was used successfully as a privateer in the American War of Independence (1775 – 1783). At 70 tons, the Black Prince was considerably larger than the usual and so might technically not qualify as a Skerries wherry but she must have shared characteristics with them. The Rambler, at 50 tons, was definitely a Skerries Wherry, fitted out as a privateer with four carriage guns and six swivel guns. Captain John Roach took two French prizes in 1778, one of them the Victoire, being larger and better armed – but no match for the highly manoeuvrable Rambler.

This is only a tiny hint of all the detail and stories with which Sean regaled us. The Skerries Wherry was a truly Irish boat which could outmanoeuvre larger vessels and was of key importance in developing the longline fisheries in our local waters. It was a creation of which we should be proud. Sean is hoping to inspire like-minded enthusiasts to come together with a view to recreating a Skerries Wherry. Where better to look for volunteers than the town for which this remarkable, versatile craft was named?

Report by Oona Roycroft