The seas and landscape retain tantalising evidence of our maritime past, whether through archaeological finds, place names or folklore. For centuries the coastline around Portrush has seen many visitors come and go. Mesolithic adventurers made their way along the coast as indicated by the many flint artefacts that have been uncovered in and around Portrush. A number of Viking hoards have also been found and in the townland of Ballywillin there were reports of a clinker built boat discovered in a mound of earth that contained bones and silver coins.
Looking out to sea from Portandhu you can see the Giants’ Causeway headland in the distance. Close to this lies the area known as Port na Spaniagh and Lacada Point. It was here on a stormy night in October 1588 that a ship called the Girona was wrecked while trying to make for Scotland. The Girona was part of the Spanish Armada, a fleet of ships that had set sail to assist in an attempt to invade England and overthrow Queen Elizabeth I.
The ship was dashed to pieces on the rocks and it is believed that only five of the many hundreds of men on board survived. The survivors were brought to Dunluce Castle where they were given shelter by Sorley Boy MacDonnell before being sent to Scotland to get passage home. Later in the 1590s several of the ships cannon were pulled out of the sea and mounted on the castle walls of Dunluce.
The location of the ship wreck faded from memory and it was not until 1968 that many of the Girona’s artefacts were recovered by professional diver Robert Sténuit. He recovered gold chains, diamond rings and gold sword hilts, many of which can be viewed today in the Ulster Museum in Belfast. The site of the Girona is now a designated Historic Wreck Site under the Protection of Wrecks Act, 1973 and diving is prohibited within a three hundred meter area of the site.
The waters around Portrush were known to Breton fishing men and in 1606 Sir Thomas Phillips remarked that Breton fishermen had been coming to Portrush for quite a while to fish for dogfish and rays, both of which were considered delicacies, especially in Spain.
In 1630 a salmon fishing station is recorded at Portrush which was part of a thriving network of salmon fisheries along the north coast. The salmon trade continued into the 19th century with many ships calling into Portrush to restock for ice. A large fleet of smacks carried salmon from Ballina and Ballyshannon finally ending up in Liverpool. There was a five pound prize for the first vessel to reach Liverpool which was generally won by a smack called the Benbulbin Hawk which was manned by a Portrush crew.
With the arrival of steam passenger ships Portrush thrived as the Queen of Watering Places and many day trippers and seasonal workers lined the quay as they travelled back and forth across the water.
Boat building was an important part of the town’s history with Kelly’s boat yard located at east strand. James Kelly produced many Drontheim boats which is the traditional wooden boat for the north and west coastal areas of Ireland and Scotland. It is a double ended clinker built boat, whose origins stretch back in time to the Viking influence.
Today, Portrush is still very much a maritime town. The harbour is still the focal point of the town; the lifeboat is crewed by local men and women and it remains vital to the welfare of our mariners; the shoreline is crowded with surfers, swimmers, leisure boaters and there are thriving charter and watersports activities for sailors, anglers, marine tourists, sub-aqua divers, surfers and paddleboard enthusiasts.
As a designated Area of Special Scientific Interest, Portrush can be assured that it will be protected for generations to come.