Lough Swilly’s position on the North Atlantic shipping route , once one of the busiest in the world, and its role as a harbour of refuge to be headed to during difficult weather at sea , resulted in it having more than its fair share of shipping casualities. Maritime records reveal approximately 62 wrecking incidents within the lough or a short distance from its mouth over the last three centuries.
The two wrecks whose memory is enshrined in local folklore are those of the Saldanha in 1811 and the Laurentic in 1917. The Saldanha, a Royal Navy Frigateof 38 guns and a crew of about 300 men was driven by a north-west gale on to rocks off Ballymastocker Bay on the night of 4 December 1811. Wreckage including pieces marked Saldanha littered Ballymastocker Beach and accounts state that more than 200 bodies were washed ashore. The most prominent among the drowned was Captain William Packenham, son of the earl of Longford and brother –in-law of the Duke of Wellington. Packenham was buried in Rathmullan Abbey. The only survivor was the ship’s parrot, captured a few months later near the site of the wreck and identified by a medallion around its neck engraved with the name Saldanha. (Lough Swilly – A Living Landscape – Andrew Cooper Editor). It was after this great naval tragedy that Fanad Lighthouse was built.
The armed merchant cruiser , the Laurentic , was lost on 25th January 1917,when it hit two German mines at the mouth of the lough with the loss of 354 crew , 71 of whom are buried in a mass grave in the Church of Ireland graveyard in Fahan. The Laurentic was on route from Liverpool to Halifax Nova Scotia with a secret cargo of 3,211 gold bars worth £5million(Todays value £300 million )which was to be used to buy war munitions . Between 1917 and the 1930s all but 22 gold bars were recovered. The wreck lies in about 40m of water, approximately two miles north of the lough. Today the ship’s bell can be seen hanging in the tower of Church Of Ireland church in Portsalon while a restored seven tons gun salvaged from the wreck is mounted at Downings pier.