GARDAI IN Cork have begun an investigation into the illegal removal of artefacts, including sailors’ attire, from a first World War submarine and war grave recently discovered by divers in 27 metres of water off Roches Point.
The 49-metre, 400-ton German vessel UC-42, which sank in 1917 during a mine-laying operation, also appears to have been damaged by salvagers attempting to remove one of its propellers.
The Garda National Bureau of Criminal Investigation’s antiquities unit was alerted by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht’s underwater archaeology unit. Also involved are the Customs maritime unit, the National Museum of Ireland and, now, locally-based gardai.
Connie Kelleher, of the underwater archaeology unit, said she had received several reports from divers about the desecration of the site through removal of crew members’ effects.
“Included in these reports to us, from concerned divers who do not agree with the pillaging of the site, are details of human remains being evident on the wreck site,” she said.
“To date, we have received reports of the structure being recently damaged by divers attempting to remove parts of it; of items that belonged to the crew being taken off the site; and that one of the propellers was being made ready to be recovered, as evidenced by recent work to it.”
She added that she and other divers with her unit intended to dive on the site to assess it as soon as weather permitted.
She has alerted the Irish Underwater Council (IUC), the main representative body of diving clubs in Ireland, seeking its assistance in raising awareness of the problem and said she had also contacted the Naval Service.
Martin Kiely, the IUC’s national diving officer, said the council’s code of conduct forbade members from interfering with wrecks or sea life and required them to respect all dive sites. “We would take a very dim view of people taking stuff from wrecks,” he said.
Ms Kelleher said the German embassy had indicated its “legitimate interest” in the wreck’s protection and preservation.
“The site has a particular sensitivity due to it being a relatively recent German naval loss with crew who are known by name, many of whom are likely to have close living relatives,” she said.
She added the removal of material from UC-42, if not reported to the Receiver of Wreck in Cork, was an offence under the Merchant Shipping (Salvage and Wreck) Act 1993 and that as well as protection under merchant shipping legislation, any artefacts fall within the definition of archaeological objects in the National Monuments Acts 1930 to 2004.
Ms Kelleher added that UC-42 was of particular significance as part of both Ireland and Germany’s maritime history and that a ministerial underwater heritage order may be placed on it, as with the RMS Lusitania , to restrict access and give it the protection of the National Monuments Acts.
“We will probably have to go that route to protect it,” she said. The site was “first and foremost” a war grave, where as many as 27 sailors drowned when it sank in September 1917.
It was one of 64 vessels built in its class, regarded as the first mass-produced German U-boats, which carried as many as 18 mines.
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