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The MV Alta. Niall O'Connor/The Journal
Shipwrecked

Ravaged farmland and nightime scavengers: Locals at breaking point over impact of MV Alta

Locals told The Journal their lives had been changed for the worse by the presence of the ship.

A SPRINKLED HANDFUL of houses sit on the rocky jagged shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean at Ballyandreen beach near Ballycotton in east Cork.

The road comes south from the town of Cloyne down a trench-like cut in a valley lined with weatherbeaten ditches and clenched clumps of grass in the adjoining fields.

Even the trees around here lean away from the incoming Atlantic winds that have sent shipwrecks and flotsam ashore here for centuries.  

It is a quiet and isolated life far removed from the hustle and bustle of the next big town of Midleton. Until recent years outsiders only tended to visit when the temperature rose in summer bringing warm beach weather to the tiny sandy and rocky bay.

Take a stroll up a roadway from the beach and along a muddy path, to a sparse and blackened cliff side and you will find an unwelcome outsider – the wreck of the MV Alta, battered, broken and severed by the roaring gales that brought her here. 

The Alta ran aground unannounced when Storm Dennis in February of 2020 pushed her drifting hulk onto the jagged, tide-blackened rocks a kilometre further west. 

The mysterious vessel is a modern day ghost ship having been abandoned by its 10-person crew in October 2018 after suffering a main engine failure in the Atlantic while en route from Greece to Haiti. 

The Alta drifted for 496 days over a distance of 2,300 nautical miles (NM) before running aground in Ballyandreen Bay. The vessel’s exact position and distance travelled during this time is unknown and unrecorded and can only be estimated.

She was a merchant ship built in 1976 and, despite exhaustive enquiries by Irish authorities, her real owners have never been found.

What that means is that the battered broken vessel, now in two pieces on rocks, is abandoned to rot and crumble for decades to come as Cork County Council has decided not to spend the prohibitive money to remove her.

Recently, on a clear but cold winter day The Journal travelled to the wreck site and spoke to locals in the bay about the real cost of the Alta on their isolated homes and how the thousands of sightseers who have arrived there in recent years have changed their lives.

IMG_3012 The tiny community and farmland of Ballyandreen, Co Cork. Niall O'Connor / The Journal Niall O'Connor / The Journal / The Journal

Impact

The cliff side shows the impact of those visitors – the worst of it is that the the ground is blackened because visitors set a blaze that raced across the cliffside, endangering the homes of locals. 

The local fire brigade fought the fire for seven days back in September, evacuating householders at one point as they battled to save a property. 

The fences have been cut in places – and one local farm owner told us about the moment his cattle wandered loose on the treacherous plummeting cliff side. 

There are reports of trampled crops and of people climbing across the flat roofs of cottages to get a view of the wreck. We were also told about nighttime scavengers complete with head torches and tools arriving to strip the vessel of valuable metals and equipment. 

78-year-old Liam Morrison – a local a farmer with a broad east Cork accent – said he is still traumatised by what has been happening in this tiny community. 

“I went up to my field one of the days and there were thousands up there – I tell you it was scary, I tell you now it was scary and it was worse at night because you had the looters.”

Morrison said he came under attack from sightseers on a number of occasions with stones being thrown at him as he pleaded with people not to trample on crops. 

“Life has completely changed here – totally.” 

IMG_3068 78-year-old farmer Liam Morrison of Ballyandreen. Niall O'Connor / The Journal Niall O'Connor / The Journal / The Journal

The farmer said that locals had made a cliff walk for tourists but when the Alta arrived in the community’s work on that project was irrevocably damaged also. 

“We had no problem for many years and I welcome the tourists. They didn’t go across the crops and they didn’t do any damage.

“But these people had no respect for anything – it changed my attitude towards people,” he added. 

Morrison said that he has met people who travelled from across Ireland even from abroad specifically to look at the wreck site.

He said he feared that people would be injured on his land and added that pleas for help from gardaí and Cork County Council elicited a limited response.  

Treacherous 

Another landowner nearby, Tom Clancy, said that many of the people who arrived to view the ship went to Ballycotton which resulted in them making a long and treacherous hike across dangerous cliffs. 

That caused them to cut through land and even gardens to find the wreck. He described the hundreds of sightseers as being like a herd of sheep aimlessly and blindly following each other. 

“It brought in a different type of person – the walkers who came here before were always courteous. We were delighted people were walking the cliffs and they respected our land.

“But the Alta brought a totally different type of person, people had no idea they were walking on private land, a workplace, a working farm and they thought they could do whatever they like.

“The ground conditions were very poor, it was treacherous – they were in totally unsuitable clothing. We tried to gently train people to take a particular route but it was intimidating dealing with aggressive people.

“You were approaching on your own gangs of lads who weren’t friendly and they were very hostile. None of us here are shrinking violets but it was very hard to stand up to six or eights lads.

We were all fearful of what could happen – we were fearful that someone would be badly injured or worse out there.

IMG_3064 Householder Michael Kirby. Niall O'Connor / The Journal Niall O'Connor / The Journal / The Journal

The cliff side leading to the Alta has never recovered from the fire that blitzed the gorse bushes and thorn thickets. The fire was started, locals claim, by a group of people who were camping near the ship carrying alcohol slabs and sleeping bags. 

One of the householders, Michael Kirby, is the closest resident to the entrance to the walkway to get across to the Alta. 

He recalled the moment that September’s fire advanced within just a few metres of his neighbour’s home prompting desperate efforts by firefighters to keep the blaze from engulfing the cottage. 

“There were two fires – one was the actual ship itself in April 2021 which people set and then the second one was the fire on the cliffside in September. 

“One of the neighbour’s cameras picked them up running down to the road and getting collected by a car at about quarter to five in the morning. Only for the fire brigade they fought it and stopped it getting to the house,” he said. 

Kirby, who is a returned emigrant having lived and worked in the UK, said that he has noticed the change in how people live now in Ballyandreen.

“I wouldn’t say people would have moved away to get away from the hassle, but I would say that we, myself included, are much more suspicious of people coming here.

“Life has changed because privacy is gone because of this. When you get up in the morning you are straight away aware because since the ship came here that has been seven days a week, people passing our windows.

When the Alta came here first, for several months, people were walking in our gardens, with head torches on. They were trying to find a way out to the ship because it was all overgrown at the time. 

IMG_3073 Charlie Terry a local farmer in Ballyandreen. Niall O'Connor / The Journal Niall O'Connor / The Journal / The Journal

Some local people have been more affected than others – one of the more directly impacted is Charlie Terry who owns the farmland directly above the shipwreck.

“The biggest thing for me is that the fences were cut and when we tried to fix them they were cut again. 

“It is too dangerous to let cattle down there and that is acres of land I can’t farm – that is the biggest thing. 

“The biggest single event though was the fire – that was all my land burned. Whether they lit a bonfire or a barbeque I don’t know.

“There were 11 fire engines here from all over fighting it and I was also trying to dampen down bits myself. It burned for seven days, smouldering away and then reigniting. The cliff side has a lot of turf there so it was going for a long time,” he said. 

Terry said that people walking across his land caused a stampede of cattle on one occasion, with one of his cows suffering a broken leg.  

He said there was also a theft of ladders from his sheds and they were found at the wreck site. 

Terry said he witnessed people using ropes to climb down off the ship and witnessed people sliding down the sheer cliff side to get to the vessel. 

The local farmer said that life has changed for his family and the other families around the area. 

“Since that ship came in, and since people came to look at it you are never happy that everything is safe at home,” he said. 

IMG_3034 A cut farm fence on the cliffside above the MV Alta. Niall O'Connor / The Journal Niall O'Connor / The Journal / The Journal

The State response

Locals had speculated in chatting to The Journal that the authorities knew the MV Alta was drifting towards Ireland but did nothing. 

Our enquiries have established that wasn’t the case. We have learned, from speaking to multiple sources that State authorities learned about it after it beached. Sources said the Naval Service and Coast Guard learned of the beaching from local journalist reports and social media. 

In the wake of the beaching the Government appointed a special committee to prevent such a grounding from happening again.

In a detailed response the Department of Transport said that from the point her crew were rescued in October 2018, 1,400 miles south-east of Bermuda, there was just one other report of the Alta before she arrived in Ireland. 

On 3 September 2019 she was spotted in “the middle of the Atlantic Ocean”. A Department spokesperson said that no further sighting reports were made. 

The Government said that the Marine Casualty Investigation Board report into the beaching recommended the establishment of a working group.

This group, comprising members from the Irish Coast Guard (IRCG), the Naval Service, Irish Lights, the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority have begun their work. 

The committee is focused on exploring “the risks and potential costs to the State presented by derelict ships entering Irish territorial waters and coming ashore in Ireland”.

It is expected to “make proposals for means to identify, monitor, track and interdict derelict ships before they endanger other ships and seafarers in the vicinity.”

The Department said this work “is ongoing” and the group has met on a number of occasions.

“The Coast Guard is currently liaising with the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) with a view to evaluating satellite options for identifying potential risks, such as vessels like the MV Alta, and vessels that have ceased to transmit any electronic signature such as AIS ( Automatic Identification Systems),” a spokesperson said. 

august-12th-2022-cork-ireland-mv-alta-ghost-ship-which-washed-up-on-the-southeast-coast-of-ireland-in-county-cork-on-the-16th-of-february-2020 An aerial view of the MV Alta before a fire ripped across the cliffside. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Should the unlikely decision be made to remove the wreck from the rocks the task and cost will fall to Cork County Council.

A spokesperson for that organisation said that the removal of hazardous fuel and other chemicals off the vessel meant that the wreck was “highly unlikely to lead to significant long-term negative impacts on marine ecology or marine environmental quality”.

“The wreck has continued to deteriorate under aggressive sea conditions and the mid-section has broken away leaving the bow and stern sections still wedged on the rocks. Neither section has buoyancy or is likely to move significantly.

“Cork County Council is continuing to liaise with the Department of Transport on whether any further interventions are required. There are no plans to remove the wreck,” the spokesperson said. 

Standing on the cliffs looking back from the Alta, with the blinking light of the Ballycotton Lighthouse in the distance, the evidence for the physical impact of the beaching is clear to see: parts of the cliffside have collapsed more rapidly in recent years, beneath that the fire left scorched earth and fingers of burned branches and below that again lies the blue-painted and orange-rusted hulk of the crumbling ship.

The cliffs away from the wreck speak of the thunderous force inflicted on the land by the huge waves that crash here. Whether those same forces in storms this winter will grapple that wreck back into the sea is unknown. 

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