Neil Oliver discovers how it was that mysterious flotsam washed up on the Galway shoreline via the Gulf Stream, and inspired Columbus's accidental discovery of America.
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We start our journey here in Galway...
For centuries, Galway was an important link in a chain
of commercial ports that ran from Iceland down to Spain.
But sometimes, things are washed ashore here
that have come from far further afield.
What do you make of these?
They look like props for the latest Hollywood remake of Jack And The Beanstalk or something.
And in fact, these ARE beans, and for centuries they've puzzled the people
who found them washed up on our shores,
not just here in Ireland but all along the Atlantic seaboard,
and these are one of the clues that led to THE most successful accidental discovery in history -
In 1477, a young Genoese sailor landed here in Galway.
He already knew of the strange beans, even exotic trees that were washed ashore after westerly gales
and had started to suspect that out there, to the west, there must be a great continent.
And that continent had to be...
But what he himself observed here in Galway
turned suspicion into conviction and prompted one of the greatest voyages of discovery in history.
That early visitor to Galway was none other than Christopher Columbus.
I've met up with historian Nicholas Canny to find out more.
What was it about Galway that inspired Columbus on his journey of discovery?
Well, during the course of his diary, Columbus makes reference to a series of incidents,
which convinced him that he could get access to Asia
by sailing westwards into the Atlantic.
The most compelling of all, that he said when he was in Galway
in Ireland that he saw the bodies of two people, a man and a woman
with oriental appearance being brought ashore on a piece of wood and this satisfied him
that the distance to Asia must be quite short if bodies could be carried across in that fashion.
He surely could be forgiven for thinking that maybe
just beyond the visible horizon was their point of departure.
That is correct.
Of course, Columbus didn't find Asia by sailing west, he found a completely different continent.
So his celebrated discovery of America was, in reality, a comedy of errors.
You can imagine it, can't you?
"Very sorry, folks. I haven't found a westerly route to China after all.
"I seem to have discovered some other vast lump of land instead."
It's ironic, isn't it?
By the time Columbus stumbled on the continent, it was inhabited by about 7m people.
But until he, a European, discovered it, it didn't really exist.
But the really neat trick that Columbus pulled off
wasn't getting to America by sailing west, it was getting back, and knowing how.
Although Ireland and the UK lie broadly at the same latitude
as Warsaw, Moscow, Southern Alaska and Newfoundland,
our winters are nothing like as cold as theirs
thanks to a huge body of water that moves rapidly from west to east
across the Atlantic - the Gulf Stream.
Columbus himself, describing the power of the Stream, said, "It moved like the skies."
Warmed by the Caribbean, the Gulf Stream divides just north of the Gulf of Mexico and one section,
the North Atlantic Drift, as it's called, makes a beeline for Europe.
Offshore, the prevailing south-westerly winds blow over it,
hijacking its warmth and bringing it to land, an equivalent of a million power stations' worth of heat
that warms our climate by between five and eight degrees.
Cold winds from the Arctic can intercept these Westerlies, though, and depressions form, bringing rain.
A lot of rain.
But without this rain, there would be no "Emerald Isle", there would be no fertile "green and pleasant land."
It's also the Gulf Stream that explains how those huge beans make the astonishing journey
to our shores all the way from Costa Rica.
Neil Oliver discovers how it was that mysterious flotsam, including beans and two corpses, washed up on the Galway shoreline via the Gulf Stream, and inspired Columbus's accidental discovery of America.