Those who go down to the sea in ships: seafaring connections and Ulster gravestones

Given that Ireland is an island it goes without saying that there would be a close connection between its people and the sea. This is reflected in many ways, but few more poignantly in gravestones recording those lost at sea. Many graveyards, particularly those along the coast, contain gravestones erected to mariners, sailors and sea captains. Many of these individuals died of natural causes. However, a large number of gravestones refer to people who died at sea. This could be through being washed overboard, drowning as the result of a shipwreck or dying though illness.

In some cases, death at sea could only be presumed for lack of information. In First Presbyterian Church in Antrim is a memorial to William Robinson esquire, who ‘in the fortieth year of an honourable useful life, is supposed to have perished in the bay of [Biscay] onboard the English ship Brooke the 12th December 1821, [no news?] having ever been received of his Melancholy fate’. In Glynn graveyard is a memorial to Alexander Johnston jun. of Larne ‘who is supposed to have perished on the ship Empress Eugenia on her passage from Singapore to Whampoa in the autumn of 1864 aged 19 years’.

A number of gravestones record people who died at sea through illness or through what we can presume was illness. In St Mary’s Roman Catholic graveyard at Greencastle, Belfast, is a stone commemorating William Manning who died of cholera on board HMS Britannia, in the Black Sea, on the 24 August 1854, aged 32 years. A gravestone in Ballylinney Old graveyard records the death of Hugh Cunningham, son of James Cunningham of Ballyclare, surgeon, ‘who died on the passage home from Demerara whither he had gone for a short time to benefit his health’. Sadly it would appear that any benefits to his health had been short-lived.

Other gravestones record people who were killed in battle at sea. In Ballylinney Old graveyard, County Antrim is a memorial to William Glair, son of Stafford Glair, who drowned in the Worth Sea on HMS Hogue after it was torpedoed by a German submarine on 24th September 1914. In Ballykeel graveyard in Island Magee a gravestone commemorates Albert Stewart who was ‘lost at sea through the torpedoing of the SS Bray Head’ on 14 March 1916 aged 16. In Clifton Street graveyard in Belfast is a memorial to Alix Bruce Joy, 3rd Officer, WRNS, who was ‘lost at sea through enemy action, August 1941’.

Many ships were lost in storms. In Connor Church of Ireland graveyard, Co. Antrim, there is a memorial to Jesse Kirk, captain of the steamship Crimea, ‘who was lost with his ship in a terrific storm on the Black Sea’ on 17 November 1873, aged 30. The gravestone to Captain James Gilmor in Whitechurch graveyard near Ballywalter in Co. Down records that he ‘lost his life at sea on board the Iona wrecked on the Formby sands near Liverpool, in that awful gale of March 4th 1876’. His body was recovered, however, and he was laid to rest in Whitechurch.

Many of those who were lost at sea were fishermen. In Ardglass Church of Ireland graveyard, County Down, there is a small headstone bearing the inscription: ‘Erected by Elizabeth Kerr, Whitefarland, Arran, Scotland, in memory of her son John who was drowned by the wreck of the fishing smack, Tickler of Lochranza, in Dundrum Bay, 16th Octr 1862 aged 20 years Also of Dugald Kerr, Lochranza, who shared the same fate, aged 24 years’. At the top of the headstone a small sailing boat has been carved in relief.

A headstone erected by Captain Findlyson Kenn of Aberdeen in Bangor Abbey graveyard commemorates his brother Charles ‘who perished at sea, with all his crew, by the foundering of his vessel in March 1835’. In Ballykeel graveyard in Island Magee a headstone records that Robert Wilson was drowned ‘from on board the ship Amoy of Belfast in Quebec River’ on 11 August 1845 aged 16.

Other disasters at sea were the result of two ships colliding. In Whitechurch graveyard a headstone records the death of two brothers who died at sea as the result of separate collisions. Robert Boyd died on 11 February 1876 aged 39, while his brother William John Boyd died on 11 February 1890 aged 48.

With one of the headstones recording the death of someone at sea there is something on an air of mystery. The headstone to Alexander Picken in Ballykeel graveyard, County Antrim, records that he was killed on board the SS Torr Head in New Orleans 31 August 1912 aged 23. However, although the crew list for the Torr Head owned by G Heyn & Sons, Belfast, includes the name A. Picken, it records that he deserted the ship on 1 November 1912 at the port of New Orleans with four other seamen. Nothing more is known of him.