Memorials to mariners
Another New Year’s Eve is commemorated on a 1905 epitaph. This one was erected by the citizens of Donaghadee to remember Samuel Edwards, Christopher Williams and A J Robin who drowned at Coalpit Bay just to the south of the town when a cargo ship called the Catherine Rennie foundered there. There is a popular local story that the quality of the ship’s cargo of heatherbrown quarry tiles was so good that there was hardly a back-yard in the town that was not enhanced by the laying of any which could be salvaged.
Donaghadee’s coastal setting is well represented on the Donaghadee gravestones by men of the merchant service and fishermen. Eight of the men interred in the churchyard are given the title of “Captain”, usually recognized as meaning the owner of one or more sailing vessels. Four others are described as Master Mariners, and thirty are given the epithet of “mariner”. The importance of the sea, the ferry route and fishing is certainly evoked by the anchors inscribed on another eighteen of the churchyard’s headstones.
The realities of a life so influenced by the sea has its dark side too. Many of Donaghadee’s gravestones show the names of people marked as having “drowned”. Twenty-six of these were men, many in the course of their work, but two of them were women, Mary Anne McPeake in 1876 and Mary Heron Campbell. The latter was drowned with her husband, Captain William Campbell and her three children on board the Lord Raglan which went down in 1890.
One of the anchor-marked stones tells posterity of the tragic loss of a father and son, both called Matthew Gibson, who were drowned when the Bottley Wood foundered between Westport and Philadelphia in 1847. The father was 36 and the son, 16. Their bodies, like those of the great majority of such victims, were never found.
Occasionally the victims of drownings who were buried in Donaghadee were lost on ships which were wrecked on one of the Copeland Islands. These three islands of Mew, Lighthouse and Copeland Island were always a hazard to shipping and there are records of braziers and early lighthouses from the seventeenth century erected to reduce the incidence of such disasters.
Only one of the Copeland Islands was ever occupied by anything more than a lighthouse crew. Copeland Island itself, or the “Big Isle” as it was usually called locally, had as many as one hundred people, usually named Clegg or Emerson, living and farming on it. The island has its own churchyard in an ancient quarry, but curiously a number of those interred there are mainlanders with some romantic attachment to the islands, whilst many of the headstones in Donaghadee churchyard are dedicated to islanders who preferred to be buried in that town. No one can be certain of the correct location of the dwellings of the Cleggs and Emersons who are buried in Donaghadee, but at least six of the Emersons, or Embersons, as their tombstones have it, are definitely islanders.