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Poetry from Headstones

Verses For the drowned and the shipwrecked


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An island race must come to terms with the sea. The lives of its mariners are often forfeit to the vagaries of the mutinous waves. The inscriptions on their gravestones often pay homage to the overwhelming power of nature. Historically, the coast of Ulster is littered with shipwrecks; lyrically, the headstones of the drowned reveal a litany of verses drenched in fear and loathing for the oceanís wrath.

 

Godís dominion over the sea tempers this abject terror; allusions are made to Christís calming of the storm when adrift with the terrified apostles, and to his taming of the tidal ferocity by walking on the water.

 

From Boreas blasts and neptuneís waves
Which tossíd us to and fro,
Escapíd from both by Godís decree,
We harbour here below,
Altho we do at anchor lie,
With many of our fleet,
One day we must set sail again
Our Saviour Christ to meet
Richard McDowell, mariner of Bangor, Bangor Abbey, County Down

 

His voice commands the tempest forth,
And stills the stormy wave:
And though his arm be strong to smite
T'is also strong to save
Erected by Captain Findlyson Kenn in memory of Charles Kenn his brother who perished at sea, with all his crew, by the foundering of his vessel in March 1835, Bangor Abbey, County Down

 

It is estimated that half of the sailors who manned the Royal Navy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were Irish. Their contribution to the British victories at Trafalgar, Copenhagen and the Nile was significant. The death of one such tar is commemorated in the cemetery of Bangor Abbey:

 

Born to a course of manly Action free,
He dauntless trod ye fluctuating sea,
In [p]ompous war, or happier peace to bring
Joy to my Sire, and honour to my King;
And much by favour to the God was done;
Ere half the term of human life was run
One fatal night returning from the bay,
Whence British fl[eets] ye Gallic lands survey,
Whilst with war[m ho]pe my trembling heart beat high,
My friends, my kindred, and my country nigh
Lasht by the wind, the waves arose & bore;
Our ship in shattered fragments to the shore;
There ye flakld surge opprest my darkening sight,
And there my eyes for ever lost the light
Capt George Colvill, of the private ship of war Amazon & only son of Robert Colvill of Bangor, was wrecked near this ground 25th Feb 1780, in ye 29th year of his age.

 

The Irish connections to the Titanic disaster have become part of local folklore: urban myths concerning its construction at Harland and Wolf shipyard; apocryphal anecdotes about the linerís last moments in the icy waters of the Atlantic; legends detailing the contents of its hold; one might be forgiven for believing the ship part of fable, and its fateful maiden voyage part of some ancient saga. We should remember this was a human tragedy on a vast scale. Many of those who perished lie buried in Fairview cemetery in Nova Scotia. One gravestone remembers a crew member and reveres his sacrifice and that of his colleagues:

 

Each man stood at his post
While all the weaker ones went by
And showed once more to all the world
How Englishmen should die
Sacred to the memory of
Everett Edward Elliott of the heroic crew of the SS Titanic died on duty April 15 1912 aged 24 years

 

Some verse makes only oblique reference to the maritime aspect of the demise. The following threnody in Holywood cemetery offers an initial vista of cold comfort that gradually shape shifts into a panorama replete with the glorious expectation of heavenly reward. It represents as complete an example of wish fulfilment, or wishful thinking, as one is likely to encounter:

 

Peace to the tenant of the silent tomb!
That narrow house, but road to future bliss
Though cold and comfortless appears the gloom
To us who shrink beside the vast abyss
We know we all at last must come to this
His loss is mourned but why I cannot say
He's gained a better world by learning this
Tis but a selfish sorrow that would stay
A happy spirit oil the wing for bliss
His presence here however we may miss
A glorious mansion is prepared on high
For him, for thee, and all who love their God
His memory ought not to provoke a sigh
E'en if thy footsteps lead thee to the sod
Where lie his dear remains in dark but short abode.
Sacred to the memory of George Dodshaw of Whitehaven who died at sea on board the Patriot Queen on the 18th of February 1838 aged 27 years

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