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Accidents and other catastrophes: As reported in the newspapers of the time



They’re all together this time, and the end is come. May the almighty God have mercy on Bartley’s soul, and on Michael’s soul, and on the souls of Seamus and Patch, and Stephen and Shawn; and may he have mercy on my soul, and on the soul of every one is left living in the world....Michael has a clean burial in the far north, by the grace of the Almighty God. Bartley will have a fine coffin out of the white boards, and a deep grave surely. What more can we want than that? No man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied.
J.M. Synge,


Riders to the Sea
[On an island off the West of Ireland, a mother mourns the sixth and last of her sons to be taken by the sea.]


Erected by James Burns in memory of his brother Archibald Burns who was drowned 27th February 1866 aged 28 years Dear wife and parents do not repine Although I was cut off all in my prime For it was done by heaven's high decree The waters proved too strong for me Dry up your tears and do not weep My troubles ended in the deep For I have reached that happy shore.
Templecorran graveyard inscription


The long coastline of Ulster has consigned many ships, sailors and passengers to a watery grave. The worst single loss of life occurred when the Princess Victoria ferry capsized and foundered, with the loss of 134 passengers, off Larne harbour in January 1953. The most famous of all maritime disasters, the sinking of the Titanic, had its origins in Belfast.


However, many of the graveyards that lie within reach of the coast offer a sad reminder of the treacherous nature of the sea and the cold comfort it often offered those who laboured and travelled upon it. Headstones with anchors or ships carved into the headstone are a commonplace sight; inscriptions detailing souls consigned to the depths a not infrequent occurrence.


The Belfast News Letter of July 16, 1912 attempted to resolve what it described as ‘The Belfast Lough Mystery’, concerning the disappearance of three friends who set sail in a small boat from Carrickfergus bound for Islandmagee. Their waterlogged boat was found abandoned at the entrance to the Lough, between Blackhead and Ballycormick Point. The newspaper speculated that the boat may have capsized in a squall or filled with water from the wash of a cross channel steamer. Two of the men could swim but the third was ‘not acquainted with the natatory art’, as the reporter somewhat pretentiously termed it. The men were Joseph Parks, a joiner aged 23; William Keyes, an ornamental plasterer aged 19; and the original object of the historical search, James McCracken, a joiner aged 30, from Landscape Terrace, Crumlin Road.


On July 17 1868 the Belfast News Letter covered another ‘Fatal Boat Accident In The Lough’ which resulted in ‘A most melancholy accident…, resulting in the death of three men, and in consequences of a dangerous character to two others.’ The dead included William Grant, a 35-year-old baker, who left behind a widow and three children.


This lamentable occurrence, at any time of a character to bring gloom with it, was doubly depressing, owing to the unhappy contrast in which it appeared with the animated sports of the preceding part of the evening. The approaching darkness and the strength of the breeze were the only causes that could account for the accident. We may mention that the occupants of the boat were perfectly sober.


The newspapers of the time seemed fixated upon the alcoholic intake of drowning victims. When Roger Dewhurst, a ‘respectable and extensive Corn Merchant’, was drowned in the Newry Canal, the Belfast News Letter stated:


We conclude that the ill-fated gentleman (who was perfectly sober) had intended to cross the bridge; but that instead of diverging a little to the right as he ought, he had inadvertently walked forward, in a straight line, towards the canal, (the bank of which is unprovided with the slightest security to the unwary passenger) and thus fallen in.


The Belfast News Letter of December 28, 1859 revealed the sad details behind the following inscription in Armoy Presbyterian cemetery:


Here lieth the body of Alexander Neill, Surgeon Royal Navy Coleraine who died 22nd June 1857 aged 58 years, also the body of his son Hugh who was drowned at Coleraine 26th December 1859 aged 22 years, Alexander Neill 22nd June 1857 Hugh Neill 26th December 1859.

Melancholy Incident. – A telegram was received in Derry on Saturday, stating that a young gentleman named Neill, a solicitor’s apprentice in the town of Coleraine, was drowned when skating on the Brook Dam, in consequence of the breaking of the ice. After the above was in type, we received a communication from a correspondent in Coleraine, to the effect that Mr Neill lost his life in a praiseworthy attempt to save the lives of two young lads, named Russell and Clarke, who went down through the ice near to where he was standing at the time; and though Doctors Sharpe and Carson were prompt in their attendance, after they were taken out of the water, the three perished, all efforts to restore animation proving ineffectual. The sad occurrence has cast a gloom over the town of Coleraine.


William Bathurst, whose remains lie in Clifton Street cemetery in Belfast, fell victim to a similar fate. The inscription on his family headstone reads:


Erected by William Bathurst jun, in memory of his father Wm Bathurst, who departed this life at Consbrook, Co Down, 23rd November 1867 aged 68 years Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord Also two of his grandchildren who died in infancy.


His death was reported in the Belfast News Letter on Christmas Eve 1867 as follows:


About half-past three o’ clock yesterday afternoon a melancholy ice accident occurred at Kilroot, about two miles from Carrickfergus. It appears that two young gentlemen named Wm. Bathurst, aged about twenty-one years, son of the late William Bathurst, coachbuilder, Belfast, and William Taggart, son of the late Dr Taggart, of Carrickfergus, who were students under the Rev J. H. Bennett, Rector of Templecurran and Kilroot, and boarded in his house, went out to skate on a mill pond connected with what was formerly the Kilroot bleach green. When some distance from the bank the ice suddenly gave way and both were immersed. Some children observed the occurrence and raised an alarm, and a man named Dougal Percy, in the employment of Mr Bennett, proceeded to the place with ropes and succeeded in rescuing Taggart, who was in an exhausted condition, but poor Bathurst had disappeared. Head-Constable McDermott of Carrickfergus, having been made aware of the accident, proceeded to the pond with a number of his men, and a boat having been procured the body was grappled for and recovered, after being two hours in the water. The accident has cast quite a gloom over the neighbourhood.

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