A small act of remembrance

IMG_9038The little protestant church in Belmullet has been closed for half a century. Stark and forlorn, it stands on the edge of town, surrounded by its dead, waiting for revival or resurrection. You can find redundant Church of Ireland churches like this all over the west, uncomfortable reminders of the sea of faith’s long withdrawing roar.

But this church on the edge of County Mayo holds a strange surprise. In one corner of the graveyard there is a huddle of thirteen neat gravestones, each bearing the distinctive mark of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission – regimental badge, rank, name, unit, date of death and age. There are British soldiers and sailors and airmen here; a sapper from the Royal Engineers, a trooper from the Royal Armoured Corps, a 55-year-old RAF wing commander. All they have in common is that the sea took them, and the sea gave them up to Erris.

IMG_9020U-boat attacks on British shipping during WWII meant bodies were often washed ashore on the harsh Atlantic coastline from Belmullet down to Blacksod. Five of the servicemen laid to rest here died in the sinking of the troopship Mohamed Ali El-Kebir off Donegal on 7 August 1940. Four more were lost on 2 July 1940, when the SS Arandora Star was hit by a torpedo 125 miles off the Irish coast.

By an awful irony, the Arandora Star’s cargo wasn’t troops or military supplies. She was carrying 1200 German and Italian internees from Liverpool to camps in Canada, and 713 of them drowned, along with 37 military guards. The first that Erris knew of the disaster was a month later, on 3 August, when some locals found a decomposing body floating in the surf near Binghamstown, between Belmullet and Blacksod. Documents in the man’s overcoat showed him to be an Italian who until two months before had been living in Pontypridd in South Wales. He was just the first.

Later that day a second body was seen floating by the base of the cliffs at Erris Head, but no one could reach it. The following morning, a third was spotted in the sea off the Inishkea Islands.

Within days there were around 100 bodies floating off the Inishkeas. Some would never be recovered, in spite of heroic efforts by local people, who risked their lives to bring the lost to land. Others had nothing to show who they were when they were finally brought to shore. One carried a medal bearing the inscription, ‘Catholic: in case of accident send for a priest.’ Another had a bottle opener in his pocket inscribed ‘Tennents Lager’.

Two men went out through the crashing waves in a curragh to get a rope round the drowned man by the cliffs at Erris Head, and volunteers hauled him up the 200ft-high cliffs. He was wearing a pin-striped tweed suit and black shoes, and in his pockets were a religious medal, a pack of cards and a threepenny bit. That was all.

The soldiers, most wearing full uniform, were identified by their tags: Trooper Frank Carter, Private Donald Domican, Gunner Wallace Goodwin, Private William Chick. That’s how these four young men came to be buried in the little graveyard at Belmullet, how I come to this small act of remembrance. A farmer and two young lads waded out waist-deep into the sea with a towline at Annagh Head to bring in the body of 19-year-old Private Chick. When they’d got him ashore they found a photograph of a girl in his breast pocket, and they wept.


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15 Responses to A small act of remembrance

  1. Dara Hurt says:

    Thank you for this Adrian. With no parishioners to pass by their graves, they seem forlorn indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. KM says:

    Hi Adrian, this is a lovely piece about the history of our beautiful church, and about the graves surrounding it. However, I would like to say that we (Coiste Oidhreachta Iorrais) are taking steps to conserve the church and its surrounds. We are very mindful about paying respect to those buried there, and to their families, who still visit from all over the world. We will be holding our annual Christmas Carols by Candlelight event on Sat. 16 December 2017 in the church – you are very welcome to come along! (P.S. Hope you don’t mind if we share this blog on our Facebook site)

    Liked by 2 people

  3. A beautiful and sensitive article. Lovely to read it.


  4. Dan Ward says:

    Poignant and heart felt. Where humanity triumphed however briefly over war.


  5. Robert Armstrong says:

    Hi Adrian
    I passed by the church today and saw the war graves, I had seen two other war graves yesterday near Blacksod. I was wondering what the history was and was looking on the internet when i came across your article.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very moving, aren’t they? There are quite a few along the coast. Some on Achill, I think.


      • Steven Mack says:

        Thank you Adrian. Like others, I came across your wonderful article while searching the internet for details of my grandfather, one of those buried at this church. The John H Warham buried there in grave 9 was just 25 years old, a similar age to many who perished. The inscription includes mention of my mother, Jeanne, who was less than 2 years old at the time he died and so never knew her father. This was a reality for many families at the time and the invisible sacrifices made by all who are affected by war remains as powerful today as always. As a descendant of one of those buried in this place I wish to gratefully thank those who care for the grounds and who have done so throughout the years.


      • And those graves are beautifully cared for, Steven. Thank you for your comments.


      • Stephen, may I pass on an email I’ve just received which relates to your grandfather?

        “As part of a community group, Ceathru Thaidhg, Erris, North Mayo, we are researching / restoring our WW2 lookout post , LOP 63, Portacloy . On reading the log books , from Miltary Archives, Dublin, Ireland we had found that the body Private JH Warham was washed ashore 02/09/1940 . Together with Dr Michael Kennedy we have tried to find a descendant and note that you have a comment by Steven Mack who is JHWarham’s Grandson . We would greatly appreciate if you could pass our email addresses to Steve Mack . ameliastein44@gmail.com AmeliaStein +
        Treasa Ní Ghearraigh (Comhar Dún Chaocháin Teo) dunchaochain1@gmail.com


  6. marty21 says:

    Came across this whilst looking into family from Binghamstown/Belmullet. My father was born near Binghamstown but spent most of his life in Bath, Somerset. I remember seeing this place during long summers spent in Mayo in the 70s. Interesting article.


  7. marty21 says:

    Fine places to divide your time in !


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