The 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.
U-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.