ISLANDMAGEE, COUNTY ANTRIM: Seafaring is in the blood in this part of Northern Ireland.
So much so that it was proudly claimed that the peninsula (well, an island by virtue of a few feet of water in a culverted stream at the nearby town of Whitehead) had more master mariners and ship’s captains per head of population than anywhere else in the British Isles.
The claims may well be true, for seafaring became a generational way of life and rite of passage for many young men from Islandmagee.
The author Jack London took opporunity to reflect on one such ‘sea salt’ in his short-story The Sea Farmer. This 1914 story surrounds Captain MacElrath, who is from a place in the North of Ireland called Island McGill (no prizes for guessing where it is really set). But unlike the ficticious MacElrath, there are quite a few real-life stories surrounding actual seafarers that eminate from “the island”.
One such person was Captain William McMurtry of Islandmagee, a member of a well-known seafaring family.
Captain McMurtry was the centre of a real life drama in 1896 in the Pacific, as he was homeward bound from Canada on the vessel Kinkora.
The Kinkora was bound from Victoria, British Columbia, to London with a cargo of logs, which were 110 feet long. The passage to Britain would take her round the treacherous Cape Horn, but the Kinkora did not get to that stage of her voyage. Just over 40 days into the journey she sprang a leak and the pumps were proving ineffectual so McMurtry decided to head for the nearest land, which was Clipperton Island in the North Pacific.
By the time they reached sight of the island the vessel was waterlogged and very difficult to manage. The ship’s boat was launched and landed on Clipperton, were they found only three inhabitants, whose role was to harvest the guano which the island had an abundance of. The men all helped to bring the crew of the Kinkora safely ashore but the vessel had rolled with the swell onto a coral reef and started to break up.
The crew had been unable to salvage many provisions before the loss of the Kinkora and there was insufficient on the island. With no prospect of help arriving in the near future, after 18 days it was decided to send the ship’s boat in search of rescue.
The mate, J. McMurtry, brother of the captain, and seven seamen, volunteered to sail to the nearest port, and their boat was loaded with provisions for the voyage.
They sailed to Acapulco and suffered hardships which included 100 miles through a hurricane, exposure and continual bad weather. They were successful despite the odds and 700 miles later arrived in Acapulco, surviving on bully beef and biscuits, fresh water and the odd tot of rum. The British Consul commissioned HMS Comus to rescue those left on Clipperton Island and it took 14 days for her to reach the castaways.
On Clipperton Island a few weeks after his brother had left in the ship’s boat, Captain McMurtry and his remaining crew had contemplated taking over an American schooner which had anchored en route to the Galapagos Islands.
The Islandmagee man had offered financial inducements to the captain, but he was on his way to the Galapagos Islands to catch turtles and was not swayed by the plight of the Kinkora crew. McMurtry had planned for several of his crew to take charge of the schooner while he diverted the captain, but at a crucial point where the plan was about to be enacted, a vessel was sighted on the horizon, which was HMS Comus. What might have easily become an international incidence was averted.
Clipperton Island is a coral island which is just three miles long and from five to 14 feet high and is completely devoid of vegetation, but with thousands of sea birds.
It would have been a far cry from Islandmagee for the McMurtry brothers.
Captain McMurtry’s subsequent career at sea included on board the Fingal, which was the largest sailing ship built in Belfast when she was launched in 1883.
Some years later, in 1903, McMurtry was on a passage from Liverpool to New South Wales when the vessel got into difficulties during the start of the voyage when Fingal was hit by a hurricane squall and she was badly damaged and filled with water, being run aground to save her.
McMurtry sailed her to New South Wales after she was repaired and reloaded, but the exposure which he suffered during the drama resulted in his suffering from congestion of the lungs and he contacted pneumonia during the passage to Australia, passing away there on June 4, 1904, at the age of just 45 years. He is buried at Waverly Cemetery in Sydney and also commemorated on a family gravestone in McGarel Cemetery, Larne.
The story of Captain McMurtry reminds us of a time now past when Windjammers conveyed goods across the world, and among the sailors who manned them were many from Islandmagee.
Materials provided by Edith Chambers, 2000, including ‘Saga of Co. Antrim Sea Captain’, Larne Times, July 8, 1948
This extract is from Tides of Time. A Coastal History of East Antrim, which is published at £20 and available from the author. For more details please contact Thonboyhume@gmail.com