In the autumn of 1934, reports started appearing in the local Irish media of sightings of a ghost ship off the East coast of Ulster.
The Belfast media picked up the story, and their headlines and tales of the strange goings on, along the County down coastline, inspired many readers to write to the various letters’ pages.
Many people on the coast at Ballyhornan witnessed the ghost ship. One local, Mrs John McVeigh, reported that the vessel had four masts. It went slowly towards Gun’s Island, which is about half a mile from the mainland, before suddenly disappearing. It’s sails were said to be “faintly luminous.”
Mrs McVeigh’s description of the vessel, spotted off Ballyhornan, was similar to the eyewitness reports from locals in Kilkeel. The only difference being that the ship was moving when at Ballyhornan, whereas it appeared stationary, as if anchored, when it made its appearance near Kilkeel.
More Eyewitness Reports
Additional eyewitness reports from Greenore, on the South side of Carlingford Lough, say that the ship was clearly visible from there, for about seven minutes on the Wednesday evening (17th October 1934).
Mr. Hubert Magee, using a strong pair of binoculars, said the strange ship appeared like a picture drawn on a dark background, with some phosphorescent material.
Subsequent reports of the ship’s appearance along the South Down coastline came from residents in the villages of Kilkeel, Greenore, Annalong and Ballymartin.
The phantom vessel was spotted on several evenings.
One of its appearances came at dusk during a thunderstorm, when the sea was covered with haze.
On another evening, after the vessel was spotted, a number of locals went out on a motor-boat to investigate. But the ship completely vanished from view, when the men were only some hundred yards off the shore.
What makes the mystery all the more puzzling, is that the occupants of fishing boats who landed on the coastline at night, and were believed to have come very close to the mysterious vessel, somehow failed to see the ship, though it was plainly visible to others on the shoreline.
Annalong Woman Faints
An Annalong woman fainted when she saw the “phantom.” Several people in the same district claim to have observed the vessel disappearing, by plunging under the water.
Tis a Warning of Things to Come
An old resident of Ballymartin, a village on that coastline, said that he remembered hearing of the appearance of a similar “phantom ship” during his childhood. Ominously, the old man added that, such sightings were said to be a warning of a forthcoming disaster at sea.
The old man went on to say that the phantom vessel appeared some hundred years previous, just before the disaster in December 1833, that befell the famous Newry vessel, the Lord Blayney, which had set sail for America. The vessel was full of emigrants, all of whom perished.
“It (these sightings) always comes before something, and I wouldn’t be surprised at anything happening,” added the man, who then recalled the terrible tragedy at Carlingford Lough eighteen years before, when the Connemara and Retriever ships collided, with over a hundred lives lost in the disaster. He recalled that the phantom ship was also seen by many people on the coastline, shortly before that catastrophe.
Some local newspaper readers, at the time, sought to dismiss the ghost ship sightings as an optical illusion. But older folk, along the coastline, insist that it’s appearance was always followed by a tragedy at sea.
Ulster’s Flying Dutchman
Some five years later, a few months before the beginning of the Second World War, the Belfast Telegraph columnist ‘John of the North’ reflected on these 1934 sightings.
In the good old sailing-ship days all sailor men firmly believed in the ghostly Flying Dutchman with the spectral Captain Hendrick Van der Decken in command, and when they saw this phantom ship in the offing they didn’t feel so good, for they knew that its appearance heralded disaster.
The same belief is held along the Co. Down Coast regarding the spectre ship, which is sometimes seen by those who see such things. So far as I know there have been no reports of it lately, and God knows if it heralds disaster we don’t want any reports of it, for we have plenty these times to keep us on the jump without ghost-ships. John of the North, Belfast Telegraph, 20th May 1939
A poem was submitted to the Belfast Telegraph in late December 1934, referencing the ghostly coastal sightings two months previously.
The poem refers to Copeland islands off County Down. Copeland has a lighthouse – Mew Island Lighthouse (built in the 1800s). The lighthouse helps to guide shipping around the archipelago and into Belfast Lough.
THE GHOST SHIP
On one dark night off Copeland light
Came gales of driving snow;
Tho cress that sailed the Carymore
Saw ghosts, and went below.
The captain was a seasoned “salt”
His speech was full of damn’s
But words forsook him when he heard
The crew start singing psalms.
The wind rose to a hurricane,
With howl and shriek and roar,
But could not drown the raging dirge
That marked the rockbound shore.
The captain pleaded with the crew
And called them up on deck –
‘Leave singing psalms till Sunday, men!
Or we’ll become a wreck.
But not a move that crew would make
That roused the captain more,
In raging mood he grimly turned
The key that locked their door.
The seas swept o’er that helpless ship
Fast drifting to the shore.
And e’er the light of day came forth
The rocks would claim one more.
The cook was known as “Bare-fut Kate,”
Was born in Cushendal,
And reared upon a peat moss barge
On Portadown canal,
—O captain sir. what can I do?
I’ll cook you herrin’ or ham,
But I was raised upon a barge
And know not hynin from psalm.
The captain loved that brave old cook
And clasped her to his breast:
A mighty wave swept o’er the deck —
The herrings know the rest.
The Carymore still sails the seas
Her crew still singing psalms.
“That’s why there are no herrings!”
Say the cockles to the clams.
By A. COCKLE.
Belfast Telegraph – Friday 28 December 1934
Sources: Northern Whig, Belfast News-Letter, Belfast Telegraph.