An ancient Connemara headstone exposed by the storms

The discovery of a headstone for two sisters who died in 1860 prompted an online quest

The headstone of Rebecca and Mary Harris discovered on the seafront south of Inveran

The headstone of Rebecca and Mary Harris discovered on the seafront south of Inveran

 

When John Henry took his two dogs off for a Sunday morning walk along the southern shores of Connemara after the recent storms, he came in for a surprise.

Walking along the seafront south of Inveran, close to the Aer Arann airport, the 36-year-old schoolteacher stumbled upon a flat slab of limestone alongside the remnants of a grave and some human bones.

The grave had become exposed when the roaring Atlantic Ocean waves crashed upon it. Indeed, the sea was so powerful that it appears to have lifted the headstone from the earth and flung it to one side. While Storm Hercules caused much damage to the Connacht coastline, it also revealed a number of secrets amid the shifting sands, including at least two medieval burial sites and parts of a Neolithic bog.

What makes the Inveran find exciting is that the inscription on the headstone is still perfectly legible. It reads:

“To the memory of Rebecca Louisa, who departed this life 27 December 1860, aged 3 years; and Mary Louisa, aged 1 month, the beloved daughters of William & Mary Harris, but Jesus called them unto him and said ‘suffer little children to come unto me and forbid them not for such is the kingdom of God’ – Luke 18 16.”

Henry frequently sails and fishes the Connemara shore so is familiar with the area. “It was said there was a burial ground here for unbaptised babies long ago, but I never thought it might have been an actual graveyard with proper gravestones,” he says.


Who were the Harrises?
A quest to find out more about the Harris family was quickly launched on the Wistorical Facebook page. The post ignited such interest that, within 24 hours, two descendants of William and Mary Harris had been informed.

It transpires that William Harris, the father of the two girls, was an English coastguard who operated out of Costello Bay off the Galway coast during the second half of the 19th century.

Mr Harris, who was born in 1834, was the son of a Plymouth mariner and moved to Ireland as a young man. In about 1857, he was married at Myross, near Skibbereen, Co Cork, to Mary Real (Rile), a coastguard’s daughter from Norfolk. Their eldest daughter, Rebecca, was born that same year, followed by Mary in 1860.`*

There is no record of what calamity befell the family in the winter of 1860, when Rebecca and Mary died. In time, their mother had new children, a son and four daughters, all of whom were baptised in the Protestant parish church of Killanin.

William and Mary’s daughter Laura Harris was married in 1880 to Timothy McNiffe, a farmer from Ballyconneely, whose grandson Desmond tends the same farm to this day. When William signed on the witness statement on the marriage certificate, he gave his occupation as “coastguard pensioner”.

William lived to see most of his children marry – including his daughter Emily Flo to Patrick O’Driscoll, a sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary – before he passed away at Ardbear Lodge near Clifden, Co Galway, in 1888.

Laura and Timothy McNiffe’s daughter Frances married Albert Donegan, a veteran of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in the first World War. Albert was working at the Marconi radio station near Clifden when Alcock and Brown crash-landed in the nearby bog in 1919, having just completed the first ever transatlantic voyage.

Albert’s grandson Leslie Thompson, of Bangor, Co Down, was the first of the family’s descendants to be alerted to the discovery of the family grave. The 67-year-old Ulsterman, a former chairman of the Northern Ireland Stock Exchange, was much moved by the find.

Elizabeth Jones, another descendant of the coastguard who lives in England, also chanced upon the story through the Wistorical Facebook site. Jones, a keen family historian, was stunned to find such a tangible record of her ancestry. “I still cannot quite believe this,” she writes. “It really is spine-chilling to see the names of my great-great-grandparents here – just amazing.”

There are Harris descendants living in Co Wicklow, Canada, London and southern England. Now that the monument to the sisters has been found, the family is hopeful the grave will be restored and preserved.

“‘I hope that the headstone will not be allowed to remain on the beach,” says Leslie Thompson. “Perhaps there might be a Church of Ireland nearby where it could be erected in a graveyard?”

John Henry, who found the slab, agrees that “it needs to be protected from the elements, because if it’s left as it is, the next storm will break it up. It would be nice if it didn’t go too far from its original location so people could still go and see it.”

* This article was amended on Tuesday, January 21st to correct an error.

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