LEARNING THE ROPES: PATRICK MURRAY OF DUNURGAN, CUSHENDUN. Ed. Deirdre Roberts.

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Patrick Joseph Murray was born near Cushendun on 8th March 1872 and died in Glasgow,         84 years’ later. During the last war his youngest son asked for an account of his early life, and this followed in a series of letters. The letters have an interest well beyond family history, for they recall an era of tall ships and the crews who sailed them. Many of Paddy Murray’s shipmates were also from the Glens of Antrim: the poet Dusty Rhodes (James Stoddard Moore)  was the most famous of many Glens’-men who went to sea. Murray was no poet but the prose is clear and vivid, the work of a natural story-teller who was aware that he lacked formal education:

“My Dear Charles you will see that there are many mistakes in both the writing and composition of my story. l can only assure you one thing, and that is it is true in substance and in fact. I shall leave the correction to you with all confidence. You for instance will notice that my thoughts travells faster than my pen sometimes”….

In fact the ‘corrections’ have proved fairly minor and very little has been edited in what follows. What appears here is limited to his early life and apprenticeship at sea. It ends with Ordinary Seaman Murray, aged nineteen, at the helm of a full-rigged ship coming in to Rio de Janeiro. The name Murray or ‘Muriadh’ means mariner, so we may assume that his forebears steered smaller vessels in the waters between Ireland and Scotland.

“The Murray are the oldest family in the townland of Dunurgan, Cushendun. The house I was born in was built by my grandfather Charles Murray in 1828. At that time the family owned most of the townland of Dunurgan and were supposed to be fairly well-to-do. My father Hugh was the eldest of the family. He was twice married: his first wife was a Blany; his second wife was my mother Margaret McGhee of Cloughy, West Glendun. I was the third child of this second family of four boys and three girls.

My father was a fine judge of horses and cattle and attended all fairs. He was known as the ‘Manly Little Man’, and was too ready to go security for other men at auctions. The result was a heavy loss. About the time I was born the family became in reduced circumstances, and after my father’s death our cattle were arrested for others’ debts. I was then about seven years old. My mother died about four years’ later. We, the seven children, were to struggle with our little farm, and true and loyal we stuck to each other and pulled through.

My brother Hugh wished to give the farm to me so that he could go away but I would not accept. I knew that some of us would have to go some day, so I made up my mind to slip off silently, and that I done. In the summer of 1890, I bought four lambs at a fair in Cushendall, and in November of the same year I sold two of them to my brother Neil. The four lambs ran together on the brae until the first week in February 1891. I took the four young sheep to a fair in Cushendun and sold them — Neil’s and mine — but Neil did not know until after. (I have paid him back with interest since.) Next day I was amissing.

Early in the afternoon of the first Thursday of February 1891, I lifted an empty bag and took it in my hand as an excuse to go to the field for potatoes. As I turned the corner of the house I met my sister Mary who was housekeeper and mother to the family. She had a can of water coming from the spring well. I looked back after her and a great lump came to my throat: I was leaving all that I loved best in the world. I knew that Hugh and Mary would not let me go if they knew — hence my run-away.

I crossed the fields behind the neighbour houses and got on to the Cushendall road. I looked back again, then turned and footed it hastily to Cushendall and on through Waterfoot. At the end of Red Bay I went into a wee roadside shop and bought a pennyworth of cakes, then hurried along the Bay Road until I reached a place called Falla-vea. There I waited on the Mailcar returning to Larne. At last the car arrived and pulled up. ‘Haloo me bould fellow, are you bound for Valparaiso?’ shouted the driver. I jumped on and arrived in Larne, then took the train for Belfast. I got lodgings in a nice house in York Street and paid my humble bill, then set out to find a fellow named Archie Walsh who had left Cushendun a week before and was staying with some friends in Belfast. A few nights’ later Archie and I sailed for Glasgow in the old ship ‘Drumaderry’. We stepped off the boat at the Broomielaw, walked over Jamaica Bridge and down Clyde Place looking for Mrs. McSparran’s – our future home when in Glasgow.

We found 57 Clyde Place and passed it to have a look at a large sailing ship that was moored close by. We stood looking up in wonder at the tall masts, heavy yards and multitude of ropes hanging down to the deck. How men could learn and remember the names of all those ropes was a puzzle to us two rustics – little thought I then that in a few short years I would know all about them.

Before we could tear ourselves away we received a friendly tap on the shoulder from another Cushendun boy, Charles O’Hara, who was in one of Mrs. McSparran’s shops. He took us up to the house, where we got our breakfast and a friendly welcome from Mr. and Mrs. McSparran. Mrs. McSparran was like a mother to me and was one of my greatest friends until her death 18 months’ ago. May she rest in peace. She had the largest funeral that ever took place in the County Antrim—there were more than a hundred priests at the burial. She left behind her a family of five sons: one a priest, one a barrister, two doctors and one farmer.

Three days after my arrival in Glasgow, Mr. McSparran got me a berth as a cabin boy in a boat called the ‘Mandarin’, bound for a place called La Rochelle in France. I had to go to Troon to join her. I turned in to my bunk on the Sunday night, and when I woke next morning I heard water splashing on the ship’s side. I got up and went on deck: I could see nothing but water all around. The ship was at sea steaming out of the Irish Channel, and I was on my first voyage.

The second day out we entered the Bay of Biscay, one of the worst seas in the world in stormy weather. I was terribly sick, and could not look at food for three days. By the end of that time we were nearing La Rochelle, and the weather became fine and fairly warm. At the same time my sea sickness left me and my appetite returned with al the healthy vigour of youth. I felt so happy I could hardly keep from jumping up into the air…”

The steamer was detained in the Spanish port of Santander for six weeks due to the loss of a propeller which had to be replaced from Glasgow. During this delay the captain took an interest in Murray so that he learned to steer a ship on the way home at an earlier age than was normal. Anxious to become a ‘real sailor’ he now shipped on a schooner called the ‘Cherokee’ with four of a crew carrying coal for Stornoway. After a few trips under sail up and down the west coast of Scotland Murray joined a steamer trading between Bordeaux and Cardiff. While in this Welsh port he fell out with an unscrupulous lodging-house keeper and nearly lost his sea-bag and possessions. He was therefore especially glad to land a berth on a large sailing ship, the ‘Alfred Ray’.

…“I am happy in my new ship for I will have to learn to be a sailor: up to now I haven’t had a chance to learn. This brigantine carried a royal yard sail, the highest and smallest square sail aloft, and as ordinary seaman it was my job to loose it and furl it. We sailed from Cardiff early in the morning for Portsmouth. I was told to go aloft and loose the royal. I climbed up and up until I reached the royal yard. I had never been up the riggin before — I was trembling, not with fear but nervous. I loosed the gaskets of the sail and its folds fell flopping.

I came down on deck and we hoisted all sail and squared away down the Bristol Channel, down south west along the Devon and Cornish coast to Land’s End and round into the English Channel. Oh what a beautiful sight! Such a sight alas I’ll never see again and nor will anyone else. Why? Because there are no large sailing ships to see and but very few small sailing vessels. The Channel was dotted all over with white sails: large deep.water ships, some homeward bound, some outward to every port in the world, the scene completed by countless coasting vessels. We arrived at Portsmouth and moored at a jetty close to Nelson’s famous ship the ‘Victory’, which was used as a training ship for young navy men.

During my stay in this vessel we made several trips to Seaham (Sunderland) and back to Portsmouth. One Sunday morning while we were sailing in a gentle breeze through the Downs off Margate a deep-water ship was heaving up anchor outward bound on a long voyage. The sailors were pushing round the capstain with handspikes and singing a sea-shanty — chorus: ‘Oh the fire down below’. My young heart flew to them, I would have given the world to be with them, such was my desire to get into a large sailing ship at that period of my life.

By this time I was getting quite good at climbing, and confident. One day while we were discharging in Portsmouth the mate let go the whip, or rope, which we used to heave up the tubs of coal out of the hold to a platform where it was weighed. The whip ran up to the gin or pulley at the derrick head, and the hook on the end of the whip got stuck in the gin. The mate and the others just looked up, and for a moment seemed not to know what was the best way to get it down. Without being told I slipped up the riggin, on to the masthead and on to the liff or rope that held the derrick head up. I slid down to the derrick head, got astride, reached down to the lead-block, got hold of the hook and overhauled it down to the deck in a moment. Everybody watched me in surprise. A stranger passing said, ‘Where does that lad come from?’ I got the impression that they had never seen such a thing done before.

The ‘Alfred Ray’ goes this time to Cardiff. When we arrive there I get homesick so I leave her and make my way to Glasgow, where I prepare to go home for Christmas. In due time I get home, a proud lad with a sailor’s bag on my shoulder. All are delighted to see the wandering boy home again. I stay for about five or six weeks then get ready for away again. I nearly always felt deeply sorry leaving home and was some distance on my way before my sorrow wore away.

I arrive in Glasgow on my second year. I was only a few days there when I was induced to join a little coaster steamer called the ‘Loch Gair’ trading up through the Highlands. We went several times to Loch Etive, once to Portree, Isle of Skye and sometimes to Belfast. The captain was William O’Kane of Glenarm who is still living. I was speaking to him the last time I was in Ireland.

After a couple of months I leave the ‘Loch Gair’ and join a schooner called the ‘Lively Lass’. Her captain was Dan McCart of Waterfoot Glenariff, a cousin of James

McCart, your mother’s uncle who died in Straid. I left her in the June of that year and joined another schooner called the ‘Excite’ of Campbeltown. The captain of this vessel had only one arm: he got the other blown off by a rocket in a shipwreck. We set sail from Glasgow for Loch Etive”….

It is perhaps worth using the coincidence of names to mention at this point that one of Murray’s later berths was in the Clyde-built clipper ‘Loch Etive’. and that once while discussing this in a Cushendall hostelry he was approached by none other than John Masefield, the Poet Laureate  who wrote ‘ I must go down to the sea again’ . John Masefield’s connection with Cushendun stemmed from the fact that his wife was the younger daughter of Nicholas de Lacherois Crommelin, who lived at Cushendun. It emerged in this conversation that the novelist Joseph Conrad had also served on the ‘Loch Etive’. The episode which follows seemed worth relating in this account because it deals with the first of Paddy Murray’s shipwrecks.

…. “All went well until we dropped anchor in a little bay at Connel Ferry, the entrance to Loch Etive. This is a dangerous place for strangers. It is the narrow bottle-neck through which all the water at flood and ebb must pass that empties and fills the large expanse of the whole loch. Right in the centre of this narrow entrance is a rock, awash at low water, submerged at high water. The tide turns so quickly that in a moment it’s like a bursted dam either way. At the turn of the tide we hove anchor and set sail for the cut between the rock and the mainland, but the tide soon carried us on to the rock — and over goes the ship on her side.

Fortunately we had the small boat towing behind: as she struck the small boat swung around to the shelter of the lee side. The vessel while heavily listing still hung on to the rock, as we sprackled into the boat with anything we could grab of our belongings. Soon there was willing help from the shore. Several boats shoved off to us. The men took our bags and left them safe ashore, then with a number of other boats we dodged to the leeward of the ship, which we were afraid might turn turtle at any moment.

Thus we stayed until near high water, when the vessel slipped off the rock and uprighted. With several other boat crews we climbed aboard but alas, too late: the water was beginning to cover the deck. She was slowly sinking. As she drifted with the high tide close to the west shore where there were plenty of trees growing we ran a long line ashore, tied it to a tree, and hauled her in close in order to beach her. The Captain wished to stay on and go down with his ship but we just grabbed him and hised (hoisted) him into the boat. No sooner had we done so than down she plunged, stern first.

We were only just clear of her. Not only did she sink but went clean out of sight — masts, yards and sails, which were still set, and I saw her stern blow out with coal gas as she disappeared. We stood on the beach gazing at the spot where she sank, the old Captain a pathetic figure in our midst, and no wonder for all he had in the world was gone to the bottom. About a quarter of a mile down the loch where the water spreads out her masts and yards came up, the topsail still hanging, but the hull never appeared.

We were taken that night to a little farmhouse on the Fort William side of the loch, where the old man and wife gave some of us their own bed to sleep in. They were most kind to us. Next morning the masts peeped up the same spot. A carpenter living in the district offered the Captain £ 10 for the vessel as she lay on the bank. The Captain took it and paid us our wages: I never felt so sorry to take money from anyone as I did on that occasion. I was only ten days in the ship. There were five of a crew all told. After receiving our wages we got rowed over to the Connel Ferry side and got the Oban train for Glasgow. Long after I made enquiries about the vessel. The carpenter who bought her thought he might be able to raise her by means of empty barrels tightened around her at low water but failed to do so, and so she lay for years.

I arrive in Glasgow anxious to get away ‘deep water’, as going in large sailing ships was termed. I had not long to wait. My good friend Mrs. McSparran (who kept nobody but natives from the Glens of Antrim) got me a berth as ordinary seaman with her cousin Captain Dan McDonnell in a large four-masted full-rigged ship called the ‘Norma’. This ship was brand new, going on her maiden voyage. At the end of June she was towed from Glasgow to Cardiff to load 4000 tons of coal for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. When she sailed from Cardiff this ship had on board almost a whole Irish crew. There were six from County Antrim, two from County Dublin, one from Derry, one from Wexford, two from Waterford, two from Limerick, two from Cork, and two Swedes. The cook and steward I don’t remember where they came from and one from Glasgow.

I was the only one of the ordinary seamen who could take the wheel, and did take my turn with the able seamen. It so happened that it was my wheel going in to Rio past the Sugar Loaf, a high-peaked mountain on the port side of the entrance to the great harbour of Rio de Janeiro. Here we landed in the heat — not only of the sun but in the middle of a revolution: the Brazilian army against the navy. This harbour was a sight to see at that time — miles of great sailing ships at anchor discharging into barges, their lofty masts and yards like a great plantation with the leaves blown away. Alas, it is a sight that neither I nor anyone else will see again”……

Almost at once Murray was to find himself involved in a ship’s mutiny, and came close to losing his life ashore at the hands of Brazilian soldiers. He got away on another full-rigged ship to make the first of three trips round Cape Horn under sail. After his marriage in 1902 to Mary McElheran, who had returned from New York to be with her McCart relations of Ballymena and Barramean, Cushendun, he came ashore and spent most of his life thereafter working in the Partick district of Glasgow. Two of their nine children grew up between Dunurgan and Straid, however, and the family was reunited each summer in Cushendun. Patrick Joseph Murray was brought home for burial in Cregagh churchyard in 1956. Earlier he had donated two windows to the chapel at Cregagh.

 

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Deirdre Roberts is Patrick Murray’s grand-daughter, she published his collected letters and photographs in 2012 in: “Bound for Valparaiso – The Letters of Patrick J Murray”.

1 thought on “LEARNING THE ROPES: PATRICK MURRAY OF DUNURGAN, CUSHENDUN. Ed. Deirdre Roberts.

  1. Patrick’s father was my great grandfather’s brother; both men were sons of Charles Murray. Patrick was a first cousin of my grandfather William Murray.

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