Culdaff – the Tomb of the Unknown Sailor

Seán Beattie

On 9 January 1918, the Beagle class destroyer, the RACOON, went down off Inishtrahull island, having ran foul of rocks off the treacherous Garvan Islands. The minesweeper ventured into Inishtrahull Sound, between the mainland and the island on its way to engage in patrol duties in Lough Swilly, having sailed from Liverpool. She was well armed, with quick firing 12-pounder guns and torpedo tubes. Of the crew of 95, 17 were buried at Rathmullan and others were interred along the coast as far as Antrim and even the Scottish islands.

In Culdaff graveyard, there are three Admiralty headstones. A Racoon sailor, J R Wood, K 20055, is interred here. A second grave is that of C Darrall, the Welsh Regiment, who died on 2 July 1940, aged 25. His body came ashore at Tremone Bay and was carried, as was the custom at the time, to the nearest public house. Joseph Beatty, proprietor, arranged for the body to be kept overnight in a bottle store, with a Guard on duty. Dr. Friel, Carndonagh, was called to pronounce death. As residents discussed how to dispose of the body, Mrs Mills of Culdaff House came forward and said that “as he was somebody’s son”, he should be accorded a Christian burial.  

The third grave belongs to the Unknown Sailor of Culdaff. His headstone has no name other than to identify that he was a sailor of the Racoon who died on 9 January 1918. He is simply described as

A SAILOR OF THE GREAT WAR, KNOWN UNTO GOD.

The three bodies lie in a corner of the graveyard, a few yards from the Culdaff estuary and the tempestuous waters that sent them to an early grave.

Paris has its Arc de Triomphe, where an eternal flame honours an unknown soldier. No flame burns for the unknown sailor of Culdaff but his memory lives on amid the sounds of the tranquil waters of the estuary – a truly fitting memorial.

See Book of Inishtrahull . Article featured in Inish Times 9 December 2020. With thanks to Catherine McGinty, Seamus Bovaird, John McFeely, and the late Dr. Friel.

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