I visit the old graveyard in Ashaig quite a lot. I stand in it after dark when the sky is clear as the Northern Lights flicker and dance. The graveyard is a splendid vantage point to photograph the aurora. While my camera is doing it’s long exposure thing I am left to look around me. As with most old cemeteries graves are scattered and seemingly random. Except for 17 by the eastern wall. The regimented care with which the identical gravestones are lined up gives them away as military graves.
Sixty miles off the part of the Donegal coast aptly named Bloody Foreland the visibility was good and the sea moderately rough. It was the 2nd of October 1942 and at about quarter past two in the afternoon the ocean liner Queen Mary collided with the Royal Navy light cruiser HMS Curacoa. In simple terms the Queen Mary was was on a zig-zag course to prevent submarine attack while the Curacoa was on a straight line course. eventually the inevitable happened – The mighty Queen Mary struck the much smaller Curacoa amidships and cut her in two. Six minutes later the Curacoa was gone. The fear of U-boats meant the lightly damaged Queen Mary and the 10,000 US soldiers on board continued on their way leaving the Curacoa’s crew to their fate. Hours later ships returned to rescue 101 of the Curacoa’s crew. 338 sailors died. The whole sad and sorry episode was hushed up and the loss of HMS Curacoa and so many of her men was only announced three years later in the closing months of the war.
Bodies drifted north with the currents and some were washed up 200 miles away on Skye. Sixteen were laid to rest in Ashaig.
Thirteen have names ranks, numbers and ages on them. Three are unidentified, marked with that desperately sad phrase “Known unto God.” The grave of a young RAF navigator who died in 1943 is at the end of one of the rows.
There is a dignity in these well tended and orderly graves in contrast to the unspeakable horror that was visited on the sailors when they died.
That’s why every time I enter the graveyard I pause and pay these men the respect they are due.
When I see the rows of identical rough marble gravestones glisten in the dim moonlight I stop and think for a moment. Most of the people who have ended up in the cemetery have a connection with the land around it. Not these men. They were brought here in the most appalling and tragic of circumstances.