From Darkness into the Tide

On a Thursday evening at the end of July 1869, Mary Gunning was gathering cockles at a place called Beatty’s Gut in Belfast Lough when she found a coffin buried in the sand and mud, held in place by four wooden stakes. She reported the discovery to the Police Office from where Sub-Inspector French sent out a detachment of police to recover the coffin. When they arrived at Beatty’s Gut, they found that the tide had come in and the coffin was once again under water.

On the Friday morning the police returned and managed to relocate the coffin and retrieve it. The coffin was found to contain human bones. The Belfast Newsletter reported on the Saturday that “The coffin was taken charge of by the constabulary, but as yet no light has been thrown on the mysterious occurrences.” So what were the circumstances in which a coffin was fastened in place between high and low tide on the shore of Belfast Lough?

Over the years there have been numerous reports of discoveries of human remains, both coffined burials and unprotected human remains from the shore of Belfast Lough. Along the lough shore, high tide covered up an extensive shelf of estuarine muds and sand that extended out for a considerable distance. Water courses like the River Milewater continued as channels through the muds and sand to reach the main channel in the centre of the lough. Beatty’s Gut was the tidal creek that ran from the bottom of what is now Skegoneil Avenue (original Buttermilk Loaning) and out to the middle of the lough (after two hundreds years of reclamation the foreshore of the lough is now utterly unrecognisable).

Not all finds of human remains were deliberate burials on the foreshore. On Friday 21st December 1867, two workers dredging the Lagan pulled up remains, identified as William Tohill (49) who had been last seen on 13th October 1866 at his daughters house in Lagan Street. How he ended up in the water is unknown (his grand-daughter Catherine Tohill was my great-grandmother). Other accounts of human bones may relate to other, unknown, tragedies rather than actual burials. Where human remains were found along the shore line in coffins in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, though, clearly the remains had been deliberately deposited at that location.

Just after Mary Gunning’s discovery in Beatty’s Gut, David McCormick, a compositor who lived in Durham Street in Belfast, wrote to the Belfast Newsletter (31/7/1869) to explain: “Sir – Having seen a paragraph in your issue today, regarding the finding of a coffin and human remains on the slob-land of the Shore Road, nearly opposite Boyd’s public-house, I may mention, for the information of those not acquainted with the locality and its antecedents, that in by-gone days – so late as fifty or sixty years ago – the place, called “Green’s Barns” was set apart for the interment of suicidal cases, or, as it was termed in those days, persons who had “put hands on themselves”, and who were interred at high-water mark.”

The Belfast Morning News also reported the next day that “The mystery in which, at a first glance, the discovery is shrouded, is removed by the explanation that formerly it was usual to bury at low water persons who had committed suicide, and, in order to prevent the coffin from being floated away, they were secured in the manner above described.

The tidal mud flats to the north of Belfast town extended from what was known as the Point Fields out along the foreshore of Belfast Lough. The Point Fields extended from roughly Clifton House out as far as Yorkgate station (largely what was later known as Sailortown). The mud flats were often referred to as the slob-land or ‘slobs’ although some early nineteenth century accounts suggest there was some hard sand present on the surface in the mid-eighteenth century when it was possible to walk along it from the Point out to Whitehouse. This sandbank certainly was present closer to Belfast town (and is the ‘Fearsaid’ that gives the town its name). But soil profiles through the mud flats don’t suggest that there is a buried inter-tidal surface of hard sand. So if it formerly existed, it must have washed away. It may even have been eroded by wave action from the ever increasing size of shipping into Belfast.

Map of Belfast Lough, from mid-19th century, showing extent of mud flats (slobs), names and arrows are added based on descriptions. Solid black line is Belfast-Ballymena rail line, just off the shore. Red arrows mark water courses through the mud. Second red arrow (from bottom) shows location of Milewater channel with land to the north known as Thomson’s Bank and former Point Fields to the south. The bottom red arrow is Ritchies Dock, opened in 1790s. This was possibly over the outlet of the Fenian Gut into the Lagan. The Farset (High Street) and Blackstaff (Mays Dock) were similarly the outlets of rivers that became a focus for settlements and industry.

These physical spaces can no longer be recognized from their placenames and only really survive on maps. The ‘Point’ that gave its name to the fields was the corner of land that jutted out towards the navigable channel of the River Lagan. The River Milewater cut through the slobs lands just beyond the Point (this was to act as the boundary of the borough of Belfast). Further east was Ringans (sometimes Ringings) Point. Beatty’s Gut lay in between, where the stream alongside the Buttermilk Loaning (now Skegoneil Avenue) emptied into the lough. The term ‘Gut’ appears to be used for tidal rivers, particularly in mud flats, and is also recorded in similar locations in Cork, Dublin and Wexford. A placename that survived in North Queen Street into the 1960s, the Fenian Gut, appears to refer to a stream shown opposite Henry Street on early nineteenth century maps. The ‘Fenian Gut’ may have been the feature that denoted the town end of the Point Fields.

The area beyond the Point was gradually reclaimed by John Thomson from around 1820 with a large embankment raised on the tidal muds to keep out the tidal waters and a channel left for the Milewater. This became known as Thomson’s Bank. The same method was used to reclaim the area of the Market on the other side of the town. It is possible that the Point Fields or parts of Belfast city centre were originally similarly reclaimed spaces around the river outlets that became High Street and Mays Dock (see map above).

Beatty’s Gut lay just outside the municipal boundary of Belfast in the early 19th century. At the time, and probably since at least the 17th century, superstitions and taboos surrounded the remains of those who had committed suicide. Similarly, the remains of people who had been executed, and even murder victims received different treatment in death than those who died naturally. Famously, unbaptised children were excluded from being buried on unconsecrated ground (largely due to theological ideas propounded at the Council of Trent that ended in 1563). This promulgated the theological underpinning that perpetuated a practice of burying unbaptised children in specific locations or areas of graveyards. This is often presented as a ‘Catholic’ tradition but debates around the Catholic use of established church burial grounds and individual cases in England suggest it was still an issue with the Anglican tradition (if not others) in the 19th century. O’Laverty names at least on such cillín (as they are known) in Belfast and there is current research that is establishing if others were present. There are suggestions from former residents of the Shore Road that the space now known as ‘Ringans Point’ was formerly a cillín (but rather than try and deal with this in detail here, I’ll come back to another day).

The discovery of coffined burials below the high tide line is recorded from various locations along the shore. Each can be tied to an area that clearly lies beyond the shoreline shown on pre-1800 maps (see the general information summarized on the map). Some were brought before the coroner (although no inquests were held), others were reburied. In no case was a cause of death described that might corroborate the assumption that they had not died of natural causes.

Mary Gunning’s gruesome discovery is one of many along the foreshore of Belfast Lough. In a future post I’ll look at some more of these burials and explore a bit more about what they tell us.

By the way – if you are affected by issues in this post there are people willing to listen, such as MindWise (click here).

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