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The Curious Case of the Connemara Grave, 2014

The headstone of Rebecca and Mary Harris discovered on the seafront south of Inveran, County Galway.


When John Henry took his two dogs off for a Sunday morning stroll to inspect the southern shores of Connemara after the barrage of storms that pummelled Ireland’s west coast in January 2014, he came in for a considerable surprise.

Walking along the seafront south of Inveran, close to the Aer Arrann airport, the 36-year-old schoolteacher stumbled upon a flat slab of limestone alongside the remnants of a grave and some human bones. [1]

The grave, which had been covered in earth for many generations, evidently became exposed when the roaring Atlantic Ocean waves crashed in 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 Connaught 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 made the Inveran find exciting was that the inscription on the headstone was still perfectly legible. It read:


Mr. Henry, who frequently sailed and fished the Connemara shore, was familiar with the area. ‘It was said there was a burial ground here for unbaptized babies long ago but I never thought it might have been an actual graveyard with proper gravestones’.

A quest to find out more of the Harris family was launched on my Facebook page, then called Wistorical, on Friday 10th January 2014, as per here. The post ignited such interest that, within twenty-four hours, two descendants of William and Mary Harris had been informed.

It transpired 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. [2] On 5 May 1857, he was married at Myross, near Skibbereen, Co Cork, to Mary Rile, a coastguard’s daughter from Norfolk. [3] Their eldest daughter Rebecca was born in early 1858, followed by another daughter 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 begat a flurry of new children, a son and four daughters, all of whom were baptised in the Protestant parish church of Killanin. [4]

William and Mary’s daughter Laura Harris was married in 1880 to Timothy McNiffe, a farmer from Ballyconneely, whose grandson Desmond would later tends the same farm. [5] 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 19-year-old daughter Emily Flo to Patrick O’Driscoll, a Sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary – before he passed away at Ardbear Lodge near Clifden, County Galway, in 1888. [6]

Laura and Timothy McNiffe’s daughter Frances married Albert Donegan, a veteran of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in World War One. 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 trans-Atlantic voyage.

Albert’s grandson Leslie Thompson of Bangor, Co. Down, was the first of the Harris family descendants to be alerted to the discovery of the family grave. A former chairman of the Northern Ireland Stock Exchange, the 67-year-old Ulsterman was much moved by the find which he described as ‘absolutely extraordinary’.

Elizabeth Jones, another descendant of the coast-guard who lives in England, also chanced upon the story through the Wistorical Facebook site. A keen family historian, she was stunned to find such a visible record of her ancestry. ‘’I still can not quite believe this,’ she wrote. ‘It really is spine chilling to see the names of my great-great-grandparents here – just amazing’.

It is thought that the main line of the Harris family has died out but there are descendants of William and Mary Harris’ surviving daughters living in County Wicklow, Canada, London and southern England.

Now that the monument to the sisters has been found, the family are hopeful that their grave will be restored and preserved. On a subsequent visit, John Henry found fragments of what appeared to be another headstone nearby but with no visible signs of an inscription.

‘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, the man who found the slab, agrees. ‘It needs to be protected from the elements because if it’s left as it is, the next storm will break it up. The inscription will certainly weather away soon enough as it’s limestone. It would be nice if it didn’t go too far from its original location so people could still go and see it.’




With thanks to Leslie Thompson, John Henry, Mick McDermott, Elizabeth Jones, Rosemary Tench, Anthony Bacon, Conrad Leech, Sara Howlin, Tom Mansfield, and all others who helped crack this one.




A version of this story ran in The Irish Times on 20 January 2014 as per here.






[1] “Found gravestone on Sun the 5th while out walking with my two dogs. I spend a lot of time on the sea anyway, fishing and sailing, and often walk the shoreline in winter. I had already seen the effects of the storm surge (of Fri the 3rd) on the shore elsewhere in the area so I wanted to see what been done to the shore in the vicinity of what I had always understood to be a burial ground for unbaptized babies long ago. There had been small marker stones evident before and in the last decade someone poured a concrete slab as a gravestone and inscribed a local surname on it, but I never thought it may have been an actual graveyard with proper gravestones at any stage in the past. I was born and raised in the area, local mother but Scottish father. Feel free to pass on my contact details to those relatives of the Harris family if they wish to discuss the stone further or its protection. I have developed a bit of a personal attachment to the stone and the story at this stage.” – John Henry, 15 January 2014.

[2] William Henry Harris was born 5 May 1834 in either Dartmouth or Plymouth in Devon and baptised at St Andrew’s Church in Plymouth on 9 June 1834. He was the son of John Harris, a mariner from Hoe Street, Plymouth, and his wife Rebecca Twiddy who were married in Plymouth on 22 January 1832. He died at Ardbear Lodge near Clifden, County Galway in 1888.

[3] Mary was born about 1835 in Bacton, Norfolk. We do not know when she died. Her father William Rile was also a coastguard. According to a Facebook message from her descendant Rebecca Tench, her sister Louisa was born in Belfast 1855, moved to Cornwall by the time of the 1871 census, married Charles Crewes in 1882 and died on 1 April 1918 in Gerrans, Cornwall. Thanks to Conrad Leech who emailed the civil record to state that William Harris married Mary Rile in Skibbereen on 5 May 1857.

[4] The Harris children baptized at Killanin were Mary Frances Honora (1861, died about 1861/2 … could this be the one on the headstone?), Elizabeth Anne (1862), Laura Bertha Matilda (1864-1901, grandmother of Leslie Thompson), John Charles Harris (b. 1865, died from typhoid in Jamaica 1885) and Emily Flo Harris (1867). William was referred to on their baptismal records as ‘Coastguard at Costello Bay’.

[5] Laura Alberta Matilda Harris married Timothy Hugh McNiffe in 1880 in either Ballyconneely or Clifden, Co. Galway. Their nine children were:

  1. William, married Annie Thornton in 1925 at Ballyconneely. Only one of their seven children, Desmond, survives tending the farm at Ballyconneely.
  2. Edith Mary married William Henry Donaldson who was a barber in Clifden. Their surviving daughter Hazel is living in London.
  3. Laura Jane, married Ernest Bray who was an engine driver at the Marconi Radio Station at Derrygimla, near Ballyconneely. Several of her sistes also married ‘Marconi’ men’.
  4. Alexander, emigrated to Canada. He married Emily May Hollidge, born in England and one of their daughters, Lynn, lives near Toronto.
  5. Emily Gertrude, died aged about 9 years after knocking over an oil lamp which caused a fire in the house.
  6. Alice Maud, married Douglas Steele, another soldier guarding the Marconi Radio Station.
  7. Frances (Fanny), grandmother of Leslie Thompson, married Albert Donegan of Lisburn, County Antrim, who was on Home Guard duty at the Marconi Radio Station. He was wounded at Gallipoli when a bullet passed straight through his shoulder and killed a sergeant standing behind him. He was there when Alcock and Brown made their famous crossingof the Atlantic and landed beside the radio station. Their daughter Laura was mother to stockbroker Leslie Thompson who was himself Chairman of the Northern Ireland Stock Exchange, as well as a past President of the Ulster Reform Club and a member of the Bangor Round Table.
  8. Frederick Charles, was born in 1897. He died a few years ago.
  9. Alfred, born when his mother Laura died in childbirth. There are some children of Alfred and his wife Kathleen still alive. Their son Maurice lives in Dublin, daughter Phyllis in Cambridgeshire, Emily in Greystones, Edie Maude in Wicklow, Anthony in London.

[6] William may have been buried at the Church of Ireland in Ballyconneely, since demolished. His daughter Laura and her husband Timothy were buried there. Emily Flo Harris, then 19, married 37-year-old Patrick O’Driscoll on September 9 1885.