To venture out into the severest storm to rescue stricken ships and helpless sailors was both the final heroic act and all in a day’s work for Captain Boyd and his men.
John McNeill Boyd was born in Derry in 1812. He joined the Royal Navy at the age of 13 and worked his way up through the ranks to become a Captain. In 1858 he became Captain of the HMS Ajax and commander of the Dublin District of the Irish Coast Guard. Boyd will be forever remembered a hero for his acts of bravery when he and members of his crew lost their lives trying to save two ill-fated vessels off Dun Laoghaire Harbour.
One of the most severe storms ever recorded raged on the east coast of Ireland on the weekend of the 8th and 9th of February 1861. Throughout the weekend numerous ships faced the severe gales and were battered and lost to the sea. On Saturday the 9th the Neptune and the Industry sought the shelter of Kingstown harbour (now Dun Laoghaire). They attempted to enter the harbour but got caught in the waves and were smashed against the rocks at the back of the east pier.
Captain Boyd’s guard ship Ajax was stationed in Kingstown. When he got word of the disaster he summoned his men into action ordering a boat to be manned to rescue the crew of the fallen vessels. His men lashed themselves together with ropes and edged down the rocky slope in an attempt to save those struggling to swim ashore. As the heroic Captain alongside his brave crew desperately tried to aid and rescue them, an enormous wave surged over and swept them away. Boyd and five of his crew, Thomas Murphy, John Curry, John Russell, James Johnson, Alexander Forsyth, were drowned.
The bodies of the crew washed ashore a few days later and were buried in Carrickbrennan graveyard in Monkstown. Boyd’s body was not recovered for a few weeks. He was buried with full Naval and Military honours in the graveyard of St Patrick’s Cathedral, in one of the largest most splendid funerals ever seen in Dublin. He was awarded posthumously with the RNLI Silver Medal, the Tayleur Gold Medal and the Sea Gallantry Medal.
Boyd’s eternally loyal dog, a Newfoundland, followed his master to his final resting place. He was with the rescue crew when they recovered Boyd’s body and when the Captain was buried the dog lay down on the grave and refused to leave. Eventually he starved and died next to his master.
Several memorials were set up to commemorate Captain Boyd’s and his men’s bravery. A testiment to how their heroic deeds have touched so many. The memorial on the East Pier in Dun Laoghaire, near the site of the disaster, was erected by the Royal St George Yacht Club. The Statue in St Patrick’s Cathedral was erected by the citizens of Dublin and is inscribed with a poem penned by Dr Alexander, Bishop of Derry:
Safe from the rocks, Whence swept thy manly form
The tide white rush, The stepping of the storm
Borne with a public pomp, By just decree
Heroic sailor! From that fatal sea.
A city vows this marble unto thee,
And here in this calm place, where never sin
of earth great waterfloods shall enter in
When to our human hearts, two thoughts are given,
One, Christ’s self-sacrifice, the other heaven
here is it meet for grief and love to grave
The Christ-taught bravery that died to save
The life not lost but found beneath the wave.
All Thy billows and Thy Waves passed over me, yet
I will look again toward Thy Holy Temple
In Carrickbrennan Graveyard there is sculpture dedicated to the crew. Others are located in Cheltenham, Derry and Portsmouth. Captain’s Boyd’s brave deeds, this and the many previous, make him a true Irish maritime hero.