John McNeill Boyd was a sailor for most of his life, quickly working his way through the ranks of the Royal Navy. He died heroically trying to save the lives of fellow sailors during some of the worst storms ever to hit the east coast of Ireland. He is buried in the graveyard of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.
John McNeill Boyd was a Derry native who joined the Royal Navy in 1825, aged just 13. He worked his way up the ranks, becoming a Captain in 1856. He served as Lieutenant on the HMS St Vincent, the HMS Winchester, the HMS Eurydice and the HMS Thetis before joining the HMS Superb as second in command under Edward Purcell. He was appointed captain of the HMS Conway in 1857. A year later, he became Captain of HMS Ajax and commander of the Dublin District of the Irish Coast Guard.
February 1861 saw severe storms sweeping along the East coast from Bray to Drogheda. Some of the worst storms recorded resulted in many ships, and dozens of lives being lost. The harbour at Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) was littered with debris and the wreckage of sunken and foundering vessels.
On Saturday 8th February, three stricken vessels, the Neptune, the Industry, and the Mary, were trying to get to the safety of the harbour. The Neptune smashed against the East Pier, with all its crew thrown into the water. Boyd immediately summoned his men to man the boats for the pier. Some of Boyd’s men lashed ropes around themselves and plunged into the sea to attempt to get on-board either of the other two stricken vessels but the sea was too powerful. Around noon, there was finally a lull in the storm, but an enormous wave suddenly swept over the breakwater where Boyd and his crew were standing. They were swept to sea, Boyd, five of his crew, and at least twenty-one townspeople were lost. The injured sailors were treated on board the Ajax by Dr Buchanan, the ship’s surgeon, who also had to break the news of Boyd’s death to his wife Cordelia.
The bodies of the crew washed ashore days later, but Boyd’s body was not recovered for several weeks. He was buried in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral graveyard on March 5th 1861, with full military and naval honours.
Legend tells us that Boyd’s Newfoundland dog, who accompanied the rescue boat that recovered his body, followed him to the grave. When it was filled, he lay on top and refused to leave, eventually dying of hunger. Many claim to have seen the dog appear at the base of his statue in the Cathedral, former Dean, Very Rev. David Wilson, reputedly among them.
Boyd was posthumously awarded the RNLI Silver Medal, the Tayleur Fund Gold Medal and the Sea Gallantry Medal.
A memorial on the East Pier at Dun Laoghaire was erected by the Royal St George Yacht Club near the site of the disaster. There is a memorial in Christ Church, Cheltenham, where his brother was minister, erected by members of the congregation of the church, and another in St Columb’s Cathedral in Derry, his birthplace. This consists of a relief showing Boyd pointing seawards instructing sailors to throw a life-line. Yet another, a wall tablet, was erected in St Ann’s Church, Portsmouth, “in high appreciation of his services and admiration for his character by his brother officers of Her Majesty’s Navy”. There is also a sculpture in Carrickbrennan Graveyard, showing a broken mast with the names of those lost, and a relief depicting drowning sailors with ropes being thrown to them. The statue in the Cathedral was erected by the citizens of Dublin, the pedestal inscribed with a poem by Dr Alexander, Bishop of Derry. The number of memorials to Captain Boyd show how his heroism touched so many, and the high esteem in which he was held, both by his fellow officers and the public.
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