Copeland Islands (Co. Down)

The Copeland Islands, at the southern entrance to Belfast Lough, are most accessible from Donaghadee.

The Norsemen used these islands as a base and named them Kaupmennayer (“Merchant Isles”), later anglicised and shortened to Copman. The Copeland family, of Norman origin, had connections with the area since 1183.

These three islands have been responsible for as many wrecks as anywhere on the Ulster coast. Situated where the strong tides of the North Channel come into conflict with those swirling around the Lough, the resultant Ramharry Race runs, as its Scandinavian meaning indicates, rough and strong. In poor visibility sailing vessels tacking their way against contrary winds or running before a howling gale were set off course by the strong tidal race.

Birds spotted here include Arctic Tern, Brent Goose, Ringed & Golden Plover and Turnstone. Grey and Common Seals are both found.

Great / Copeland Island, the largest island of the group and the closest to the shore, lies 3km north of Donaghadee, across Donaghadee Sound.

Copeland is bleak enough, grassy, and bracken covered in parts. There are sandy beaches at Chapel Bay on the southwest and Deer Bay on the northeast.

The island’s population in the early C19th was almost one hundred, with a school of 28 pupils. This declined until  the last two families finally and regretfully moved ashore in 1946. Its neat farmhouses are now weekend and holiday homes.

There used to be a ferry that allowed visitors to spend two hours on Copeland Island itself, but it is not currently running.

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Mew Island, the smallest of the three, is owned by the Commissioners of Irish Lights, and has a number of small associated islands, all linked and easy to visit on foot from the main island. Landing is possible at the lighthouse jetty.

This island of just over 31 acres is of extremely low profile, 32ft at the highest point, making it difficult to see at night.

The lighthouse (built in 1884) looks like an airport control tower. Apparently, this lighthouse was only automated in 1996, and until then the keepers even maintained a golf course for their entertainment!

Before the lighthouse was built on Mew, the most spectacular wreck was that of the Enterprise in 1801, close to the notorious Ramharry Rock. A slaver, she was returning from her voyage of ill gotten gain by way of West Africa, the Caribbean and New England with a rich cargo and silver dollars worth over £40,000. This valuable cargo was retrieved in 1833 using a new-fangled invention by Alexander Graham Bell called a diving apparatus.

The island’s greatest C20th tragedy occurred on 31st January 1953, when the ferry Princess Victoria got into trouble en route from Stranraer to Belfast in a severe gale. Heavy seas stove in the car deck doors, just after leaving the Scottish port. As the ferry slowly listed and began to sink, it drifted. Captain Ferguson (brother of Harry Ferguson, inventor of the modern tractor) thought she was drifting down the Scottish coast, so the rescue services were sent to the wrong place.

Only when the Copeland lighthouse was sighted was the correct position transmitted. The order was eventually given to abandon ship, and the life rafts were launched. The women and children were all in the first two rafts, both of which capsized. All drowned in sight of the men still on board.

When the rescue services finally came on the scene, the seas were truly mountainous. Great heroism later merited several gallantry awards of the highest level available to non-military personnel. Captain Ferguson and his radio operator David Broadfoot stayed at their posts to the end and went down with the ship. 121 died. There were 44 survivors, all adult males.

The same storm peaked in the North Sea that night. A combination of low pressure, a spring tide surge, and sustained winds raised the sea level more than 3m, flooding Holland over its dykes, and 1,600 were drowned.

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(Old) Lighthouse / Laune / Cross / John’s Island lies 2km north of Copeland Island, across Copeland Sound. It is owned by the British National Trust, which operates a bird observatory.

This island was inhabited by early Christian monastic dwellers, anciently associated with Saint Launas of Bangor Abbey, of whom little is known. A cross used to stand on the island, reflecting its religious connections.

A lighthouse was first erected here in 1711, built from stones quarried on the island by convicts, and improved in 1815 by the Corporation for Preserving and Improving the Port of Dublin, predecessor of the Commissioners of Irish Lights.  As lighthouse engineers saw it in those days, this was the most suitable placement because it was the highest point in the area. Many wrecks were caused because, although the light was clearly visible, the low-lying Mew Island was totally overlooked.

The light was the subject of many complaints and vessels continued to be disadvantaged by the lack of light or fog signal on Mew Island. In July 1847 the Belfast to Liverpool passenger paddle steamer Sea King in thick fog ran aground close to where the Enterprise had been wrecked forty four years before. That same day Athlone ran aground close by. She was soon refloated but the Sea King, only two years in service, became a total loss.

Four years later, in thick October fog, the Cunard paddle steamer Africa ran aground nearby. She was refloated on the next tide but many other less famous ships were not so lucky.

The limitations of the outdated fixed light were demonstrated when the Yorkshireman, new from the builder’s yard, mistook the Donaghadee Lighthouse for Copeland in early January 1854. The master swung his ship prematurely into what he thought was Belfast Lough and was wrecked on the Foreland Rock in Donaghadee Sound.

After sustained pressure from shipping interests, and much procrastination, the Commissioners of Irish Lights eventually agreed to move the Copeland Light to the more logical position on Mew Island.

Saint Ninian gave his name to the Ninion Bushes, a shoal reef to seaward of the islands.

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