Thursday, April 10, 2014

Joseph Conrad's 'Typhoon' and Captain MacWhirr of Ballyhalbert (with thanks to Lindsay Young of Falkirk)

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) was born in Poland but moved to England and became a novelist, some would say he was one of the finest novelists of all time. His 1902 book Typhoon is the story of a Captain MacWhirr who sailed his ship into a typhoon in the Pacific Ocean. The original MacWhirrs were from near Ballyhalbert. The spelling varies.

McWhirk's Hill is not far from where I live (a local tradition verified by Griffiths Valuation) and my grandfather referred to it in one of his own poems.

'There is McWhirk’s Hill,
And it tops the bill
For a view, delightful and grand;
Its fine shady trees,
And its nice cooling breeze –
There’s no finer spot in the land.'

A gravestone in little Ballyhalbert graveyard where many of my Thompson ancestors are buried tells a bit about Captain MacWhirr. About a year ago Lindsay Young from Falkirk sent me this information for me to post here.


'... As I continually research my ancestors and their friends, the links between Ayrshire, Campbeltown Dumfries and Galloway the Solway and Cumbrian Coast, Liverpool and North Wales, the Isle of Man and of course County Down and Antrim always continue to intrigue and amaze me. In these days of a resurgence of the idea of national identity, many of our ancestors appear to be clearly British continually breaking the boundaries of being from just only one of the Countries or islands of the British Isles. No doubt they were proud of where they lived and where they came from, but they were not accepted as indigenous people where they lived, nor quite remembered from where they came from. We are the Ulster Scots and if you live in these areas you’re probably in the gene pool too!

A search though my photographic collection caused me to stumble on this Gravestone which is typical of Coastal towns and villages. This one is particularly tragic and full of historical information, particularly with the mention of Joseph Conrad who served under John McWhir whilst at sea and then used his character in the book “Typhoon”.

And of course there is a Troon connection. In 1896 my grandfather came to Troon as a baby with his parents and brothers and sisters from Cloughey/Ratalla, almost the next villages down from Ballyhalbert, where the McWhir’s lived.

Intrigued to know a bit more about the sinking of the “Lizzie” off Corsewell point in 1898 I had a look in the British Newspaper Archive to find another Troon Connection ...'


In his intro to Typhoon, Conrad gives this cryptic account:

'...What was needed of course was Captain MacWhirr. Directly I perceived him I could see that he was the man for the situation. I don't mean to say that I ever saw Captain MacWhirr in the flesh, or had ever come in contact with his literal mind and his dauntless temperament. MacWhirr is not an acquaintance of a few hours, or a few weeks, or a few months. He is the product of twenty years of life. My own life. Conscious invention had little to do with him. If it is true that Captain MacWhirr never walked and breathed on this earth (which I find for my part extremely difficult to believe) I can also assure my readers that he is perfectly authentic. I may venture to assert the same of every aspect of the story, while I confess that the particular typhoon of the tale was not a typhoon of my actual experience...'

In 1887 Conrad is believed to have sailed under a Captain John McWhir of Ballyhalbert, no doubt the inspiration for the book. John went down with his ship in November 1895. Three years later in November 1898 his brother David went down with his ship, the Lizzie of Kircubbin, in a storm - she is thought to have been blown across the North Channel and sank at the north tip of Scotland's Mull of Galloway, at Corsewall Point. Conrad began writing Typhoon, perhaps as a memorial to the seafaring brothers McWhirr, the next year, 1899, and it was finally published in 1902.

Conrad relocated his fictional MacWhirr from Ballyhalbert to Belfast - '...It was impossible in Captain MacWhirr's case, for instance, to understand what under heaven could have induced that perfectly satisfactory son of a petty grocer in Belfast to run away to sea. And yet he had done that very thing at the age of fifteen ...'

And on it goes.

A Samuel M'Whirr of nearby Balligan was a subscriber to the Bard of Dunover Andrew McKenzie's 1810 book 'Poems and Songs on Different Subjects'. Agnes McWhirk signed the Ulster Covenant in Ballyhalbert Orange Hall in 1912. The Ballyhalbert McWhirr's are almost forgotten, so it was great to see that a descendant, David Harvey McWhir, had this memorial erected in 2006.