For any visitor to an ancient churchyard the most obvious type of entry which forces its way into the observer’s consciousness is the number of recordings of the deaths of children. Donaghadee’s churchyard is no exception. An amazing 581 of the people recorded on the headstones were under 21 years of age at the time of their deaths. A few were well-grown youths, but the vast majority were young children. We know something of the circumstances, e.g. dates of death and ages, of almost 400 of these young people, but as many as 201 children had their deaths marked without indication about what their names were nor an exact date when they died. It seems likely that a few were infants, but that most were still-born or only survived for a brief time.
Over half of these children (301), both named and anonymous, died in the first half of the nineteenth century. Care must be taken before making any conclusions, because we already know that the peak decades for all recorded deaths were at that time. When the number of deaths of children for this half-century are compared with the number of deaths in other half-centuries we discover that in the two halves of the eighteenth century, child mortality, at least as far as the inscriptions tell us, was 28% and 29% respectively. The rate for the first half of the nineteenth as recorded on the Donaghadee headstones was 22.5%, and for the latter half of that century 22% of the total population. The global figures are too small, and the surviving record of deaths too haphazard for any definitive conclusions to be drawn, but any statistician would agree that these are certainly interesting figures. They do seem to indicate that although heartrending by twenty-first century standards this death-toll did reduce a little from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century – perhaps especially surprising when one considers the Great Famine and the fevers which accompanied it.
When people view the past they often imagine that for everyone life was “nasty, brutish and short.” What must be contrasted with the depressing child mortality noted above is the incidence of long life for many indicated on the Donaghadee gravestones. A large number of those named were recorded as being in their seventies and eighties; as many as 47 were in their nineties and three were shown as centenarians. Mary Young died at the age of 100 in 1804, Mary Mountgomery was 104 when she died in 1794 and John Taylor was a staggering 121 when he died in 1775.