32 Achill People Drowned at Westport Quay
On the morning of 14th June 1894 a large crowd assembled at Darby’s Point, Cloughmore, at the south-east corner of Achill. They had traveled from villages all over Achill Island and the Curraun Peninsula. About 400 people, many of them teenagers, were about to set off on a journey to Scotland to work ‘tattie hoking’, or picking potatoes. This annual event would see the young people of Achill travel to the west of Scotland to stay and work for up to six months during late spring, summer and into the autumn. In 1894 it is believed that an unusually large number of first-timers were travelling, due to a poor potato harvest at home the previous year which forced families to purchase seed potatoes in the spring as their own were rotten. These were purchased on credit to be repaid when the migrant workers returned later in the year, so families needed the income from as many working children as they could send.
We can only imagine the atmosphere at the quayside as the youngsters waited for the currachs to take them the short hop to one of four hookers which would bring them across Clew Bay to Westport, where they would transfer to a steamship to Scotland. A hooker is a large wooden-hulled sailing boat, typically used for fishing or cargo. Such was the enthusiasm among the travellers that the first hooker to load – The Victory – was carrying 126 people when it set off. In later testimony, the captain of one of the other hookers said there were so many people on The Victory that he didn’t know how they could all fit.
As The Victory approached Westport Quay its passengers caught their first sight of the large steamer, the SS Elm, which would take them to Scotland. They rushed to one side of the hooker to get a better view, making the boat unstable, and before the captain could take action a gust of wind caught the sails and the boat capsized. The passengers were thrown into the water but worse, the boat came after them and many were trapped under the large canvas sails which became heavy and impenetrable once wet.
At the time the SS Elm was grounded, waiting for the tide to refloat it. Two Westport youths, Daniel Burke and Edward O’Malley, both 17 years old, had sailed out to The Elm with messages when the drama began. Edward O’Malley later gave a detailed, and very eloquent, statement of events:
All of a sudden as it [The Victory] came nearer it changed course and we were stuck … as we saw it capsize. The water was a struggling, screaming mass of human beings. Some were grabbing their companions in order to try and save themselves. But the inevitable result was that they were dragging one another underneath. Daniel Burke and I jumped into our boat and pulled away from the steamer to help in the rescue operation. We kept hauling as many as we could out of the water and into our boat, while several others clung to gunwales. In a few minutes our boat was packed with water-sodden people, men and women. We must have had over two dozen of them. In the excitement we did not realise that we were near to providing another tragedy, for with our cargo and those clinging onto the sides the water was pouring over the gunwales and the boat was nearly awash. Fortunately a stevedore on the steamer was quick to realise our plight, and jumping into a boat he pulled over to us and took off some of those on our boat as well as those clinging to the side. Some of the sailors tried to release some of the unfortunate victims who were trapped beneath the sails. And although they were successful in extricating a few they were powerless to release the others owing to the weight of the sodden sails. I remember looking in that direction while we were rescuing others and I could see the heads of the submerged ones being pressed up against the sails in their brief but vain struggle for survival. The bulge of each head in the sail reminded me of a football.
In total, 32 people drowned in the tragedy. These included three sisters, Mary (24), Margaret (19) and Ann (15) Malley, from the Valley. One of the youngest victims, Mary McFarland (12), had been returning to her home in Glasgow after visiting with relatives in the townland of Tonragee. The bodies were laid in a cargo shed at the quayside while preparations were made for their return to Achill.
The recently constructed railway line from Westport to Achill began services as far as Newport in February 1894, but had not been operational for the further stretch from Newport to Mulranny and onwards to Achill Sound. It was agreed that a train would take the victims of the drowning, as well as the survivors, all the way from Westport to Achill the following morning. This fulfilled the first part of a bleak prediction made in the seventeenth century by the north Mayo based prophet ‘Red’ Brian Carabine, who said: “Carriages on wheels with smoke and fire will come to Achill and the first and last carriages will carry dead bodies”. Made over 100 years before the invention of the steam train, sadly the second part of this prophecy also came to pass with the Kirkintilloch tragedy in 1937.
On the morning of 15th June 1894 crowds gathered all along the railway line from Westport to Achill Sound. The Mayo News newspaper reported at the time:
At Achill Sound the whole countryside was black with people. The cries which rent the air and the whole scene generally was appalling. The train stopped amidst a large crowd who surrounded it. Officer Lavelle had a large number of carts ready to convey the bodies to the cemetery. Each survivor, on leaving the train, was embraced by relatives. The relatives of the victims were frantic with grief and rent the air with their sad cries. As each coffin was removed, Mr. Grey Jnr announced the name on the lid, and this was followed by a cry of woe from the respective knot of relatives. Black flags marked the way across the bridge and on the route to Kildavnet cemetery. A thick mist had begun to fall some time before. As the first shovelful of earth fell upon the coffins the rain fell more heavily and a fierce storm arose. And the wind shrieking over the mountainside and along the valleys of Achill seemed to wave in sympathy with the poor sorrow-laden islanders.
The victims were laid to rest in a communal grave in Kildvanet cemetery, the single headstone listing all their names:
BRIDGET M LOUGHLIN
WINIFRED M NEELA
SEBINA M NEELA
MARY A LAVELLE
MARY M FARLAND
WHO WERE ACCIDENTLY DROWNED
IN CLEW BAY
ON JUNE 14th 1894
R. I. P.