Kirkintilloch Fire Disaster 1937

10 Young Achill Men Killed in Bothy Fire in Scotland

In the early morning of 16th September, 1937, a fire broke out in a ‘bothy’ (stone barn) in Kirkintilloch in the east of Scotland. Inside were ten boys and young men from Achill, aged from 13 to 23, who had arrived the previous day. They had been in Scotland for the summer as part of a squad of tattie hokers – seasonal potato pickers who moved from farm-to-farm – that comprised 26 in total, including 14 girls and young women. Many of the squad were related to each other, including several brothers and sisters. Tragically, all ten that were sleeping in the bothy were killed in the fire; the girls, along with the foreman and his 12 year old son, had been housed in an adjacent cottage and tried in vain to rescue the boys from the burning building. The door to the bothy was locked from the outside and rescuers were only able to open it once one of the potato merchants who had been working on the harvest had arrived.

News of the tragedy was relayed to Achill via telegram, with families of the young potato pickers gathering at the Garda station and the Post Office in Achill Sound to hear details of the heartbreaking event. At first it was suggested that the victims be buried in the local cemetery in Kirkintilloch, but this was swiftly rebuked with the arrival of a stark four word telegram from Achill. It read simply, “Beir Abhaile Ar Marbh”, which translates as, “bring home our dead”.

The bodies were transported by boat to Dublin, where large crowds gathered to pay their respects and show support for the families. From Dublin they were carried by train to Westport, with more crowds gathering at bridges, crossings and stations en-route. In Castlebar and again at Westport, they knelt all along the platforms. In Achill Sound a crowd of 3,000 had gathered to greet the specially-commissioned train that carried the bodies (the Westport-Achill line had closed in 1934). They were then transported by car to the cemetery in Kildavnet and buried in a shared grave bearing their names and villages:

Thomas Cattigan (Achill Sound)
Patrick Kilbane (Achill Sound)
Thomas Kilbane (Achill Sound)
Owen Kilbane (Shraheens)
John Mangan (Pollagh)
Thomas Mangan (Pollagh)
Michael Mangan (Pollagh)
John McLoughlin (Saula)
Martin McLoughlin (Saula)
Patrick McNeela (Shraheens)

A number of articles and broadcasts have been made about the Kirkintilloch Fire Disaster, and we will post links to some of the best ones below. However a project conducted in the 1990s with involvement from both Achill and Kirkintilloch produced a series of storyboards which provide a very detailed account of the tragedy (click on an image to open the larger view):

Credits for these storyboards:

Conradh na Gaeilge Glaschú is indebted to a number of organisations and individuals who have contributed to this project.

The concept of this exhibition, together with all design and display, is the work of James Higgins of East Dunbartonshire Museums. Research and preparation of text is by Don Martin of East Dunbartonshire Information & Archives. Translations in Gaeilge are by Conradh na Gaeilge BAC and Gael Linn. Translations into Gáidhlig are by Comunn na Gáidhlig. Photography is by Anne Marie McNulty (Achill) and James Higgins (Kirkintilloch area). Project management is by Gráinne Crothers (for Conradh na Gaeilge Glaschú) and Cecilia McDaid (for East Dunbartonshire Council).

Permission for use of archive photos has been readily granted by the Daily Record, The Irish Times, The Kirkintilloch Herald, Fáilte Ireland and the National Archives of Scotland.

The following works have been consulted:
Coughlin, Brian “Achill Island tattie-hokers and the Kirkintilloch Tragedy”, 1937 (2006)
Holmes, Heather “The Kirkintilloch Bothy Fire Tragedy of September 16, 1937: An examination of the incident and the resulting legislation”, in “Review of Scottish Culture, Vol. 9” (1995-96)
Holmes, Heather “Tattie howkers: Irish potato workers in Ayrshire” (2005)
O’Dowd, Anne “Spalpeens and tattie hokers: history and folklore of the Irish migratory agricultural worker in Ireland and Britain” (1991)

Extensive use has been made of material in the East Dunbartonshire Archives and Local Collection at the William Patrick Library, Kirkintilloch, and of newspaper files at the Mitchell Library, Glasgow, and Mayo County Library, Castlebar; also files of the Fatal Accident Enquiry at the National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh.

Individuals who have provided assistance include Patricia Breslin, Mary Condon, Fr. Gus Hurley, Steve Jackson, Máire McLaughlin (of Comhlacht Forbatha Áitiúil Acla), Frank Maguire, Willie Rodger, Dr. Ivan Ruddock and David Smith.

Funding has been provided by Colmcille, Údarás na Gaeltachta, East Dunbartonshire Council and Kirkintilloch & District Society of Anqiquaries. The special assistance of Comhlacht Forbartha Áitiúil Acla (the Achill Development Committee), in obtaining grant aid, is acknowledged.

Kirkintilloch Fire Disaster in the Media

RTÉ Report on the Kirkintilloch Disaster (including 1987 radio report & documentary)

Extensive Account of the Kirkintilloch Disaster on The Irish Story

East Dumbartonshire Council Online Exhibition