An Irishwoman’s Diary on a Mayo tragedy
A day of grief recalled
“There was much movement between Achill and Westport in June 1894 before the railway line had yet opened. It was that time of year when hundreds of young islanders made their way to Scotland and England to work in the harvest fields until the autumn. As the new day dawned on Thursday, June 14th, 1894, the travellers moved in their droves towards Darby’s Point at Achill’s southern tip. They came from every townland on the island – from Dugort and Dookinella in the north; Dooagh and Keel in the west; Dooega and Sraheens in the south.” Photograph: Francis Bradley
The road from Westport to Achill wraps itself about the eastern and northern shores of Clew Bay until I reach Mulranny. There it begins to curve around the hills of Corraun Peninsula. At the tip of the road’s arc, as I turn the bend at Tonragee, the spectacle of Slievemore Mountain – mottled with shadows – comes dramatically into view. Achill Island is in my sight and the early summer gorse blazes its welcome everywhere I look.
For most of my drive from Westport the road hugs the Great Western Greenway, where I glimpse an array of cycle wheels and tandem bikes, colourful helmets and children snuggled in bicycle-drawn carriers. At Tonragee the Greenway is lost to view as it skirts the waters of Blacksod Bay and the boggy fields close to its shores. The Greenway follows the path of the former Midland Great Western Railway line that connected Achill with the outside world for four decades between 1895 and 1937.
There was much movement between Achill and Westport in June 1894 before the railway line had yet opened. It was that time of year when hundreds of young islanders made their way to Scotland and England to work in the harvest fields until the autumn. As the new day dawned on Thursday, June 14th, 1894, the travellers moved in their droves towards Darby’s Point at Achill’s southern tip. They came from every townland on the island – from Dugort and Dookinella in the north; Dooagh and Keel in the west; Dooega and Sraheens in the south.
Four hookers waited off the pier, their sails flapping in the breeze, to take the migrant harvesters – tattie hokers – to Westport to board the Glasgow steamer the SS Elm. Several hundred, the youngest 12 years old, would leave Achill that day. The boats sailed through the channel between Achillbeg and Corraun out into Clew Bay; onwards to Inislyre and the bay’s myriad of small islands; then, skirting Annagh Head, they headed towards Westport Quay.
It was about one o’clock when disaster struck.
One of the hookers, the Victory, had over 100 passengers on board. When the S S Elm came into view they began to move up from the hold and to crowd to one side of the boat in their excitement to get a better view of the steamer. Too late in responding to calls to lower the mainsail, the crew was helpless and the Victory went over on its side. Within a few hours thirty bodies lay side by side at Westport Quay, two passengers of the Victory still unaccounted for. Many of the survivors sailed for Glasgow that evening, some carrying their drenched possessions, others having lost all they had taken from home that morning.
Arrangements were made for a train to ferry the dead back to Achill on the newly constructed but unopened railway line. On Saturday, June 16th, a crowd of over 400 gathered at Achill Sound to await the train’s arrival. The surrounding hills were black with people. They crowded across the sparkling new bridge, opened less than a decade earlier by Michael Davitt when he told them of his hope that it would bring a new era of prosperity to Achill. What should have been a day of celebration and excitement to mark the arrival of the first train to the island was instead a scene of communal grief and desolation as the plain deal coffins were unloaded.
The procession of carts bearing the dead wound its way across Davitt Bridge, mourners clinging to shaft wheels and black flags waving. The cortege of carts, extending for almost half a mile, moved southward past Sraheens and Derreens to Kildownet in the south of the island. There the drowning victims were buried in a communal grave within sight of Gráinne Uaile’s castle, and not far from Darby’s Point where the deceased had started out on their journey just two days earlier.
When I recently stood in Kildownet cemetery, early evening shadows moved on the Corraun hills across the Sound. Behind me a long line of yolk gorse meandered up the hill to where the sun was low in the sky. The grave of the drowned is in a hollow of ground a dozen paces from the shore. The commemorative headstone lists the names of the 32 who died and an inscription reads: “Of your charity, pray for their souls”.
The only sounds were of breaking waves in front of me, sheep on the hills behind, and evening birdsong all around.