Connemara to commemorate victims of mine explosion
Nine men were killed almost a century ago after a ‘strange object’ was towed ashore
When several south Connemara fishermen spotted a “strange object” floating in Galway Bay almost a century ago, they were sure it would bring them some good fortune.
The currach men, who were returning from a fishing trip, opted to tow the “barrel-shaped” device with “handles on each side” to shore, resting it in shallow waters until low tide.
People gathered around it on the strand, and a witness would recall that it was “black” and “like a big pot” with “spikes sticking out”.
At the time, during the first World War, anything that came in from the sea could be valuable – be it a piece of timber that might make a shed, or an oil tank that could provide fuel.
The object was rolled along the sand. One of the fishermen “undid something”, and saw “a long thing coming out like the tube of a bicycle”, the Galway Express reported on June 23rd, 1917.
At that point, several others had the good instinct to dart behind a rock.
The explosion could be heard 25km away, in Galway city, and it wrecked houses in the nearest townland of An Lochán Beag, which lies between An Spidéal and Indreabhán.
The Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) barrack windows shattered almost four miles east in the village of An Spidéal.
One man, Joseph “Joe Hughie” Flaherty, managed to stagger from the shore, bleeding badly.
A second man who had left to feed a horse is also deemed to have been a survivor of the blast.
But for a fair taking place in An Spidéal that same day, there could have been more fatalities.
As it was, nine men aged between 17 and 53 years of age lost their lives.
The youngest, 17-year-old cousins Éamonn and Pádraig Ó Laoi, came from Na hAille, as did 20-year old Mánus Ó Fatharta.
The other fatalities were Éamonn Mac Diarmada (53), Tomás Hoibicín (30), Seosamh Ó Flaithearta (32), Tadhg Ó Céidigh (30) and Colm Ó Feinneadha (18), all of An Lochán Beag, and Peadar Ó Cualáin (17), of An Teach Mór.
The alarm was raised by Galway GP Dr WA Sandys, who was out on a sick call at the time of the incident and was nearly swept from his car by the force of the explosion.
He recalled seeing thick black smoke, and drove down to the shore to find a “horrible scene of carnage”. He alerted the then Lord Killanin and local parish priest Fr Heany.
There was “hardly a trace of bodies”, the newspaper said in its graphic account, describing how the boot of one of the men was found a mile from the scene.
The inquest was held the very next day in Thigh Mhaimí Costello – now An Poitín Stil – at An Lochán Beag. Speedy efforts were made to say it was a German mine.
The bereaved families had no legal representation at the inquest.
Only two of the men who died were buried locally, in Cnoc cemetery at Indreabhán.
Seven of the men were consigned to the “paupers’ section” of the city cemetery at Bohermore.
Parts of the mine were removed quickly from the scene, but one piece – found in soil by a man digging potatoes – has been kept. Its number, 454, was also recorded.
Joe Hughie, who would later emigrate to the US, made many visits to hospital afterwards for shrapnel in his spine.
Pádraic Mac Diarmada, whose grandfather was Éamonn Mac Diarmada, says his grandmother was left with eight children to rear, the youngest being four years of age.
“By stating that it was a German mine, there was no compensation available from the then British government, and a local collection raised a small amount of funds for the families,”he says.
Six months later, another mine at sea near An Spidéal destroyed a fishing vessel, the Neptune, which had been described as one of the finest in the Claddagh fleet.
Once again, it was said to have been a German munition, without evidence to back that up.
Members of the Cairde Chuimhneachán “An Mine” commemorative committee say that at the time of the blast Galway Bay was laced with British devices.
Brendán Ó Tuairisg, whose father was a juror at the inquest, said the coroner tried hard to establish this, even summoning a British navy officer to testify.
The event shattered the confidence of local coastal communities who were so dependent on the sea.
The nine men were remembered 50 years later with a plaque recording the names.
However, the event was never discussed locally, and access to the beach area became increasingly overgrown and flooded in part over the years.
The commemorative committee has done much work to clear the shore and resurface the mile-long lane leading down to “An Mine” from the Cois Fharraige road.
The plaque has been restored for reset in a mighty boulder, which will have nine flag stones leading up to it, ahead of a series of events planned for June 15th to 18th to mark the centenary.
It is also hoped to mark the men’s grave in Bohermore cemetery.
Local resident and committee member Donncha Ó hÉallaithe has perused area reports filed by the RIC on microfilm, and has found no mention of the explosion in the documents for June and July 1917.
A Galway Poor Law Union motion proposed by Lord Killanin requesting assistance for the bereaved families was downplayed in a report in The Irish Times on June 30th, 1917.
“Yet, curiously, in the RIC reports, there was mention of hurley matches at Na Forbacha several miles east,” Mr Ó hÉallaithe said.
“It suggests there was a deliberate policy to suppress the truth.”