New book tells of tragic night when 45 men died

 

On the evening of Friday, October 28th, 1927, a retired doctor was listening to the weather forecast on his magnetic radio at Cleggan farm in Connemara.

Dr Holberton heard the storm warning, and called his farmhand, Tommy Mullen. He asked him to go to Rossadilisk village immediately on his white horse and tell the fishermen not to go to sea.

It was too late. The fleet from Cleggan and the neighbouring island of Inishbofin was out, as were currach crews from the Inishkea islands, farther up the coast of Mayo. Over in Claddaghduff, Festy Lacey was among the congregation in the Star of the Sea church.

"He recalled that the wind blew up suddenly and with great ferocity, and the church was thrown into darkness as the storm obliterated the remaining light. Faces of those around him turned an eerie, ashen white as slates were ripped from the church roof. So writes Marie Feeney in an account of a terrible event which struck the west coast almost 75 years ago.

Although the Irish Sea took a greater toll on several dreadful occasions during that century, the Cleggan Bay disaster of October 1927 was the worst marine accident of its type in terms of individual boats and people. In all, 45 men from Inishkea, Lacken, Inishbofin and Cleggan were lost.

One of the survivors, James Cloherty of Inishbofin, recalled how the storm came on very suddenly. He heard "terrible screams and shouts in the darkness", but though he searched for signs of his companions, he could see neither bodies nor signs of men in the water.

Ms Feeney's history draws on such first-hand accounts, press reports and other records to convey the impact of the tragedy. Her grandfather, Festy Feeney, was one of the Cleggan survivors, and she learned all about him and his life from his contemporary, the late Festy Lacey.

It was around 1909 that the Congested Districts Board had introduced "nobby" boats of about 45 feet in length to the area, allowing fishermen to go farther afield than the currach would permit. However, by 1919 poor catches had reduced the viability of the fishing industry and those who had taken out loans for gear were in debt.

Ironically, in the summer of 1927, the mackerel and herring had returned. It is believed that the death toll in the October storm would have been lower if some of the fishermen had not been so anxious to save precious gear.

A relief fund was set up, and it was only then that the full extent of the poverty in the coastal areas was revealed. There was some controversy over how the funds were dispersed, and the fishing communities of both Connemara and north-west Mayo never fully recovered from the impact, the author says. Many of the dependants had to emigrate, families were broken up, and it was only after the recent publication of Ms Feeney's book that contact has been resumed in several cases. Two children of the late John Murray of Rossadilisk spoke to each other on the phone several months ago after a separation of 50 years.

The book carries a foreword by the Minister of State for Rural Development, Mr Eamon Ó Cuiv, and it is dedicated to the memory of those fishermen who drowned on that night, to their families, and to all those who lost their lives at sea in search of a living. Part of the proceeds from the sale of each copy will go to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI).

The Cleggan Bay Disaster by Marie Feeney, published by Penumbra Press, is available in all good bookshops in Galway city and county and in Westport, Co Mayo, at €8 (paperback), or directly from Ms Feeney at Rossadilisk, Cleggan, Co Galway, enclosing an additional €2 for postage and packing.