Victims of Donegal mine tragedy remembered

 

Fifty-six years to the day after a second World War mine tore a west Donegal community apart when it killed 19 young men, relatives and friends last night attended a memorial service at the site to unveil a commemorative plaque.

The stray mine was washed ashore at Ballymanus on May 10th, 1943, and immediately became an object of curiosity to the local community. Many watched the mine from the shore for several hours as it bobbed in the water. When it finally came ashore, they rushed to see what it was, despite warnings to keep clear.

Some climbed on top of it while others banged on it with stones in an attempt to crack its shell, unaware of what lay inside. Without warning, the mine exploded, killing 17 young men ranging in ages from 14 to 34, including three brothers. Two more died in hospital soon afterwards. The explosion was so loud it was heard over 40 miles away in Letterkenny.

To this day, survivors can recall the harrowing scenes that confronted relatives who rushed to the beach when news of the tragedy spread. Parts of bodies lay everywhere, which made identification difficult. Army personnel from Rockhill, outside Letterkenny, had the job of collecting the limbs and scattered bodies and bringing them to a local hall.

Mr Owenie Sharkey, now a pensioner, escaped death by deciding to go for tea to a neighbouring house just minutes before the blast. Last night, as he attended the unveiling of the commemorative plaque, he remembered his 19 friends.

"The scene on the beach that day was just one of devastation. Shattered bodies, some of them almost beyond recognition, lay everywhere, while many more lay injured and maimed. It was a terrible sight to see parents, brothers and sisters finding their loved ones among the dead. Many of my friends, with whom I had been running around 10 minutes earlier, were lying dead all over the place. We just did what we could for those badly injured and it was days later before the full effect of what happened really sank in," he said.

Mr Paddy McGarvey (70), a local historian, clearly remembers the day: "No one ever thought that a tiny Donegal community would suffer the effects of World War Two in this terrible way. It was one of the major tragedies of the war for a neutral country, and the least documented."

Recalling the funerals, he said: "The sight of so many coffins lined up in the church is something that no one would ever want to see again. It was a devastating blow to the area and the communities affected have to this day never fully recovered."