An Irishwoman's Diary
EVEN though I am gliding along on an electric bicycle, it is easy to be transported back across the decades. Past and present merge along the rambling route of Co Mayo’s Great Western Greenway as it snakes along the northern edges of spectacular Clew Bay through the dinky villages of Newport and majestic Mulranny and then on Achill.
The former railway line provides a linear gallery of land and seascapes: Clare Island is all crooked and contorted from this vantage; Croagh Patrick is decapitated by a lazy cumulonimbus, Curraun Hill rises like a great wall of heather, as the rejuvenated artery meanders past russet cows, a gurgling stream, stone bridges and an ancient, untamed countryside.
There are ghosts here too: the victims of the Clew Bay drowning tragedy and the the Kirkintolloch disaster. On June 14th, 1894, 32 young Achill migrants, en route to Scotland, were drowned within sight of Westport harbour when the hooker in which they were sailing capsized. Just hours earlier they had been part of a carnival atmosphere at Darby’s Point on the island, where more than 400 youngsters, mainly teenage girls, had jostled to board four hookers bound for Westport quay and the SS Elm, a steamship of the Laird line.
Many of these impoverished peasants had probably never been beyond the shores of their native island before and when they saw their awaiting ship, they ran to the starboard side of the hooker, The Victory, to view the large ship. As the excited din grew, others came up out of the hold waving colourful handkerchiefs at the crew on the SS Elm.
At this point skipper Pat Healy knew the sailing boat was top-heavy and that he urgently needed to jibe, so he ordered his excited passengers to sit down. Suddenly, the boom and the mainsail capsized the boat and screams filled the air that minutes earlier had been suffused with excited laughter and the anticipation of new and exotic frontiers. Among the victims were three sisters, Mary (24), Margaret (19) and Ann (15) Malley, from the Valley, Achill; 12-year-old Mary McFarland of Scotland was also drowned. She had been visiting relations in the townland of Tonragee and was returning home to Glasgow to help bolster the remittances regularly sent back by relatives to the island.
Poignantly, two days later on June 16th, 1894, 30 of the 32 bodies were returned home by the Midland Great Western Railway’s first train to go from Westport to Achill. Masses of mourners lined the way as the train trundled along the 25-mile route. The Mayo News described “a mighty steam hearse moving quietly along through mountain and bogland” while the “hills became black with people who kneel and pray as the train comes into sight”. The majority of the drowning victims were later interred in the shadow of pirate queen Granuaile’s castle in Cill Damhnait cemetery.
During these grim times the potency of superstition often heightened the commanding but comforting allure of blind faith. Unsurprisingly, the well-known prophecy about Achill by 17th-century Erris man, Brian Rua Uí Cearbháin resonated: “Carriages on iron wheel, blowing smoke and fire, which on their first and last journeys would carry corpses.”
Forty-two years later the prediction of the Erris seer would strike a chilling chord for another generation of Achill’s seasonal migrants who continued the long tradition of tattie hoking (potato picking) on the vast farms of England and Scotland).
In the early hours of September 16th, 1937, a bothy (cow byre) in which 10 Achill tattie-hokers slept, in the town of Kirkintilloch, near Glasgow, became engulfed by fire. The 10 young men were part of a larger squad from the island, the rest of whom were billeted in a nearby cottage. Thomas Duggan, who was finding it difficult to sleep in the nearby cottage, due to a boil on his neck, heard the crackling of the flames around 1am. Tragically, when he, and his co-workers, attempted to save their friends, they discovered they were padlocked into the bothy. By the time the Scottish foreman, John Mackie was alerted at 1.15am, the barn was engulfed in flames and the roof collapsed.
Once again the tightly-knit island community was stricken by grief.
While the original funeral arrangements were for the dead to be buried in Scotland, a simple telegram from Achill stating, “Beir abhaile ár marbh” (Bring home our dead), changed the plan. And on September 10th, after being transported on one of the last trains to Achill, the victims were buried in Cill Damhnait cemetery to wild cries of grief and distress.
Seventy-five years later the old railway line has been transformed into a touristic trail that has already attracted around 70,000 walkers and cyclists. This natural amphitheatre, which has been the canvas for Paul Henry and Camille Souter, and the muse for Paul Durcan and Heinrich Böll, holds many secrets. Whether the notorious James Lynchehaun, who inspired the character of Christy Mahon in Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World travelled on this railway line is a matter for speculation. Indeed, the folkloric drama around Lynchehaun and his nemesis, Agnes McDonnell, the veiled woman of Achill, is a story for another day.