Diarmaid Ferriter: Echoes of an earlier tragedy in Carrickmines fire
Ten young migrant workers from Achill Island died in Kirkintillock bothy fire in 1937
The memorial to the ten Achill Islanders killed in the Kirkintillock bothy fire
Up to the end of his long life in 1986 at the age of 93, Irish socialist, republican and writer Peadar O’Donnell continued to champion radical causes. One of nine children born in the remote and impoverished Rosses area of North Donegal, his career encompassed trade union militancy, war of independence and civil war service, imprisonment, support for emigrants rights, campaigns against nuclear power and apartheid. He also wrote a host of novels and memoirs, including Islanders, Adrigoole and The Gates Flew Open. In his later years, he was drawn back to the issues that had first galvanised him - rural poverty and neglect - reflected in his championing of the “Save the West” campaign, directed at the plight of western Ireland.
O’Donnell was never short of targets for his ire. Disgusted with the lack of social radicalism within nationalism and the failure to deliver on revolutionary promises, in both his fiction and non-fiction writings he railed against neglect, hunger and snobbery. One of the great tragedies that fuelled his outrage was the Kirkintillock fire of 16 September 1937, when ten young migrant workers from Achill Island, who were working on the potato harvest in Scotland, died in their accommodation in the town of Kirkintillock just outside Glasgow.
They were staying on land owned by Glasgow potato merchants. Their accommodation consisted of a simple shed (or a bothy as they were known), with a sliding door fastened by a simple slip-bolt. Beds consisted of inverted potato boxes covered with straw and old blankets. Probably due to an overheated stove, the bothy was ablaze at 1 o’clock in the morning, but the workers were trapped; the door could not be opened, and was not until one of the potato merchants arrived. It was then that the scale of the tragedy became apparent. The fire claimed the lives of 10 young boys and men between the ages of 13 and 23. Their bodies were found huddled together beside a wall opposite the door. The distress in the village of Achill Sound when news reached there was overwhelming.
Such migratory work had long been a reality for the Achill Islanders and many others in the west, and they counted for little. As Historian Barry Sheppard has noted, “Irish migrants to Scotland have been described as the ‘Cinderellas’ of the Irish diaspora, occupying the bottom of the league…they had even less rights than the Scottish workers who occupied the bottom rungs of the workforce.”
Only one of the coffins bearing the remains to a Catholic church in Kirkintillock had a name on it, as the rest of the bodies could not be recognised. When the bodies were returned for funerals in Achill there was widespread national mourning, and the newspapers, including this one, launched appeals to raise funds for the victims’ families. Those who reflected on the cause of the fire were quick to point to the dire state of the accommodation as the major factor, and the responsibilities of those who could and should have done something about it. In the aftermath, rules were issued to Scottish local authorities to improve the accommodation of migratory workers, but whether or not they were enforced depended on the whim of the local authorities.
The Kirkintillock fire also prompted an Irish government report on seasonal migration, which concluded “The improvement of the conditions under which migratory workers are employed lies entirely in the hands of the workers themselves”. O’Donnell contributed an article on Kirkintillock to the Ireland Today Magazine, suggesting it was “unthinkable that all this will not bring forth a real effort to better the conditions”, but cynicism that anything would change was reflected in his prediction that “Once the ballyhoo dies down…the affair is about closed”. Those with power, he insisted, “will never wreck the social set to which they surrender themselves so charmingly just to break through to the lives of the poor”. What was needed was “to make them listen while they get told that their little social flutterings are tiresome.”
O’Donnell also published a pamphlet, The Bothy Fire and All That which castigated the Irish government for failing to deliver on its promises and called on aggressive state intervention to address rural poverty and provide land for those that required it, which would involve challenging the “thickening of the defences of capitalism”
Of course the contexts of the Kirkintillock tragedy in 1937 and the Carrickmines inferno of 2015 are different. But there are also too many distressing parallels, most obviously 10 young lives lost unnecessarily in sheds. For what is portable housing but the 21st century version of the bothy?
In a week dominated by talk of a “giveaway budget”, and a refusal to, in Enda Kenny’s words, countenance “interference in the market to its detriment” in relation to the national housing crisis, those parallels are crying out to be aired, as are the observations of Peadar O Donnell eight decades ago.