MEMORIES Claire Mullen visited Purteen Harbour 65 years to the day from the date the ill-fated boat Pride of Cratlagh sailed from there to its doom, carrying five members of the Shark Island film company, of which only Hugh Falkus, who swam 1.5 miles in freezing waters to a shark boat, survived. Claire missed the boat from Purteen that day, and her life was spared.
Claire Mullen travelled to Achill Island recently to mark the anniversary of a drowning tragedy in 1951 that shocked Ireland, the UK and the film community. Claire was a young ingénue 65 years ago, and she had just taken on her very first film role in ‘Shark Island’, with Anglo-Amalgamated Productions, a film company that would go on to make most of the Carry On films.
Claire remembers crossing the country by train from her home in Phibsboro, especially the uncomfortable final leg of her arduous journey.
The Shark Island story started when Hugh Falkus (1917-1996) heard a programme on BBC radio in which Charles Osborne spoke about the industrial-scale fishing of basking sharks on Achill Island. Hugh decided that he would make a low-budget film with a small cast and crew that would tell the story of the basking shark fishery in Keem Bay and Purteen Harbour. He hired Sam Lee to direct, and Bill Brendan to be the cameraman on a film format that we’d now call a ‘docu-drama’.
Clare remembers Hugh Falkus as a somewhat flashy character who had worked as an actor, playwright, broadcaster, fisherman, amateur cricketer and film producer. In June 1940, as a pilot in World War II, his Spitfire had been shot down over France, and he spent the remainder of the war in German prison camps, making his escape just ten days before Germany surrendered.
Charles Osborne was from Donegal, but after fighting in the Second World War he moved to Pollagh, Achill Island, to lead the life of a fisherman. A charismatic swashbuckler, he’d gained attention from his talks on the BBC about the daring shark-fishing methods on the island. A tall, handsome, bearded man, Osborne was perfect for a rugged leading role in the film. He played a local fisherman showing the ropes to his English cousin, played by producer Hugh Falkus. Osbourne was also the film’s art director, and his wife Brenda appeared briefly in the film as a woman loading a donkey with sea weed. Their youngest son, Rowan, also appeared skipping along the road.
Hugh Falkus’s wife of four weeks, Diana Vaughan, the young editor of Argosy magazine, was in charge of continuity, and the only other person involved in the film was 21-year-old Claire Mullen, who played the Osbourne character’s sister Kathleen.
1951 was a busy year at the Achill shark fishery. Over 1,630 fish were taken that year, mostly for their liver oil but their fins and flesh were also utilised. Though the technique for killing the sharks had already evolved from harpooning to netting, the filmmakers thought harpooning would be more visually dramatic, so the story was based around that method, even featuring a harpoon with an explosive charge. Production went ahead, and shooting took place on the island and out at sea. Claire remembers it vividly.
“The fact that we were shooting sharks - it was ghastly. The sea was filled with their blood and it was harrowing in the extreme to see these beautiful animals being butchered. It was really quite frightening for a young girl,” she said. Most of the fishing scenes were filmed from Charles Osborne’s boat Pride of Cratlagh. Clare remembers local people telling her that the boat had been used as a hen house before Charles had renovated it.
“Charles Osborne was very reckless, and I felt immediately that he put us all in danger, right from the word go,” recalls Claire. “We were asked to do quite dangerous things which I think stunt people would have done in a normal set-up, including climbing steep, rocky cliffs and going out in the treacherous seas in a small currach.”
The day before the accident, May 11, the entire cast and crew went out on the boat, and young Claire had gotten badly wind-burned. The camera became waterlogged while shooting on rough seas, so the crew wasn’t able to film planned sequences around the Daisy (Dysahgy) Rocks, a dangerous area that local fishermen avoided. The rocks are partially submerged, and even a medium sized wave could easily smash a boat on them.
On May 12 a thick fog lay over the island and the sea, but because the camera had dried out the crew decided to film the sequences they’d missed the previous day. At about three o’clock, they headed towards Purteen Harbour. On the way, Claire spotted a chemist shop, and she told cameraman Bill Brendon that she was going to buy something for her windburn. While walking up the hill away from the boat she heard the crew from a distance calling her name, but Claire ignored it and continued on her mission to get calamine lotion. When she got to the harbour the boat had left, and a Swedish fisherman at the pier pointed to the fog and said he didn’t think they’d be long. After waiting an hour for the crew to return, Claire set off walking along the shore to Gielty’s Hotel in Dooagh, three miles away. Exhausted from her walk, and from getting up early and working late over the previous long, tiring days, she put on her nightdress and went to bed.
A few hours later, she was woken by a strange wailing, a kind of keening. She left her room to investigate and emerged onto the balcony above the lobby of the hotel. The locals saw her there in her white nightdress and they were horrified, believing her to be a ghost. Claire learned that while she’d been walking along the beach from Purteen to Dooagh an extraordinary and terrible accident had occurred.
While the crew was filming around the Daisies, a massive freak wave had struck the boat, capsizing and sinking it. Hugh Falkus later estimated the wave at twenty-five feet in height. As bad as it was, it seemed that all wasn’t lost because after the boat sank everyone was still alive. Falkus swam around, gathering up pieces of debris from the water - bits of wood, empty petrol drums - and lashed them together to build raft for the survivors to cling to. When he left them, Falkus said that everyone seemed to be in good spirits, quite confident of their rescue. He knew it was up to him to go and get help, and in an astonishing feat of physical endurance, Falkus left the crew and swam a mile and a half in waters with a temperature of ten degrees Celsius to a Scottish fishing boat just off Keem Bay.
Seeing the exhausted and hypothermic man in the water, the crew dragged him aboard. “Save my wife, she’s still out there,” were his first words. The fishermen put a man ashore down the coast to find a telephone and get help before heading out to find the survivors - but in the end there were no survivors. Claire thinks there was a fishermen’s superstition that stopped them going to sea during the Whitsun tide, which she felt had delayed a rescue attempt, but none of the local fishermen today have heard of this piseog.
Tragically, the bodies of Charles Osborne and Bill Brendon were never found; only Osborne’s jumper was washed ashore a few days later. Osborne left behind his wife and two children. The bodies of Sam Lee and newlywed Diana Falkus were found floating near where The Pride of Cratlagh went down. Claire remembers being asked to identify the victims who had succumbed to the freezing water, and she told The Mayo News, “I was only a young girl, and it was one of the hardest things I ever had to do.”
In the days following the accident Hugh Falkus had to stay on the island while the police made their investigations and the inquest took place. A few days after the accident, he announced that he would complete the film in the hope that it might generate a small profit to be divided among the dependents of the victims, and he then travelled back to London with his wife in her coffin. Claire also remained on the island for a couple of days after the accident. Her acting teacher in Dublin, Brendan Smith, sent down a young actor named Kevin O’Connor, one of his pupils, to accompany her home on the train. A few years later, Claire and Kevin were married. They both went on to have illustrious careers on the stage and screen. Falkus, too, had a long and distinguished career as a documentary filmmaker. He withdrew to Cumberland and pursued his interests as a naturalist and sportsman, and he is still considered to be one of the great exponents of fly fishing.
2016 marks the 65th anniversary of the Shark Island disaster. Claire’s grand-nephew, Dave Mullen, decided to make a documentary to ‘properly tell the story the way it deserves to be told’. Filming for ‘Return to Shark Island’ started in Achill on May 12, the anniversary of the drowning, and Dave hopes to have the film completed by the end of the summer. You can follow progress on Dave’s Twitter account: @Werner_Hedgehog.