Contemporary echoes of Clew Bay drowning tragedy

On the Edge

On The Edge
Áine Ryan

AS Westport Quay basks in the booming blitz of visitors during these last weeks of the summer season, it is difficult to contemplate the scenes that must have ensued in the wake of the Clew Bay drowning tragedy of 1894. The 125th anniversary of the horrific event, which happened within sight of the harbour, on June 14 of that fateful year, was marked last weekend by Westport Historical Society as part of Heritage Week (August 17 to 25).
One can only imagine the excitement of these young Achill islanders – many of whom had probably never set foot on the mainland of Ireland before, never mind the UK or Scotland, their destination.
Undoubtedly dressed in their finest attire, they were doing what so many of their forebears had done before them – emigrating to make a better life for themselves and for those they left behind.   
Tragically, they were never to get beyond the gunwales of the traditional hooker in which they were sailing. Thirty two of them were drowned within sight of Westport harbour when the hooker 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 steamer, 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 the 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. Twelve-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 16, 30 of the 32 bodies were returned home by the Midland Great Western Railway’s first train from Westport to Achill. Masses of mourners lined the way as the train trundled along the 25-mile route. In its following edition, 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.”
Don’t such tragedies provide a stark reminder of the frailty of human beings? While advances in rescue services, marine technology and health and safety regulations mean that such a calamity would be unlikely to happen here in Ireland today, they happen regularly elsewhere. We don’t need to look further than the Mediterranean where desperate souls are regularly drowned as they are forced to emigrate from their native lands for economic and political reasons.