The Owencarrow Disaster

This week marks the 97th anniversary of the Owencarrow Viaduct disaster when the Derry to Burtonport Train was blown off the Viaduct during a storm, resulting in the loss of four lives. 

On this day, 97 years ago, the ill-fated train had left Derry Station earlier in the evening. By the time it had reached the Owencarrow Valley, winds were gusting to 120 miles per hour.   These winds derailed the train carriages off the viaduct causing it to partially collapse. The roof of a carriage was ripped off, throwing four people to their deaths.  The four killed were: Philip Boyle and his wife Sarah from Aranmore Island, Una Mulligan from Falcarragh and Neil Duggan from Meenbunowen. Five other people were seriously injured and locals showed great courage in tending to the dead and injured when word of the tragedy reached Creeslough. 

The company opened its first railway line 1863, extending as far as Letterkenny in 1883.  In 1903, the building of the Burtonport extension was a great engineering challenge with little machinery or electric power used. As well as serving the towns, the main purpose of building the railway was to serve the bustling fishing industry at Burtonport. It was built with one hundred percent manpower and horsepower with dynamite being used to blast the huge cuttings. One of their main challenges was to build a bridge across the Owencarrow river and bog.  To achieve this a temporary steam-driven pile driver was used to push oak trees from Derryfad and Umerfad into the bottomless bog and swamp, Fleeces from sheep were also driven down and then rocks and concrete.  This was their platform before the piers were constructed with granite blocks that had been cut and numbered and hoisted into place with a block and tackle. This was a great engineering feat and many locals were involved in its construction and the quality of their workmanship is still there for all to see today in the remains of the viaduct that they constructed over 100 years ago.

During the War of Independence and the Civil War the Train and the track were attacked many times as they were used by the British Forces to transport personnel, munitions and supplies to their troops in West Donegal.

The accident on the Owencarrow Viaduct was the worst disaster to befall the Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway but it was by no means the only incident to happen to the railway during its time of operation on the line. On Christmas morning in 1922, another trip from Derry had almost led to loss of life in the locality.

A train left Derry that morning and made its way through a storm towards Burtonport. Nearing Dunfanaghy Road station where the line crossed an embankment, the coach next to the engine was lifted completely off the tracks by the wind and the couplings snapped. The coach toppled over and crashed down the steep embankment. The only occupant was a boy who was able to crawl out of the wreckage. The second coach which contained five or six passengers was toppled over also but was held from tumbling down the embankment by a wall. Luckily, none of the passengers was injured.

On 7 February 1923, the 8.30 a.m train was making its way from Burtonport and near the 6814-milepost at Cruckakeehan, between Kincasslagh Road and Crolly. As it was about to enter the cutting beside Owen Sharkey’s house, a gust of wind lifted two carriages and a bogey wagon off the line and dropped them sideways down the bank. Only the engine, driven by James Deeney, and the third brake van were left on the line.

The frightened passengers gathered together in the brake van before being taken into Sharkey’s house where they were comforted and given tea. Deeney took the engine and travelled to Crolly for help. When he returned, the brake van was also off the line. In the weeks that followed the wreckage was set on fire and destroyed.

There were also numerous accidents with livestock on the line and on the morning of 10th September 1922 during the Civil War, a party of irregulars tore up the railway line at Loughagher between Creeslough and Dunfanaghy. The Ganger was threatened and told not to repair the line but it was repaired and trains were soon running again.

The railway played a big part in the success of the Fishing industry in places like Downings and Burtonport with the big Scottish boats landing their catches there at these piers before transporting their catches by train to their markets. The train also transported tattie hokkers on their way to work in Scotland and those traveling to and from the hiring fairs in East Donegal and further afield.

Last July a new memorial was erected at the site by the Creeslough Development Association and the memorial was unveiled by the late Kathleen Doyle representing the families of those who died and whose grandfather was killed in the tragedy. Hundreds of people traveled from all over Donegal and beyond to see the memorial unveiled. 

The disaster is also commemorated in the nearby Log Cabin Bar and in recent years the disaster has been brought to the fore in a song “The Owencarrow” written by Creeslough man Ben McFadden and recorded by local singer Ailish McBride.

Today the pillars of the old railway viaduct stand high above the tranquil flowing Owencarrow river which elies the fact that it was on this spot that the worst tragedy in the history of the Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway occurred on a stormy night in 1925.

A Short History of Muckish Mountain

From the Parishes of Doe to Cloughaneely, there is an iconic part of the landscape that is impossible to miss, except perhaps on cloudy days when there’s a low cloud or fog in the way. This is the sight of Muckish Mountain. 

Muckish has stood overlooking this corner of Donegal for Millenia and has watched from above the many changes of our landscape since then -from the arrival of our ancestors, the marauding Vikings and the days of the great Irish Chieftains, to the colonization under the British Empire all the way to our Independence. It has also bore witness to our tragedies; The Great Hunger, Two World Wars, the Battle of the Atlantic off the coast of Tory Island which saw the death of hundreds of sailors, and the countless lives that have drowned along our coast. 

Muckish, coming from the Irish Mucais or An Mhucais (meaning “The Pig’s Back”) is a distinctive flat-topped mountain in the Derryveagh Mountains . At 667.1 metres, it is the third-highest peak in the Derryveagh Mountains and the 163rd highest in Ireland. Muckish is also the northernmost and second highest of the mountain chain known as the “Seven Sisters” by locals. The Seven Sisters include Muckish, Crocknalaragagh, Aghla Beg, Ardloughnabrackbaddy, Aghla More, Mackoght, and Errigal.  A large cairn (man-made mound of stones), can be found on the summit plateau which marks a Bronze Age court tomb. 

The mountain contains high-grade quartz sand that was mined on the flanks of the mountain for many years and the remnants of the quarry workings can be seen on its northern side to this day. The sand mined on Muckish was taken down the mountain on sluices and taken to Ards Pier on lorries where it was loaded into boats for export. Two of these boats were the Saxon Queen and the Gaelic. Unfortunately, the Gaelic sank after leaving Ards Pier after hitting the Black Rock off Rosguill. There was no loss of life and the ship’s remains have become a popular spot for divers. 

The miners who worked on the quarry would arrive at the bottom of the mountain by foot or by lorry and make their way up the mountain by what is now known as The Miners Path. The route of the Miner’s Path is to the summit, up the northern side of the mountain. Part of this route follows the path used by the workers to reach the quarry. A less difficult route to the summit begins from the Muckish Gap on the southern side of the mountain. These miners came from the townlands and towns surrounding Muckish, with the exception of Engineer Jack Smyth who came from England. He settled in the area and became an integral part of The Anvil Ceili Band as their drummer.  

In the past, families would gather at the Bridge of Tears in the foothills of Muckish to say goodbye to their family members who were leaving for a better life across the Atlantic, often never to return.  Percy French, the famous poet, visited the district at the beginning of the 20th century and while staying in Falcarragh he wrote a poem called “An Irish Mother”.  Once the Railway chugged along the base of Muckish, flanking its sides from Letterkenny to Burtonport, but even though the railway is gone now, it is still a very popular and expanding greenway.

Muckish Mountain has seen many changes down through the years and is now a very popular climbing route although care must be exercised as the mountain can be deceptively hard to climb. Up until recent years, a race known as ‘The Glover Marathon’ was held running along the ridges from Muckish to Errigal but this has now largely been abandoned in order to preserve the mountains from damage. The Muckish Gap is a name given to the road between Creeslough and Falcarragh on the southern side of Muckish and as well as being a shortcut to and from Letterkenny, it is also a world-famous rally stage for the Donegal Rally. 

In 2000, a large metal cross was placed at the summit of the Mountain, replacing a wooden one that had been erected by the workers of Muckish Sand in 1950. The new cross was placed much closer to the northern end of the mountain, while the cairn is towards the south. Among those who climbed the mountain to put up the Cross in the year 2000 were also there when the original Cross was put up 50 years beforehand. So, next time you’re looking to Muckish, keep an eye out for the cross!

The Dunfanaghy Fishing Tragedy

The seas around the Donegal coast have provided a bountiful harvest for fishermen who have ventured to sea. Unfortunately, this occupation has its dangers and to this day deep sea fishing is one of the world’s most dangerous of occupations with many tragedies. One such incident occurred in the Dunfanaghy Bar Mouth when two local fishermen, a father and his son, lost their lives within yards of their landing spot on Horn Head. The Dinsmore’s cottage, close to the shore at Horn Head and overlooking the Bar, witness the events on that fateful day.

On April 5th, 1925 (Palm Sunday), Alexander and Robert Find more went out to the Dunfanaghy Bar in their Curragh, a journey that would be their last. They were returning from a visit to one of four British Trawlers that were anchored in Sheephaven Bay, a common occurance of the time. Many trawlers from Fleetwood and other British Ports would anchor in the Bay and it was custom for the local fisherman to bring them fresh supplies in exchange for bags of coal or fish. This is what the fishermen were doing on this day.

According to reports from newspapers at the time, the men secured a large quantity of coal to their curragh and proceeded to head home. They reached the Bar around 7:30pm and appeared to have crossed it safely despite a strong ebb tide running at the time. It is believed that in crossing the Bar the Curragh may have shipped water and, heavily lafenx began to sink. One of the men was witnessed to have thrown a bag of coal overboard in attempt to keep them afloat. Directly after this however, the curragh sank and both men disappeared beneath the water. Their bodies were found close to where the curragh sank the next morning. This tragedy was unfortunately witnessed by the son and brother and the fishermen, who watched his father and brother drown right before his eyes. The bodies were identified by James Dinsmore, who was 13 at the time. Alexander and Robert Dinsmore were 60 and 22 when they died, their boat only 29 yards from shore when it occurred.

The community were in mourning for the loss, and sympathies went to the bereft widow and her children. To this day, the Dinsmore Tragedy is still talked about in Horn Head and it’s said the fishing gear owned by the deceased men were still kept in the Attic by the family for many years after the tragedy.

Despite the traumatic events of that Palm Sunday, James Dinsmore still took to the curragh and helped with the planting of the Ards Forestry before emigrating to Scotland. He died in the 1990s and was buried in the family plot at the Clondahorky Cemetery in Kill, Dunfanaghy. His tombstone is also includes an inscription the remember to tragic events that took place on Palm Sunday, 1925

The Wreck of The Algores

The top of the mast of the wreck of the Algores is still visible in Dunfanaghy Bar.  The Algores was a cargo boat owned and operated by Samuel Grey, owner of the Grey Line Shipping Company in Belfast. In 1925 she left Clare bound for Anterpt in Belgium with a load of flagstones. Unfortunately neither the ship nor its cargo reached their destination. 

Whilst steaming down the Tory Sound, the Algores sprung a leak. The crew proceeded round the tip of Hornhead where they anchored the Algores on the sinking sands of the Dunfanaghy Bar for repairs before Captain Jones and his crew of nine abandoned the Algores to her fate. The boat quickly became stuck in the sinking sands of the Bar and over the years she began to sink into them, becoming a total wreck. The events were summed up by a local Balladeer who wrote “Whilst coming round the Tory Sound, the boat she sprang a leak and now she lies in Dunfanaghy Bar a total wreck”.  

The wreck of the Algores, coupled with another wreck, the Honora Evelyn, and the silting stands, marked the end of Dunfanaghy as a major trading destination as ships were unable to safely pass through the wreckages. Local fishermen take great care not to hit ‘The Old Boat’ when crossing the Bar. At the time of the sinking, locals risked life and limb but managed to salvage items from the wreck as she remained intact for a long time. In fact, locals on Horn Head at the time described hearing the eerie sound of the cargo doors on her and the Honora Evelyn flapping open and closed during storms. 

Among the items salvaged was the Captain’s Table which went on to be cut in two and graced two houses in Horn Head. Even the Captain’s Chamber Pot was salvaged.  Flagstones from the ship were used as flooring in local houses and then in later years there was more salvage work done on  lifting some of  the  remaining Flagstones which are highly prized in modern houses.  

“The Maid of Marble Hill”

“Beyond Sheephaven’s foaming tide three dreary miles away

Unto a maid who there resides a visit I must pay.

For there a thousand times a day my thoughts against my will

Cross o’er, and bid me follow them to the Maid of Marblehill.

My love’s a young and handsome maid the sunlight’s in her hair

The spring dwells in her breath so sweet and on her cheeks so fair.

Her whispers sound like far-off streams, when the Autumn eves are still

And her eyes keep Winter distant from the groves of Marblehill.

When mellow evening lights the west I wander by the shore

And think had men been made with wings how quickly I’d fly o’er!

For then my wings against my thoughts would strive to show their skill,

But I’d clip them when I’d reach the side of the Maid of Marblehill.

And oft when winds and waves are calm beneath the moonbeams clear

I then unmoor my little boat and o’er the waters steer.

I know my steamship is small, but true love gives me skill,

For at the voyage-end I meet the Maid of Marblehill.”

An extract from “The Maid of Marble Hill” by Andrew MacIntyre, who was also the final Master of the Dunfanaghy Workhouse between 1914 to 1917.

A Short History of the Dunfanaghy Schools

These days, the children of the Dunfanaghy area have their education needs looked after by the National Schools in the community; Holy Cross, Holy Trinity, Faugher, Ballymore and Murroe which in recent years have undergone refurbishments to bring them into the digital age. It has not always been like this and schools have come a long way since the days of the Hedge Schools when teachers would teach in the open air and in private homes to give children a chance of an education.  The Hedge Schools were set up in response to the 1695 Stuart Monarchs Act which prohibited Catholics from getting an education.  This remained in force until 1782 but Hedge Schools were still running until the 1880s.  Despite the circumstances around them, most Hedge Schools provided a high-level of schooling for around 400,000 students in 9000 schools, by the mid-1820s. In the early 1800’s Ignatius Rice established formal education for Catholics in Ireland and then in 1831 saw the establishment of the Board of National Education and the National School System. The British Government appointed a commissioner of national education whose task was to assist in funding primary school construction, teacher training, the producing of textbooks, and funding of teachers. The Free Secondary Education was introduced in the Republic of Ireland in 1967 which opened up secondary education for all.

Just over 100 years ago in Dunfanaghy, there were different National Schools to what we know now but unfortunately some of these buildings are no longer standing. 

For the children of Hornhead, their school was located in a building in what is now Wilson’s farm in Lurgabrack.  This was the school that my grandmother would have attended. She often spoke of having to run the gauntlet of passing Stewart, the landlord’s Bull, which was in the field on the way to the school morning and evening in the late 1800 and early 1900’s.  In those days children walked to school Summer and Winter often in the bare feet. 

When the landlord’s left, this school was moved to the Gate Lodge at Hornhead House at The Bridge.It features on old pictures of when the sand blew in Hornhead,  and back then the teacher and pupils would have to dig themselves out of the sand in the evening. Even their Lunches would be filled with blowing sand!

In the late 1930s, a decision was taken to close this school and move the pupils to the Robertson School Board School, located where the car park beside the Holy Trinity Parish Hall is now. Parents were unhappy with this decision to move the school and there was a strike for a few months before the children eventually went to the Robinson School. It became known as Dunfanaghy’s Number 1 National School. This meant a long walk for the children of Horn Head. There was no clock in the school and the Master would send the children over across the road to the Garda Barrack to get the time and often the Guard on Duty would give them the wrong time which meant the children would get sent home early!

The headmaster here was Master Barlow and he went on to teach in Holy Trinity School when it was opened. Eventually, the original Robertson School was knocked down to build the car park. 

In the 20th century, the Catholic Children of Dunfanaghy and the surrounding area would have been receiving their education in a school which is now also demolished at the entrance to the present day Holy Cross Cemetery. The school then moved to the Old Fever Hospital in Dunfanaghy which is now the Gallery.  The teacher here was Eamon Cannon who moved to Dunfanaghy from the south of the county and was to be instrumental in the Educational, Sporting and Musical life of Dunfanaghy for decades afterwards. Like their neighbours, Cannon and his pupils moved to a new school with the opening of Holy Cross NS which is still educating children today.

The Old Murroe School was also in operation and would have been providing education to the children in its area in the early 1900’s, with the new school being built and opened in the 1960s.  and like all schools at the time pupils would be absent from school when the hard work had to be done on the farm.  

Among the other schools in the area were at Roshine which has closed and Kildarragh which only closed in the 1980’s when its pupils moved to Creeslough.

Around this same time, the Ballymore School would have been providing education to all the children in the area and among those who would have attended in the early 1920’s would have been the late Bridget McBride from Knocknafaugher who only passed away recently. The School at Ballymore continued to educate the children of the area until Faugher NS was opened. 

Like Ballymore, Faugher NS continues to provide education for the children of the area and this is due in no small way to the campaign led by the parents in the 1980’s to keep the school open when plans were made to close the school and move their pupils elsewhere.

Ireland was largely a rural economy back then and the horses and carts were the driving force on the farms and the hiring fairs were still a fact of life which saw many children take the train to Letterkenny to be hired in the agricultural heartland of the Laggan and elsewhere.  The impact on this is that a lot of children would be absent from these schools to help with the farmwork. 

This is just a small history of some of the schools in the area and things have certainly changed in the past 100 years. Those at school back then just at the start of the Irish Free State could hardly have thought that in a few short months a Civil War would have broken out and only seventeen years later would find themselves in ‘The Emergency’ as the Second World War was known here would break out and they would certainly not have known about the technological advances which would take place during their lifetime and change their lives forever.