Carlingford Lough collision
date - 3 November 1916. James Curran (my wife Sadie's great
grandfather) was 60 years old when, on that dark and storm
lashed Friday night he, with 96 other unfortunate souls,
met a sudden and violent death in the raging seas of Carlingford
Lough on a journey that he had not initially planned to
take. Born and living in Rostrevor he was married to Alice
Murdock from Burren. They had nine children, two of whom
died young - Sarah aged two by falling from a table and
Catherine killed by a stone at age 16. It appears that he
accepted a ticket from an acquaintance who could not use
it (and thereby saved his own life). He was going to Liverpool
to work; I don't know where but it may well have been in
the munitions factories, as England was then half way through
The Great War in which more than 20 million people died.
The SS Connemara was a sturdy vessel of 1106 gross tons.
She was a twin screw steamer, 272 feet long, 35 broad and
14 deep. She had been build by Denny Brothers of Dunbarton
in 1897 and put to work by her owners, the London and North-Western
Railway Company, on the lucrative Holyhead & Greenore
service - "The Direct & Most Comfortable Route
Between London & Belfast & The North of Ireland",
which had been inaugurated in 1874. Greenore is on the Carlingford
peninsula of County Louth, about four sea miles over the
water from Rostrevor, in County Down. The Connemara's Master,
50 year old Captain GH Doeg, and his crew of 30, all from
Holyhead in Wales, were experience seamen and well used
to rough weather.
The "Retriever", the other ship involved in the
tragedy, was a 483 -ton collier owned by the Clanrye Shipping
Company, built by Ailsa Shipbuilding Company in 1899. She
was a steel screw, three masted steamer, 168 ft long, 25
broad and 10 deep. She had a crew of nine. The Captain was
Patrick O'Neill from Kilkeel. The Second Mate was his son
Joseph and one of the seamen, Joseph Donnan, was his son-in-law.
The sole survivor of the tragedy, James Boyle, from Summerhill
in Warrenpoint, was a fireman on the Retriever. The other
seamen were from Newry.
Both the Connemara and the Retriever had been previously
in collision with other ships. The Connemara sunk the Liverpool
vessel Marquis of Bute on 20 March 1910. On 31 August 1912
the Retriever sunk the Spanish ship, the Lista, at Garston
dock. This accident was due to the sudden death on the bridge
of the Captain of the Retriever as he was taking his ship
out of the dock.
The 51 passesngers were a mixed group. Some were soldiers
returning from leave, some recovered from wounds suffered
in Flanders. There were people from Sligo, from Longford,
from Ballybay in Monaghan, from Cavan, from Crossmaglen
and Cullyhanna in South Armagh, from Dundalk in County Louth,
from Ballycastle on the north coast of Co Antrim, and further
afield. Many were on the first steps of emigration to America,
in search of a better life. Others were visiting relations
in great Britain. There were drovers who were to accompany
the large number of cattle and sheep that were making the
crossing and many were young girls making for the munitions
Miss Williams, Stewardess on the Connemara, was making her
final trip before leaving to get married. Patrick Conlon,
a Dundalk railwayman, was travelling to Wigan with two female
cousins - Mrs Lily Fillington and Mrs M. Clarinbroke - and
Mrs Fillington's two children. A woman and her three children
were going to England to meet her soldier husband home from
Each death was a tragedy for the people concerned and for
their families and communities. How each one arrived at
their fate was a personal journey. Some potential passengers
were saved by fortuitous circumtances, others who met their
fate by ways that were also fortuitous. Some of these stories
Mrs Small, of Birkenhead, whose husband, a mining engineer,
had died on his way home from West Africa in September,
had arranged to return home with her daughter from Greenore.
However, on Thursday night she dreamed that she had sailed
in the Connemara and that she saw the vessel founder. She
regarded the dream as a warning and refused to sail, thus
saving both their lives.
Mr P.J. Kearney, and his sister, Miss Catherine Kearney,
children of the Principal of Drumilly National School, Whitecross
were waiting at the Edward St Station in Newry. Mr Kearney
had recently completed his training in Waterford for national
school teaching, Miss Kearney assisted her father in the
school. They were going to meet a married sister who was
coming from America. While waiting for the train to Greenore
they were told by Sergeant Fitzpatrick, who was always on
duty at the station, that the Greenore boat on which they
meant to embark might not sail as the night was so rough.
After some hesitation Mr Kearney tossed a penny on the Waiting
Room table and on an the strength of the result decided
to make the journey.
Mary McArdle, from Crossmaglen, Co Armagh, who travelled
from Dundalk to Greenore, was bound for New York. She had
intended to travelto Liverpool by the Dundalk and Newry
Steam Packet Company's boat on Wednesday, but missed the
sailing. She waited over in town until the Friday, and caught
the evening train.
John Loy, of Leish was told that his son, who had been wounded
at the front, was in hospital in England and was making
ready to go on the Connemara, but his wife, seeing how wild
was the night, succeeded in keeping him at home, thereby
probably saving his life.
Henry George Tumelty, of High Street in Newry, a fireman
on the Retriever, missed the sailing at Newry on its last
trip to Garston. He cycled three miles along the canal and
jumped aboard the ship as it was passing out of the locks
The Retriever had left Garston for Newry, with a cargo of
coal, at 4 am on Friday morning but, according to James
Boyle, the gale force winds and mountainous seas had slowed
her progress and shifted her cargo, although he maintained
that this did not unduly affect her handling.
The Connemara left her berth at Greenore at shortly after
8 o'clock bound for Holyhead on her regular run. A fierce
gale was raging ("The wildest night he had experienced
in 70 years" according to one old farmer in the area).
The hurricane force wind was from WSW against a strong ebb
tide of some eight knots. About two and a half miles from
Greenore she passed the Halbowline lighthouse (marking the
Carlingford bar) and entered the comparatively narrow channel,
or "cut", leading to the open sea. The "cut"
is about 300 yards wide and, in the prevailing conditions
of wind and wave, afforded no great leeway for vessels to
pass each other. Conditions in the channel were atrocious.
The combination of wind and tide had churned the sea into
a fearful cauldron at the bar mouth, making navigation difficult.
About half a mile beyond the bar the Connemara met the Retriever
inbound from Garston. Both vessels were showing their lights
and these is no reason to suppose the least lack of care
from either of their masters. The watch at the Haulbowline
lighthouse, seeing the ships too close for comfort, fired
off rockets in warning. Almost immediately the crash happened.
The Retriever, battling against the wind and tide, and with
an unstable cargo, was caught by a huge gust and swung into
the side of the Connemara, penetrating the hull to the funnel.
For a moment theships locked together, then the Retriever,
having apparently reversed engines just before the impact,
swung wide and the Connemara, terribly ripped from the bow
on the port side to amidships, sank within minutes, the
boilers exploding when the sea entered the engine room.
The Retriever, with her bows stove in, took about twenty
minutes to perish. Its boilers also blew up on contact with
the sea and she sank about 200 yards from the Connemara.
In all, 97 people died. Twenty one year old James Boyle,
who was the only non-swimmer among the crew of the Retriever,
and who had been below deck when the collision happened,
was lucky to survive, clinging precariously to an upturned
boat and avoiding being dashed against the rocks. William
Hanna, the son of a farmer at Cranfield, finally pulled
him ashore after about half an hour in the raging seas.
Alerted by the rockets, people from Cranfield to Kilkeel
flocked to the beaches but such were the condition of the
wind and the sea that there was nothing anyone could do
but keep vigil in the vain hope that they might be able
to help some struggling survivors from the surf. Had it
not been for that vigil, James Boyle might have perished
within reach of safety.
An odd feature of the disaster was that news of it did not
reach Greenore (less than three miles away) until 9:30 the
following morning as the lighthouse keeper signalled to
the Co Down coast.
Boyle was taken to Hanna's house and cared for until his
family arrived from Warrenpoint to take him home. His story,
which he refused to discuss until interviewed as an elderly
man for television, was harrowing in the extreme. As he
recalled it, the Retriever was steaming towards the leading
lights that mark the entrance to the channel. Half a mile
away, between the lighthouse and Greenore, the Connemara
could be seen ploughing steadily along. Both ships showed
lights and were on the proper course.
"Just as I thought the two ships were about to pass,
I went down into the cabin to attend to the fire. The Retriever's
whistle sounded three times and, suspecting that something
out of the ordinary had happened, I rushed up the stairway.
Before I reached the deck there was a collision, and our
ship shivered from stem to stern.
Contrary to what one might suspect, there was no panic or
confusion on the Retriever. Captain O'Neill, who had been
on the bridge all afternoon, gave the order, in a clear
firm voice, for the crew to take to the boats. Boyle, William
Clugson, and Joe Donnan immediately went to get one of the
two available boats ready for launching. They were joined
by Joe O'Neill. Joe Donnan went below for lifebelts and
advised them to remove their seaboots. Boyle continued,
"That was the last I saw of him, although I heard his
voice a few minutes later crying 'Cut her away, cut her
away.' The Retriever took a heavy lift to starboard, swinging
the boat well out from the side. I was holding on to a rope
ready to jump into her. It was then that I heard Donnan
shout, and I cut her away, springing in at the same time.
I don't know what became of the others. I drifted away clear
of the steamer, which had parted from the Connemara after
the collision. The mail boat sank in about seven or eight
minutes. I heard no shouts from her, and cannot tell you
what happened aboard her, but just before she went under
she was very low in the water, and she seemed to be on fire."
The Retriever listed more and more and eventually went to
the bottom but young Boyle's troubles had only begun. His
boat, tossed about for half an hour or so, was capsized
by a mountainous wave. Boyle clung to the keel and drifted
towards the shore. Another huge wave swept him and the boat
out to sea again but righted the boat at the same time and
he was able to climb aboard once more. This happened a second
Eventually, on reaching the surf the boat capsised for the
third time and exhaused to the point of helplessness, Boyle
thought that his end had come. However, when he felt the
sand under his feet he started to crawl through the surf
where William Hanna, with Tom Crutchley, found him and carried
him to Hanna's house, half a mile from the shore, where
he was cared for until his family arrived to take him home
By morning, the shoreline was littered with wreckage, the
carcases of animals and the bodies of the passengers and
crew of the ships. On the first day 58 bodies were found.
By Sunday afternoon a number had been identified. Among
them was James Curran. His body was taken back to Rostrevor
where he was buried in Kilbroney Graveyard on Tuesday 7
For many days bodies of people and animals were washed up
along the coastline from Cranfield to Kilkeel. Some took
weeks to arrive on land.
The scenes of grief and dispair as people identified their
loved ones were harrowing in the extreme. The bodies of
the dead passengers and crew were temporarily stored in
barns and people's houses, those identified being taken
home by their families. Some were never identified and were
buried in Kilkeel. A number of appeals were made for financial
assistance to the bereaved families and Trust Funds established.
The inquest was held on 6 November in Kilkeel, the Coroner
and members of the Jury journeying to the scene of the tragedy
to view the wreckage and the bodies that had been collected.
James Boyle gave his evidence, on the lines outlined above,
breaking down several times as he recounted the events of
that terrible night, only two days before. The verdict was
death by drowning caused by the collision of the ships.
It was the worst tragedy ever to hit the County Down Coast.
James Boyle lived on in Warrenpoint for another 50 years
- he died on 19 April 1967.
On 3 November 1981 the pupils of Kilkeel High School erected
a stone in Kilkeel Graveyard in memory of the victims of
Footnote: It was reported that the ghost ship "Lord
Blaney" had been seen some days before the tragedy.
Taken from Wee County 2003