survivor in biggest maritime disaster to hit the coast of
Down in modern times
Nearly a century ago 90 lives were lost when the Retriever
collided with the Connemara. But long before then Carlingford
Lough was no stranger to tragedy.
The first sign something was seriously amiss was the sound
of two explosions.
It was around half past eight in the evening and Peter Morgan
was in his house near Cranfield Point.
Morgan was a pilot and he realised the noises were the sounds
of detonations the Haulbowline lighthouse keepers let off
But there was no fog that November night in 1916 and, sensing
trouble, he hurried the short distance to the shore with
neighbouring farmers William Hanna and Hugh Doyle.
When the three men got there large quantities of wreckage
could be seen in the heavy seas and the bobbing heads of
cattle struggling to reach dry land.
A figure emerged in the surf close to the water's edge and
the three men dragged the man the final few yards to safety.
It was James Boyle, the only survivor of the biggest maritime
disaster to hit the coast of County Down in modern times.
A total of 93 lives were lost, men, women and children,
when the Retriever collided with the passenger and cargo
streamer the Connemara in Carlingford Lough on the night
of 3 November 1916.
The Retriever was a streamer of 459 tons, built in Troon
in 1906 for the Clanrye Steamship Co. Ltd., of Newry and
commanded by Captain Patrick O'Neill.
The collier was making one of its regular crossing from
the Mersey to Newry with coal.
The weather was bad that night but it was nothing out of
the ordinary for the crew, who spent their working lives
traversing the Irish Sea.
James Boyle, the sole survivor of the tragedy, recalled
that as the Retriever approached the cut into Carlingford
Lough it had a slight list to port because the cargo had
shifted. But he was certain the vessel was completely manageable.
As the Retriever neared Cranfield Point, Boyle saw a streamer,
the Connemara, approaching them about half a mile in the
He went below to attend to the stove in the master's cabin
but a few minutes later he heard the collier's steam whistle
sound and as he rushed on deck he felt a mighty impact as
the Retriever struck the other vessel, penetrating her almost
to the funnel.
The Connemara has been built in 1897 for the London and
North Western Railway Company, for use on the Holyhead to
On her fatal final voyage the streamer left Greenore at
just after eight o'clock in the evening, with 51 passengers
and 30 crew members, nearly all Welsh, three cattlemen and
a luggage guard.
Among the passengers were 17 young women on their way to
Liverpool and then on to Canada to enter domestic service
or to work on farms.
Several other passengers were members of the British forces
returning to their units from leave.
Boyle reckoned the Connemara went down within seven or eight
minutes of being struck by the other vessel.
The captain of the Retriever was a man named O'Neill, a
native of Kilkeel who moved to live in Newry. Other crew
members were from Newry, Warrenpoint and Kilkeel.
At the time it was thought some other survivors might have
reached the shore alive but had been dashed against the
rocks or died on the sand.
A few cattle did survive and had to be rounded up by local
An official Board of Trade inquiry in Belfast in March and
April 1917 concluded that the Retriever was largely to blame
for the tragedy.
"On such a stormy night, with a heavy sea running,
she should have avoided another vessel in a narrow and dangerous
channel," the inquiry verdict stated.
The Connemara/ Retriever tragedy was Carlingford Lough's
darkest hour but it was far from the only maritime tragedy
A great majority of the wrecks in the area occurred on the
surf-pounded bar, enclosed by Cranfield Point to the north
and Ballagan Point to the south.
Carlingford Lough is derived from the Danish 'Cairlinn's
Fiord'. It is a typical fiord formed by ice action, a steep-sided
divide between the Mourne Mountains on one side and the
County Louth mountains on the other.
The mouth is studded with low islands, the sea bed between
them, and the troublesome bar is composed mainly of clay
and boulders stripped from the mountains and deposited there
by the melting ice.
The story of wreck and rescue in Carlingford Lough and its
approaches revolves around the hazards of the entrance.
The first danger vessels nearing the Lough have to face
is the the Hellyhunter, a rocky shoal just over a mile south
east of Cranfield Point.
On 4 June 1878 the brig Jason of Worthington was on passage
from her home in Dundalk with railway iron when she struck
the Hellyhunter and went to pieces, although the crew escaped
Three years later the Eleanor, built on the Tyne in 1873
specifically for the new Greenore route, became a total
loss and her replacement, the Telegraph, ran aground on
entering the Lough on her first crossing!
The Cranfield lighthouse was built in 1803 in an attempt
to lessen the dangers of the passage into the Lough, but
as the granite tower became unsafe it was replaced by the
Haulbowline light, in the middle of the bar, 20 years later.
It couldn't bring an end to the fatalities, however.
In February 1824 the Barbara and Jeanette struck the bar
and sank. All the crew were drowned.
The early 1850's witnessed several serious wrecks. The Newry
schooner Favourite came to grief on the bar in October 1850,
and the following year the Ebenezer, a sailing coaster,
capsized and sank in a squall off the Lough, taking the
lives of the three-man crew.
At the end of January 1852 the brigantine Glencaple arrived
off Carlingford Lough with a cargo of corn from the Black
Sea port of Ibrail, destined for Newry.
Normally vessels signalled for a pilot to be put out from
Cranfield, but the skipper of the Glencaple didnt
want to hire a pilot and sailed on in himself, succeeding
only in putting his ship aground at Cranfield.
The Glencaple was refloated but later the same year another
vessel, the Louisa C., on the same voyage with the same
cargo, became a total loss at almost the same spot!
Carlingford Lough is exposed to easterly weather and a spell
of snow and gales accounted for the John and Charles of
Maryport, the Lito, and the smack Three Brothers of Carnarvon
which disintegrated near the Haulbowline lighthouse. Her
crew had no chance of survival.
April 1858 witnessed another severe easterly gale, which
did not cause any tragedies in or off Carlingford Lough,
but resulted in wrecks at Dundrum Bay and Ballymartin and
the sinking of a Welsh sloop to the south, with a total
of 15 lives lost.
During this period Captain Richard Hoskyn, at the time in
charge of a survey of Carlingford Lough, wrote to the secretary
of the Royal Commission of Harbours of Refuge.
He stated that the series of disasters in those middle decades
of the 19th Century 'forcibly illustrate the benefit that
would be conferred by making the Lough Carlingford more
During the 1860's dredging work was carried out to improve
the safety of the bar by increasing its depth. It had been
hoped this work would make Carlingford Lough a place of
refuge during storms.
It was still narrow and islet- strewn, however, and ships
usually preferred to stand out at sea rather than risk entering
such a haven.
Ships carrying the area's imports and exports could enter
and leave the Lough more easily, however, and casualties
on the bar decreased from this period.
It didn't bring the litany of human tragedies to an end,
however. On a blustery afternoon in February 1866 the small
steam tug Sally capsized off Cranfield coastguard station
with the loss of life.
There was further tragedy two years later when the schooner
Margaret and Ann of Aberystwyth was wrecked on rocks adjacent
to the Haulbowline lighthouse, while inward bound to Newry
with coal from Cardiff. One person died and three others
In January 1873 the schooner Margaret Anne of Preston foundered
off Killowen Point, between Cranfield and Rostrevor.
Built in Lancashire 15 years earlier, the schooner entered
the Lough safely in a severe easterly gale but sank suddenly,
claiming the lives of the three crew members.
Courtesy of the Mourne Observer