One 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 during fog.

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 distance.

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 Greenor route.

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 people.
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 it witnessed.

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 unscathed.
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 didn’t 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 easily accessible.'
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 escaped.

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