Monday, 2 August 2021

The Islands nurse from Querrin.

                        The Unsinkable Bridget Hedderman 

Photo with thanks to Michael O’Connell of Querrin.

The appointment of a permanent District Nurse in 1903, to serve the people of Inis Oirr and Inis Meáin, would see a very determined and formidable Clarewoman, Bridget Hedderman, become part of Aran Islands history. 

Ireland had many heroic nurses from those harsh times and we did a piece recently on Lady Rachel Dudley who was very involved in placing nurses in the more deprived parts of the country. Nursing in those times was being established as a profession and the organising pioneers had to contend with much opposition.

This came from politicians who wanted to avoid cost on their rate paying voters, with a system of using untrained pauper workhouse women, as nurses. Opposition also came from some in the upper echelons of the medical profession, who felt threatened regarding demarcation and fees and clergy who feared  nursing would be used to proselytise and felt it should be left to religious sisters.

Statues have been raised and monuments built to commemorate the seafaring exploits of various adventurers but the hair-raising boat journeys of Nurse Hedderman and others like her, in the course of their duties, are surely far superior to ego driven crossings. 

What makes Bridget so special is that she published a book, ‘Glimpses of my  Life in Aran’ in  1917, detailing her adventures on the two smaller islands and in doing so opened for us a window on those times. Her book was published as PART ONE but alas, she never did get to publish PART TWO. 

Bridget was friendly with many famous people, including John Millington Synge. As Synge had stopped visiting the two smaller islands by the time Bridget was permanently appointed in 1903, we suspect that she had worked occasionally during one of the many fever outbreaks in the years previously.

Of course it’s quite possible that Bridget knew Synge from her interest in the Gaelic revival when she worked in Dublin. It’s likely that she published her book as a reality-based account of life on the islands and as an antidote to Synge’s more romanticised version.

In total, Synge had only spent about five months, a month or so at a time, on the two smaller islands and during the better part of the year. He spent most of  his last visit of 25 days on Inis Oirr in October 1902, staying with the same man that Bridget did when first arriving, Michael Costello.

Bridget’ sister Mary Anne, had spent some years nursing in the United States with their sister Margaret, and had brought home very modern ideas of what the neglected areas of Ireland were most in need of. 

Apart from the risk of being drowned or dying of fever, Bridget also came close to dying on Inis Meáin when attacked by the island bull. By throwing off her nurse’s cape as she ran for her life, she succeeded in distracting the charging animal.

Bridget Hedderman is worthy of a much more detailed study than we can manage and her times on Arran would make a great film. 

We are grateful to Bridget’s grand nephew Michael O’Connell of Querrin, for some background on Bridget. Michael lives in the house where Bridget was born and died and is a well known local historian and broadcaster with great pride in his area and his people. 

We would also like to thank Paddy Waldron of Killaloe for some genealogical background on Bridget’s people. 

You didn’t have to be tough to become a District Nurse but to survive, if you weren’t, you needed to toughen up quickly. Bridget faced terrible obstacles and came very close to being drowned on a number of occasions. Her background in Clare was the ideal preparation for the hazards she overcame.

Bridget was born in 1873 at Querrin on the Shannon estuary, not far from Kilrush. The Loop Peninsula is almost an island at high tide and in her youth, boats were a part of everyday life.

A fluent Irish speaker of the Clare dialect, in what was then a Gaeltacht district, Bridget was the daughter of a Shannon boatman, Manus Hedderman. Indeed her mother’s people the Nashes were also at home on the water. Some say that the Heddermans were once the boatmen of Saint Senan (488-544) of Scattery Island

When Bridget was just six years old, her father was drowned at Arthur’s quay in Limerick while delivering a boat load of turf. Her baby sister Kate, Michael’s grandmother, was only a few months old at the time. Bridget and her sisters Mary Anne and Margaret, would go on to become nurses, and at the age of 30, Bridget found herself on board the old steamer S.S. Duras on her way from Galway to Inis Oirr. 

Her observations on what she found on the two smaller islands is a valuable insight into the social history and, in particular, the nursing element of those times. As well as being a first class nurse, Bridget had a gift for writing and her accounts, both sad and humorous, makes for great reading. 

She was shocked at just how little medical care the two smaller islands were getting. She was shocked too at how little was known about the germ theory of disease, and much of her first years involved battling superstitions and dangerous practises. 

She also had to contend with her methods being suspect and the active scorning of her skills by what she describes as ‘Gamps’ whom she blamed for causing the deaths of so many by their mixture of superstition, unhygienic ‘cures’ and resistance to vaccinations.

The belief in fairies was more common, she reported, in the better off than the poor and she found the men more receptive to new ideas. 

One of her greatest obstacles to progress was a fatalistic belief in ‘toil Dé’ or ‘the will of God’.

It’s hard to credit that the belief in children being taken by the fairies was still prevalent. Bridget instances a case during the terrible whooping cough epidemic of 1908:

A golden headed little girl was so ill that her mother refused all help saying she had been switched by the Síogí. Despite the scorn of a ‘Gamp’, Bridget convinced the child’s father to let her treat the illness. After the little girl recovered, it was many weeks before the mother accepted that the child was her own.

This is an interesting story as it goes against the oft quoted belief that little boys were made to wear dresses as the ‘little people’ ONLY stole boys. The main reasons for putting little boys in dresses were probably of a practical nature.

Eventually Bridget seems to have been accepted and she spent about two decades between the two smaller islands, living on both at different times.

She appears to have been familiar with Connemara and is believed to have visited Pearse in Ros Muc.  She ended her career on another Island, Achill. Here she appears to have taken on a teaching and instruction role rather than nursing.

The introduction of a trained nurse/midwife in remote areas of Ireland in those years resulted in a staggering decline in infant and maternal deaths. The Lady Dudley nurses and the Queen's Jubilee scheme were part of this advance but Bridget was employed by the Board of Guardians in Galway who had a reluctant responsibility for the three islands. Part of the funding for district nurses in the West was provided to the Guardians by the Congested Districts Board. 

There was a reluctance by many clergy to having a non-Catholic nurse but one priest in Achill in 1900, who feared losing the resident Catholic nurse, Mary Lee, declared that he didn’t care what religion the next nurse was, noting that in the year before the arrival of the present nurse, there were twenty four maternal deaths and hardly any in the year after.

During her years on the islands, Bridget worked with two different permanent doctors who were based on the big island. For the first three years or so it was Dr Harmon Kinsella who eventually left after some penny pinching attempts by some Guardians over paying a replacement when he was very ill. This was an effort to save some expense on their rate paying electorate. 

Dr Kinsella had succeeded Dr Thomas Kean who had contracted typhoid fever while visiting his patients and, after being abandoned by the Board of Guardians, died on Árainn in 1901. He was only about fifty years old and left a wife, Delia Ruane, and seven children from the age of nine down to a few months.

Doctor Harmon Kinsella and his wife, Delia Sheehan.
Photo with thanks to their grandson Ian Kelly in Dalkey.

Dubliner, Harmon Kinsella, was stationed in Cill Rónáin in 1902 when he married Delia Sheehan from Limerick. After leaving Aran he went to the industrial town of Nelson in Lancashire but died in 1911, leaving Delia with an infant daughter, Maureen.

Dr Kinsella and Bridget had to contend with an outbreak of smallpox in 1904 which almost killed the famous Mayo born Parish Priest Murty Farragher. Mumps, measles, whooping cough, consumption, typhus and scarlet fever were among the other main medical problems. 

The second doctor was a Clareman, Michael O’Brien, from Milltown Malbay who was acting as locum, when elected Medical Officer in February 1907, staying until he retired in the early 1920s. There were a number of locums during those years too and some permanent Medical Officers who were appointed but on second thoughts, declined to serve. You can read some background on this family in a great article from 2013 by Dr Michael's great granddaughter, Mary Jane O'Brien, here.

We intend to do a piece on Michael O’Brien at a later date, and he and his large family are a subject well worth exploring. He battled through the post WW1 flu epidemic and in many ways never recovered from the exhaustion of that effort. At one stage, Michael and his doctor son, William, just home from a military hospital ship, had, in 1919, to dig graves for victims with no family when the usual gravedigger died. 

Bridget gives some really incredible accounts of being called for at night to make a crossing by currach from one small island to another. Though she battled her terror and discomfort, she never refused to go. Not even on one occasion when the locals on Inis Meáin begged a crew from the South island to wait for the storm to ease, with one woman on the shore reduced to tears as she saw Bridget set off for what she believed was certain doom.  

Crouched in the bottom of the stern of a currach is both very wet and very uncomfortable. When you add in the very real danger, which a woman who had lost her father to drowning would have been well aware of, one can only marvel at Bridget’s courage and humanity.

Bridget would have been well aware of the tragedy of 1832 when a currach from the big island was overturned at Inis Meáin shore as it was returning with the priest, Michael Gibbons, and a midwife, Rose O’Malley Gillan. On that occasion, Nurse Gillan and one of the currach crew were drowned. Rose was a relation of another famous nurse, Bríd Gillan Dirrane, who, with the help of her good friends Rose O’Connor and the late Jack Mahon, published her bestseller life story in 1998 at the age of 103.

On one occasion a boat left Inis Oirr for the middle island. After a fog descended, the wind shifted and in the dark they lost their bearings. Bridget believed she could see the lighthouse on the southern end of the island they had just left. Her views were dismissed and she wasn’t listened to. Eventually the boat struck a rock and they managed to struggle ashore... on Inis Oirr. 

On a number of occasions, she ended up to her neck in water but still battled on and attended to her duty, getting great pleasure from the thanks of the new mother or sick patient. On one occasion she cracked her head on a seat as she toppled backwards while trying to get ashore, but the injury didn’t see her deterred, not one bit. 

There was great excitement when a gramophone and some records arrived on the shore at Inis Meáin in 1913. They had been donated by a great pioneer of midwifery in Britain, Englishwoman Jane Wilson, who had co-founded the Midwives Institute in 1890. 

With the help of a visiting Oxford student they had assembled it and it wasn’t long before the local men were doing a stick dance to a horn pipe on her kitchen floor in Moor village. She also found that the music was very helpful in reducing depression among a few of her patients. 

Bridget figured that she had never met people anywhere who enjoyed music more than the people of Inis Meáin. High praise indeed from a woman who hailed from a county famed for its love of music.

After all the music and dancing and all the traveling between islands, the gramophone finally became worn out in 1921 and an English newspaper article appeared which we are sure resulted in it being replaced.

Mental health issues and alcohol abuse were also a problem and she had difficulty explaining to a man that his excessive drinking was contributing to his ill health. In an effort to impress him, she had resorted to telling him of the ancient Athenian statesman, legislator and poet Solon, who never touched alcohol. It seems he wasn’t impressed by the clean living life of the great man. 

His answer in Irish was that… "if Solon and all the preachers had lived long in Aran...they’d want a pint!" 

A conversation stopper for sure.

We have mentioned a few incidents from her book but for those who might like to find out more, here is a link to a free Internet Archive copy. Glimpses of my Life on Aran

As we mentioned before, Bridget had as her doctor Michael O’Brien (1848-1923) in Cill Rónáin. In later years, Michael’s daughter Susan wrote a number of newspaper articles which mentioned Bridget. Her father believed that Nurse Hedderman knew as much about medicine as any doctor. He was equally impressed with her courage and stamina in what was an extremely difficult job. 

NB Clareman Michael O’Brien is not to be confused with the Cill Rónáin man who succeeded him, Dr James O’Brien (1883-1970), who some of our readers will remember. Indeed he probably delivered quite a few of you or your relations. 

Bridget appears to have had a fairly good relationship with both her doctor and her parish priest. Vital in those difficult days. She did, however, cross swords with the relieving officer in Cill Rónáin who appears to have had an exaggerated desire to protect the public purse. 

It would appear that he was anxious to be rid of her and on one occasion in 1909 he reported to a meeting of the Board of Guardians in Galway that Bridget had taken ‘French Leave’ and deserted her patients.

In the next edition of the paper, Bridget responded forcefully that she had been given permission of leave by the medical officer, Dr O’Brien. She got a nice dig in also by pointing out that she was not answerable to the relieving officer but rather to her employers, the Board of Guardians and the medical officer, Michael O’Brien. We doubt if he ever bothered her again.

A few years after Bridget’s death in 1943, Susan O’Brien Reilly wrote a newspaper article and described Bridget as follows. 

The next island to us, Inishmaan, lay two or three miles away across the Cois. Here the district nurse lived. My father often said she was better than any doctor. On his journeys across those stormy seas, on his landings on islands without piers or breakwater, she was there before him - her short stout figure, her smiling face, crowned by her luxuriant red hair. 

Looking back on my visits to her, of necessity during the summer months when I was at home on holidays, I think she must have been the most remarkable woman I ever met.


Susan was a boarder in the Dominican Convent on Taylor’s Hill and later a high-achieving student in U.C.G. She often accompanied her father on his trips to the smaller islands. She remembered the tears of young mothers as they handed over their babies for her to hold, as they were being inoculated against the dreaded smallpox which killed so many. Susan referred to the whole procedure  as ‘gearradh na bolgach’.  The mothers tears for their young causing more distress to the babies than the doctor’s needle.

From an article by Susan O’Brien Reilly.

In later life, Susan recalled with great joy those trips by currach with her father, from Cill Rónáin to the other islands. She remembered fondly trailing her hand in the water on fine days and the friendliness of the crew; Cole Anthony, his son Anthony Cole Anthony and two other oarsmen.

Going back to what Susan wrote about Bridget, she went on…

There was nothing she couldn’t turn her hand to. She was not a native Islander but I never heard her speak English.

Her power over the islanders was a miracle to watch. A few smiling words from her in her quiet Clare voice calmed their fears and raised hopes for the recovery of their sick ones. 

She rowed a currach with the best of them, showed them where to catch the seals from which she dried and cured the skins for her home made furs. Up in the crags she knew where the best berries grew for her homemade wine, for she was very domesticated and her cozy house in Inismaan was a haven of comfort.

The island men made her bookshelves and used to listen while she translated into Irish, the books she had. She wrote poetry too. She used to tell me that Dún Conor was her ideal place for composing. 

“Do you ever get lonely?” I asked her once… “lonely for your home in Clare and your people?” “I have no time to be lonely” she replied.

Looking back on those days and thinking of the lives led by women on these islands, I think the wives of Lightkeepers are the most isolated. I remember one of these, a rosy cheeked woman who sat with her dying husband all night on Rock island, waiting for the doctor to come.

Bridget, in her letters to the papers, emphasised the importance of hygiene education. She also pointed out forcefully that preaching from on high would be counterproductive and placed a huge emphasis on getting to know the people on a neighbourly basis.

Mary would have known Bridget, who probably acted as midwife for her .
Photo shows Mary holding her grandchild, sometime in the 1950s

As part of her efforts, she on occasion wrote pieces for the Connacht Tribune, giving practical advice on how to combat disease and how to do basic first aid. Her column was known as: ‘HEALTH NOTES’.

Bridget was a strong believer in education, women’s rights, Irish self determination and the language revival. She also went out of her way to secure positions for young island women as nannies who could help mainland families with teaching Irish to their children. She also organised children to come to the islands to learn Irish. 

Bridget would have been seen by some as a dangerous radical with strong views on social justice. These views manifested themselves when she declared publicly that by far the best cure for the raging TB epidemic was to demolish all the slums and hovels in Ireland and build decent housing. 

In June 1922, Bridget wrote detailing how she had been stopped eighteen times as she travelled by bus from Galway to Blackrock in Dublin. This was during the early days of the terrible civil war and she was in Dublin to take a little girl to the islands to learn Irish. They returned to Galway by train.

In June 1904 a group of antiquarians who were cruising from Belfast to Kingstown visited all three islands aboard the twin screw SS Magic. They met Bridget on Inis Meáin and next day on Inis Oirr, were handed a poem by their guide, written by Bridget, about the island and its ruined church. 

Bridget was a friend and supporter to a huge number of the Irish language and cultural revival movement, as well as the revolutionary leader Pádraic Pearse. 

Bridget sometimes contributed to his radical newspaper 
An Claidheamh Soluis

Among those whom she befriended was the tragic Eibhlín Nic Niocaill (Eileen Nicholls). Eibhlín was a regular visitor to the islands having first visited in 1903 at the age of eighteen. 

On one occasion, she and Bridget found themselves in a small sailing boat belonging to Inis Oirr which Bridget described as a ‘yawl’. They were trying to land on Inis Meáin on a dark night in bad weather. Bridget recounted how Eibhlín had kept perfectly calm as a row broke out between the crew and a man from Inis Meáin, who was trying to give advice as to the best place to land. 

An Irish bádóir was as likely to give over the tiller to another man as he was to give over his wife but eventually he was persuaded to do as the Inis Meáin man advised and they just managed to struggle ashore safely. 

As they regained their strength in the driving rain Eibhlín uttered the fateful words to Bridget…

“We’ll never be drowned as we have escaped this night”.

Eibhlín was wrong, of course, as just a few years later at the age of twenty four, she and seventeen year old Dónal Ó Criomhtháin would be drowned on the Blaskets as they tried to rescue Dónal’s sister Cáit, who survived.

Dónal and Cáit were the children of the famous writer Thomás Ó Crohan of ‘The Islander’ fame. Dónal had been working in a field near the shore and had raced to help, not stopping even to remove his hob nailed boots.

Eibhlín was in later years, and without much evidence, posthumously linked romantically by some with PH Pearse. The popular and academically brilliant Eibhlín was both friendly with and greatly admired by Pearse but her mother would later write, after Pádraic’s execution, of the great friendship that existed between her two sons and Pearse, not mentioning Eibhlín. 

Bridget was a strong-willed woman and well able to stand up for herself. On one occasion she had billed the Board of Guardians for £4 and 3 shillings for extra work she had done in 1911. They grudgingly awarded her £3 but she refused to accept it and eventually got paid in full. In 1919 when she billed them for £10 for work during the flu outbreak, they paid her immediately.

In 1913, a motion was put before the Guardians to increase Bridget’s salary from £35 to £40 a year. Although many members spoke in her favour, the vote was only carried by 7 to 3 with some members warning that if she left, she could never be adequately replaced. 

In September 1910, Peter O’Malley from Lettermore had his small turf boat wrecked on the South Island when it dragged anchor in a storm. Only for the bravery of some islanders who went to his aid, he would have been lost himself. 

The extensive and dramatic report in the newspapers has the hallmark of Bridget as it described in detail his tears of distress at the loss of his little boat, on which his seven children depended. 

Sure enough, a few days later, the newspapers reported that Bridget was organising a fund to help Peter replace his boat, the previous heart-breaking account of his loss helping to solicit donations.  

On the 14th of March 1943, Bridget died in the house she had been born in at Querrin. She was 70 years old and had been nursed in her final illness by her sister Nurse Mary Anne Hedderman. 

In her poem, Bridget hoped that all the Saints of Aran
would speak up for her when she faced her final judgement.

Bridget was the first of many wonderful nurses who served with great distinction on the islands down through the decades. A woman of great substance whose efforts on behalf of the people of the two smaller islands, deserves to be remembered. 

Michael Muldoon.

August 2021.

Reading about the life of Bridget Hedderman brings to mind the many dedicated nurses we have all known in our lives. In particular, the many family members who nursed over the years like our sister, Renee. 

We would like to dedicate this article to our late sister, Mary Muldoon Gamble, who always fought fearlessly on behalf of her patients while practicing as a midwife in Ireland and New Zealand. A wonderful daughter, sister, wife, mother and grandmother.

Also our aunt, Una Muldoon Hazel who was a Public Health nurse in England and Dublin long ago and was involved in the nursing union. Una dealt with many health executives and with more than one Minister for Health.

Una’s hallmark opening two words, as she responded to condescending waffle, were the cause of many in high office to regret not choosing their words more carefully. With perfect diction and in a strong and confident voice, she would start, "Excuse me..."

Una, Mary and Bridget had a lot in common. May they rest easy after a job well done. 


Sunday, 11 April 2021

Ghost ship ashore in 1835

Shipwreck on Árainn in January1835.

News of the shipwreck in January 1835.

In Ireland it was often said that a man could 'mind mice at a crossroads'. This wasn't a compliment.

The old saying came to mind recently when reading of the impossible job the local Chief Officer of the Coast Guard, Edward Neville D'Alton (1794-1871) had in 1835 as he tried to protect a huge cargo of timber from being salvaged by islanders and by boats from Connemara.

On January 17th of 1835, islanders noticed a demasted ship drifting towards the island from the south west. It was observed from the cliffs between Cill Muirbhigh and Bungabhla and when word reached Chief Officer D'Alton, he launched his boat from Cill Rónáin and headed out through Sunda Ghrióra.

In a letter to his commanding officer, Captain White, D’Alton gives a great account of the whole incident, ending with a plea for more ammunition as he had used up most of what he had while firing at the raiding Connemara Hookers, which he described always as North shore boats, as they helped themselves to the floating timber.

Shortly after exiting the Gregory Sound, the wind increased and eventually he came across the abandoned ship, west of Dún Aengus, with its stern grinding against the foot of a 300 foot cliff. He observed a number of islanders high on the cliffs as they looked down on what the ocean had delivered.

Cliffs at the west end of Árainn, where the ship first reached land. 

The ship was about 300 tons and most of her sails had been blown away. Her spars were still standing except for the jib-boom and the mizen-top mast. It was waterlogged and some of its cargo of timber was floating nearby. He reported that the ship had eleven painted portholes on each side. He was unable to board as the light was fading and the backwash from the cliffs, made it too dangerous to approach.

There was no sign of life and no sign of small boats on the deck. It appeared to have been abandoned for some time but as the weather was deteriorating, he decided to make for Bungabhla and attempt to make a landing.

Bungabhla shore, where Captain D'Alton most likely landed.
Oileán Dá Bhranóg in the distance, where the ship ended up.

He reported that as he entered Brannock Sound, he spotted Mr O’Flaherty pointing out a safe place to land and with the help of locals, he and his crew managed to get ashore and get their boat secured. The use of the name O’Flaherty rather than Flaherty and the prefix of 'Mr' would suggest that this was the Middleman/Landlord, Patrick O’Flaherty of Kilmurvey House. He was then aged about fifty four.

Patrick was by far the largest landholder on the three islands and the most important tenant of Rev John Digby of Kildare, who owned the three islands. In May 1831, Patrick had been made a Justice of the Peace by the Lord Chancellor and it was in this capacity that he would shortly send five men to prison in Galway for salvaging timber from the wreck.

An old map showing Brannock Island at the western end
and the cliffs south of Creig a’ Chéirín, where the ship first struck 

The story takes a very strange turn at this stage with an unusual account from an islander who had managed to get aboard the wreck before the Coast Guard arrived.

D’Alton discovered that a man from Bungabhla by the name of Daniel Flaherty had boarded the wreck, possibly before it reached the cliffs and managed to take off some rope and other wares. He had some books and letters along with two sea chests. He also had some clothes and a small quantity of rum.

It’s unlikely that Daniel had willingly volunteered all this information and salvage as he would have been well aware that items like this were to be collected by the Coast Guard on behalf of the crown. He may well have been apprehended by the Justice and his men and was co-operating with a view to leniency.

And here is where the story gets a little bizarre. Daniel’s tale of what he found on boarding is so strange that one can’t but be suspicious that he may have been trying to deflect from his alleged crimes by getting the Magistrate and Coast Guard officer distracted.

The ability to come up with a good story has a long history on the islands and the skill still survives today. On his 1912 visit to Aran, the writer James Joyce met an old man named O’Flaherty. A man like James, making notes in a big notebook, should not be disappointed and the old man pointed out a nearby bush to James Joyce.

Without blinking an eye, he proceeded to tell Joyce how Joseph of Arimathia had cut his walking stick from that very bush. His ability to keep a straight face while telling it, even more impressive than the story.

But back to Dan’s story. On climbing aboard the ship, he reported finding a dead pig, with hair on it, lashed to the rigging in a putrid state, a compass placed between its legs, a few bottles of water, some biscuit and a little rum. He also reported that the ship had no rudder.

After a SE storm that night, it appears the wreck shifted and next day was found smashed on Oileán Dá Bhranóg (Brannock Island). In 1835 there was no lighthouse on the tiny island of Eeragh which lies west of Brannock.

Rough seas around Brannock Island where the ship finished up

Word of the wreck having reached Connemara, a vast flotilla of Hookers arrived and the Coast Guard had an impossible job in trying to protect the King’s timber. As soon as he chased off one boat, the others were in like a flash and gathered what they could.

Only for the forty year old D’alton and his Coast Guard crew being well-armed, they would probably have been overwhelmed by the plundering boatmen. When it came to trying to catch a Connemara Hooker, they had little chance as the bádóirí had vastly more sailing experience and also an incentive to avoid jail.

A modern day Bádóir making a crossing from Connemara to Árainn.

In those times it was not unusual for recovered timber and cargo to be sold off at auction. This was done in 1825 when, along with the Coast Guard offering for sale, was some timber salvaged by middleman Patrick O'Flaherty and others.

D'Alton reported that at one stage he had twenty-three plundering Hookers working around Brannock Sound as well as a number of very vulnerable currachs which had to be careful not to hit a floating spar. He also reported that seven currachs from Connemara had been blown away in a snow storm, with only two managing to survive.

One good news story from those times concerns three men from Rosmuc who were swept away in a storm in March 1835. They were attempting to tow a large spar to Connemara which probably came from the Arran shipwreck. After three days and two nights, they finally made land in the Shannon Estuary. According to the reports, they sold their boat and spent a few days recovering. When their money was spent, they headed for home to the great joy of their families who had given them up for dead. Some of their friends hadn't by then, fully recovered from their wake.

A canvas currach, similar to the one the Rosmuc men sold in 1835.

Chief Officer D’Alton also reported that a child’s frock and glove had been recovered. There was speculation that the ship was out of Belfast as a piece of the stern had been found with the letters 'BEL' still visible.

Patrick O’Flaherty JP had his own boat which would be lost in August 1840 with all seven people aboard being drowned. The Red Gauntlet had been on a passage from Casla bay to Cill Rónáin when it overturned in a sudden squall just off Bárr a Phointe. 
A view of Eochaill lighthouse, taken from about where the
Red Gauntlet went down in 1840, with the loss of seven.

Lost that evening were the skipper James Burke, his crewman Peter Mannion, Head Eochaill light keeper Harding and his wife, his deputy Light keeper Cullen, a passenger named Bryan Dirrane and a young boy named Bartley King.

The winter of 1835 appears to have been a hard one around Galway Bay. On January 19th, a boat with a cargo of salt for Galway was wrecked at Ceann Boirne but luckily, the crew were saved by Captain Kemp from the Ballyvaughan Coast Guard station.

In January also, a Claddagh fishing boat belonging to Widow Hernon was wrecked, probably at Carraig an Mhatail (Carrickawathal) rock off Inverin, as it rushed back to Galway with a boatload of fresh herring. After being widowed by fever, the woman had made heroic efforts to get a boat built and it had only been launched a few days previously. On board was her young son Stephen, a man named O'Neill, Pat Moran and John Connolly.

X marks the area where Widow Hernon’s boat was wrecked. 

The cries of the four drowning men could be heard by the men in nearby boats and locals on shore, but they were unable to save them. When the boats eventually reached Claddagh, the widow and her daughter were waiting on the pier. It was reported that the fishermen turned their backs and found any excuse not to have to be the one to break the terrible news.

Claddagh fishing fleet nearly home, circa 1900.

Eventually, the woman and her daughter realised what had happened and the  silence of a fishing village in mourning was disturbed by the anguished lamenting of the widow as she grieved the loss of her son and relatives and the prospect of almost certain destitution.

Newspapers carried a report in April 1835 of a ship, the Sarah Margaret, going aground northwest of Aran and the passengers being landed on one of the islands. The location is almost certainly inaccurate as the boat appears to have been grounded on the Finnis Fock which 125 years later would claim the world famous Father Ted wreck, the 'Plassey'.

 It’s almost certaithat it was at Inis Oirr that the twenty passengers bound for Quebec were landed. Also, much praise was given later to Francis McNamara of Arran View in Clare for his help in protecting the ship. It was later refloated and, with the help of currachs, brought to Balkaghaline Bay near Doolin. Tim Robinson was fairly sure that Francis McNamara was married to Patrick O’Flaherty’s sister, Marcella. 

In May 1835 another abandoned ship was found near Doolin and the Coast Guard managed to salvage her. She was about 600 tons and had a valuable cargo of North American Timber.

The legal position as to shipwreck rights on the Isles of Arran would be fought out at the Four Courts in Dublin in 1862. Then, it was decided that ancient laws conferred the rights to the owners of the Islands, Miss Digby and Mr Barfoot. This had been contested by Fr Peter Daly on behalf of the town commissioners of Galway. 

Edward D’alton was busy again just a week or so after the shipwreck on Brannock, when the brig Woodbine of Scarborough, with a cargo of oats from Galway and bound for London, was driven ashore at Inis Meáin. He was credited with taking the situation in hand and successfully protecting the cargo and crew. The master, Captain Maw, credited D’alton for saving his life, after he was confronted by looters.

We did a piece recently on the sinking of the ferry SS Dún Aengus in 1947 and it got us thinking of the vast number of ships that have been wrecked around the islands and the many ghost ships that have drifted into Galway Bay.

We have been unable to find out what became of the passengers and crew of the Brannock Island wreck but we have come across many instances of crews being rescued in mid-Atlantic by vessels who happened to spot them - the abandoned ships often making landfall in Ireland.

On December 15th, 1834 the British sailing ship 'Fitzroy' of Newcastle, was abandoned off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, her crew having been rescued by a passing ship, the 'Caroline'. The Fitzroy and its timber cargo, eventually washed up in Dunmanus bay in Cork on March 7th, 1835. In view of the child’s frock found at Oileán Dá Bhranóg, we can only hope that this type of rescue was also the case in our story.

A typical example of old Aran cottages that may well have been built 
using timber salvaged from the many wrecks that came ashore long ago

So next time you see an ancient photo of a Connemara or Aran cottage, there is a very good chance that the timbers holding up the roof were rescued from the tide. The rescuing of which caused men and women to risk, and sometimes lose, their lives.

Michael Muldoon. April 2021.

P.S. Some readers may remember Oileán Dá Bhranóg featuring in a previous post about two men being marooned there in 1926 and the death of a World War One veteran who was involved in their rescue.

You can read that story  HERE

Saturday, 27 March 2021

The day the ‘Steamer’ went down in 1947

“Come up, come up... we’re on the rocks!”

The S.S Dún Aengus at Galway Dock. 

At about 12:45 PM on May 24th of 1947, this was the alarming roar down to the saloon of the old Galway Bay Steamboat Company’s ferry, SS Dún Aengus, as she struck the rocks at Inis Meáin. 

One of the passengers that day, Eugene Horan, can still remember the reply from a fellow cattle jobber and butcher, the late Jack Divilly of Prospect Hill in Galway. Showing great calmness under pressure, Jack shouted back up: “Aahhh, sure I’m on the rocks all my life”.

Eugen Horan who was aboard in 1947. Seen here in 2012 with his good friend Pádraig Gillan.

The 35 year old steamer, Dún Aengus, had left Galway that morning at 6:30 AM and at the smallest island, Inis Oirr, fourteen fine cattle had been hoisted aboard for the Spring fair in Galway on the following Tuesday and Wednesday.

SS Dún Aengus Steamer taking cattle at Inis Oirr.

There was a stiff SE breeze when she arrived at Inis Meáin and started to unload cargo. Shortly afterwards, it appears that a rope from a lobster pot fouled the propellor and in a short time the boat was on the rocks.

According to reports, the veteran steward from Derry, Dan Doherty, started to get the passengers ready for the worst. There was a priest aboard, Fr Egan, and we have been unable to confirm if this was a former parish priest of the islands, Patrick Egan, who served from 1927 to 1935

Dan had been steward since day one in 1912

Dan, who had been with the SS Dún Aengus when the Titanic, Leinster and Lusitania went down, suggested to Fr Egan that perhaps he could give general absolution to the passengers. Wisely, Fr Egan replied that this might result in a panic so Dan told him to do the best he could. It’s possible that Dan was indulging in some dark Derry humour but we’ll never know for sure now. 

Conforming to those patriarchal times, Dan would later tell of how he assured the women that there was nothing to worry about. An obvious fib in view of his request for General Absolution. 

Along with twenty-year-old Eugene and Jack Divilly was another cattle jobber, the late Paddy Coyne of Ballybrit. He was travelling with his parents who were on their way to visit their daughter, Bridget Johnston of Kilmurvey House. 

Also aboard was Jack Stewart of Stewart’s builders in Salthill as well as two light keepers, Cahill and Keane and these three men were afterwards praised for their efforts in helping get their fellow passengers evacuated safely. 

Also reported as being on board were three Cill Rónáin residents; Mrs Margaret Concannon Gill, Mrs Mary Delia Hernon Conneely and Miss Mary Elizabeth Powell.

A man who had been involved in examinations at the Technical school in Galway, named as Mr Davis of Dublin, was also listed among the passengers. 

The curate from Inis Oirr, Fr Joseph Scott had travelled as far as Inis Meáin but had gone ashore to say mass before the accident happened. 

Realising that the situation was unretrievable, Sligo native, Captain Michael McLaughlin (1886-1969) ordered his mate Tom Anderson to lower one of the ship's lifeboats.

Newspaper photo of the passengers being rescued. 

This was done but with just two men aboard, the painter line snapped and the boat was washed away, later to come safely ashore further on. 

According to reports, one of the passengers went to the bridge and sounded the SOS which alerted the currachs and, indeed, the whole island to what was happening.

The ships lifeboat being used to bring passengers ashore

Also aboard was a retired Major G B Thunder who had served in the British Indian army in the recent War. He was travelling to Cill Rónáin with his wife Theodosia and his four month old daughter. They were planning to live on the island for a while. The Major would go on to buy a trawler, ‘Iona’, in Westport which Galway fire brigade saved after it unfortunately went on fire just before he left Galway dock for Cill Rónáin. 

Major Thunder later gave an account of how his family were brought safely ashore. With the chaos  after the loss of the lifeboat, a local currach man, Rory O’Flaherty came to their aid. Throwing his valuable cargo overboard, he showed great skill in bringing his currach alongside and safely brought the Thunder family and others ashore. 

By then, the second ships lifeboat had been launched and a gangway lowered. This was used to ferry the remaining passengers from the Dún Aengus to the nearby rock, where islanders were on hand to haul them safely ashore. The twenty or so passengers on board were on dry land within a half hour.

       This photo taken later as the tide went out. 

Realising that the ship was badly holed and that she would flood with the rising tide, the fourteen cattle were then helped to swim ashore. The rest of the cargo, which included a large consignment of flour and twenty three kegs of Guinness, was left to the ocean. 

Not long afterwards the Kilronan lifeboat came on the scene and after a few hours standing by, brought the crew ashore. Later the lifeboat brought the crew and some of the passengers to Cill Rónáin where they remained overnight before being brought by trawler to Galway next day.

The three Cill Rónáin women were forever grateful to the Inish Meáin people for not only rescuing them and taking them up the rock face but for later that evening launching a currach and bringing the three women and a little dog, belonging to Miss Powell, across to Cill Rónáin.

First Holy Communion was on next day in Cill Rónáin and Margaret’s son Micheál was worried about his mother when he heard of the sinking. He was worried also that she had his new clothes for the big day with her. Both arrived home safely.

The Gill family of Cill Rónáin. Only Micheál left now. 

The pathway of life would be short for Mary Delia who died young and long for Margaret, who lived to be over one hundred years. 

The late Bridget Johnston Hernon of Kilmurvey House got frightening news of the sinking but was hugely relieved later to get a telegram from her parents in Inish Meáin which read:

Safe and well in Inis Meáin. Love Mammy and Daddy.

The late Bridget Johnson Hernon. (Photo from the Richie-Pickow collection at N.U.I.G.)

Because of its long history, the sinking of the Dún Aengus made international headlines. The editor of the Irish Press, William Sweetman, hired a plane which flew a reporter and photographer from Weston Airfield in Leixlip and brought back dramatic photos of the stricken vessel. The round trip was done in about two hours and the photos were back in Dublin for the morning paper.

Dramatic aerial shot by the Irish Press, with islanders waving to the visitors

Many newspaper reports of the incident declared that the Dún Aengus was a total wreck and would have to be broken up where she lay. 

This proved to be untrue but it does partly explain the stripping of the boat of many items that would eventually have to be replaced at a cost of £2,000.

Historically, islanders had always offered assistance to seafarers in need but once this was done, wrecks and wrack were regarded by some as fair game. 

The 19th century had seen many battles between the coastguard and Islanders who were often joined by boats from Connemara when a wreck drifted into Galway Bay.

The rising tide filling the stricken Dún Aengus. 

The sea had taken many men from the islands in the 19th century and when on occasion it brought something ashore, it was felt that this was providence and to hell with Revenue Officers and the Receiver of Wrecks in London. 

In the chaos that followed the grounding, some Guinness kegs were rescued by islanders and it appears that for some reason, the Dún Aengus log book went missing. 

The boat is of great historical interest and perhaps some day, this logbook may resurface somewhere. 

The Dún Aengus had been used in 1922 during the savage Irish Civil War, to bring government troops and supplies to Clarecastle and Limerick. It was later used to supply Clifden when road and rail connections were interrupted by anti-treaty forces.

Just eleven years earlier, in December 1936 and with a passenger capacity of 192, she had carried about 500 volunteers from Galway dock to the mouth of the bay as they awaited the arrival of a German freighter the SS Urundi. We did a piece on that episode some years agoHere

The S.S. Urundi, which met with the Dún Aengus at Ceann Boirne in 1936.

The men were part of  General O’Duffy’s volunteer force who were going to Spain to fight for Franco and for God in the Spanish Civil War. A bizarre night in Galway as the Dún Aengus sailed out of the dock with 500 men singing 'Faith of our Fathers'.

The loss of the Dún Aengus left the islands in a bad way as there were a lot of cattle that needed to be sent to market. As in days gone by, the Connemara turf boats (along with a couple of local boats) later managed to transport most of the three islands cattle to Carraroe and on then by lorry to Galway.

Cill Éinne man Pat Gill’s nobby  St Enda, which carried the post for a few weeks. 

The post office hired Pat Gill of Cill Éinne to provide a postal connection to the islands from Connemara until the return of the Dún Aengus. Pat Powell of Abbeygate Street made arrangements for provisions to be sent in by trawler to his sister Mary Powell from Inis Oirr, who had established a shop, M.E. Powell in Cill Rónáin, in 1917.

Mary’s setting up shop would result in a number of Inis Oirr girls, including her nieces, coming to work for her. This would result in quite a number of local men finding fine wives and today there are a vast number of descendants from those times, both on the island and scattered around the world.

The Liverpool based RANGER which salvaged the Dún Aengus.

In an incredible feat of recovery, the salvage boat 'Ranger' from Liverpool under Captain Barr managed to pump the stranded Dún Aengus out and tow her to Cill Rónáin on June the 3rd. After further repairs, which involved using concrete to plug seven small holes and the use of a diver, she was taken to Galway and finally to the Rushbrook shipyard in Cork. 

In early August the Dún Aengus sailed into Galway Bay and a few days later, on August the 8th of 1947, was welcomed back to the Aran Islands. The repairs had cost about £10,000.

SS Dún Aengus.

Several court cases resulted from the grounding of the Dún Aengus. In May 1948, the Thunders sued successfully for £380 when Judge Wyse Power ruled in favour of their claim that they were unaware of the conditions of carriage. 

This exact same claim was rejected a year later in 1949 by Judge Connolly, when Mary E Powell failed in her claim for almost £180 against the Galway Bay Steamboat Company. 

Mary, like Major Thunder, had pleaded ignorance but was deemed to have been aware of the conditions of carriage. It’s worth noting that when the Major’s boat 'Iona' went on fire in September 1947, it was reported that fishermen at Galway dock observed a man jumping overboard, with his pants on fire. 

Newspaper report from September 1947

A claim for £2,000 by the company against Galway County Council for wilful damage because of the stripping of the wreck was eventually withdrawn. The island ratepayers would have been liable if this had succeeded and had engaged legal council. 

1947 was an exciting year for the SS Dún Aengus and after her repairs, huge crowds travelled out on the recently returned ferry. Among these was a group from the 11th Cyclist regiment of the FCA. These Soldiers were from Dublin and an Irish speaking unit made up from cycling clubs and An Óige.

Troops of F.C.A on their way to Árainn in August 1947

Before we leave the story of the grounding of the Dún Aengus, there is a small footnote that can be added. Some time after the incident, a couple of jobbers were out looking at cattle near the back of the middle island. They noticed a few islanders in a cregg in the distance, calling them over. 

When they arrived they were offered two mugs of porter from a keg that had been tapped and mounted on a cradle of stones. “As nice a drop of porter as I’ve ever tasted”, was the verdict of a jobber with great expertise in the matter.


Cattle jobber enjoying an open air drink at Inis Meáin in 1971. 
  Photo: National Geographic

We can recall photographing a fine model of the SS Dún Aengus at the maritime museum in Dún Laoghaire a few years ago. A museum well worth another visit when things settle down.

The Maritime Museum in Dun Laoghaire has a scale model of the SS Dun Aengus

This was not the first sinking for the Captain of the Dún Aengus Michael McLaughlin (Newspapers incorrectly called him Charles).

Michael McLaughlin in 1921. Master of SS Dún Aengus

In 1916 Michael was Mate on the SS Liverpool when she struck a mine near the Isle of Man and went down with the loss of three lives. His grandson Eugene McLaughlin has written a fine account of that incident which can be read HERE

We are grateful to Eugene for supplying much information on his late grandfather. 

We are also very grateful to the many people who shared memories and information about the incident down through the years. Hopefully, more information will come to hand and we welcome any corrections etc. as the years are drifting by and there must be a mountain of stories about the sinking, yet to be recorded. 

S.S. Dún Aengus back safely in Galway Dock. 

The crew on board the Dún Aengus that day was:

Captain........    Michael McLaughlin

First mate....    Tom Anderson

Engineer......    Frank Winder

Greaser........    Robert Goulding

Fireman.......    Michael Geary

Steward.......    Dan Doherty

Seaman........    Murty Folan

Seaman........    Martin Finnerty

Seaman........    Michael Anderson

Michael Muldoon, March 2021.