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.

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