The Greenore Shipping disaster - passenger Steamer and collier sunk

100 Years Ago

The Greenore Shipping disaster - passenger Steamer and collier sunk
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Saturday, November 11, 1916

90 Lives lost- 1 survivor

One of the most dreadful tragedies in the recorded history of the sea took place on Friday evening of last week at the entrance to Carlingford Lough when the outward bound Greenore steamer " Connemara" and a Collier inward bound to Newry collided in the channel and they went to the bottom almost immediately with some 90 souls, of whom 51 were passengers.

Though the collision occurred within a few miles of Greenore it was unnoticed from the Co.Louth shore in the darkness and the storm that wasthen raging, and was unknown to the L. and N.W.R. officials until Saturday morning: and though the ships sunk within half a mile of Cranfield point on the Down Coast, so furious was the storm that only one man of all living freight of the two vessels reached the shore alive.

Since this sole survivor was below decks when the crash came he could give no account of what led to the collision. All those who could have described it are gone. The men on the Carlingford bar light had not a sufficiently clear view to be able to account for what seems likely to remain a mystery. It was at first stated the Collier had a heavy load which would have rendered her less unmanageable: and that, being unable to steer close in the comparatively narrow channel and buffered by a fierce gale and tremendous seas, she rammed into the Connemara amidships. The survivor, however, who was a fireman on the Collier, states that the vessel was not unmanageable. Possibly an examination of the wreck may throw some light on the affair. All that is at present certainly known is this:

The Connemara left Greenore at a few minutes after eight, carrying a pretty full cargo, including live stock, and 51 passengers, as well as the crew of 34. The wind was then blowing a hurricane from W.S.W against a strong ebb tide, and a heavy sea was running. About 24 miles from Greenore pier she passed the tall lighthouse marking the Carlingford bar and entered the comparatively narrow channel or "gut" leading seawards. This channel is about 300 feet wide, cut through a rocky bottom, and in such conditions of wind and waves as obtained on Friday night affords no great amount of seaways for vessels passing each other. About half a mile beyond the bar the Connemara met the Newry steam collier Retriever inward bound from Garston with coal. Both vessels were showing their lights and there is no reason to suppose that the want of care is to be attributed to the men on the bridge of either craft. But for some reason which apparently we must seek in the almost unexampled violence of the storm and the comparative narrowness of the channels, the vessels crashed into each other. According to one account the stem of the collier cut into Connemara's side right to the funnel, probably letting a raging torrent of water into the ship's vitals and causing an explosion which would account for the mutilated condition of so many of the bodies found. The Connemara heeled over and sank like a stone- some accounts say in 2 minutes, some in 7 minutes. The Retriever floated for 15 minutes and was driven northwards of the channel before the gale, settling down in shallower water and not before a disciplined attempt was made to get out of the boats. But in such a sea no boat could hope to live. Those that reached the water capsized. The solo survivor a non swimmer, got to shore clinging to the keel of an upturned boat and, of course, in a condition of exhaustion and collapse.

It is stated that the man in charge of the lights on the top of the tall column at the bar, looking out over the raging water to seaward observed, though dimly that something serious had occurred, and he at once discharged two fog signals to warn people on the shore. So terrible was the storm that the signals were unheaded by anyone on the Greenore shore, but pilot Peter Morgan of Cranfield, heard them and called out a neighboring farmer named Wm Hanna. Wrestling the gale they made their way to the beach, on which a furious sea was breaking, but though they peered seaward they could make out nothing. In normal circumstances they should have been able to discern the lights of the outgoing steamer, and the absence of any signs awakened the keenest anxiety. Wreckage began to come ashore: and this aroused the two men to a keener watchfulness.

Presently in the raging surf the figure of a man was seen, and running into the water at no small risk to themselves the men brought out the lifeless body of James Boyle, fireman on the "Retriever." It was him from him the watcher learned the full extent of the disaster. He was carried to Mr Hanna's house and cared for: and soon the dreadful news was brought to other dwellers along the shore, who turned out in hope of finding other living creatures among the wreckage now fast piling along the beach. But no other living soul was found. Through that night and next day scores of dead bodies- 58 in all up to Sunday after noon - were washed in while the beach from Kilkeel to Cranfield was piled with freight and pieces of wreckage. Many dead cattle came ashore and some few alive which wandered into the fields in search of pasture.

The dead bodies which were washed ashore were brought to a building at Cranfield where they were reverently placed; and on Sunday the building was visited by relatives of the drowned seaman and by many people who had or had reason to believe they had, relatives among the passengers on the Connemara. It was inevitable that under the circumstances many painful scenes should be witnessed. One of the women whose body was washed ashore was clinging to a little blue eyed baby and even in death it was difficult to relax her hold. Some of the women who visited the shed became hysterical and falling on their knees they hugged the bodies of relatives whom they recognized. One of the most pathetic of the many painful scenes which occurred was witnessed on Sunday afternoon, when an old man from Crossmaglen, passing along the row of corpses, with their upturned faces, recognized his daughter, and, unable to control his grief , he fell down beside her, "oh, my child, my poor child." He covered her face with kisses, and had eventually to be gently removed.

Many of the bodies were totally unrecognizable owing to the manner in which they had been mutilated by the waves and the heavy boulders. It is quite possible that some of those on board succeeded in swimming close to the shore and that they were then taken up by the heavy waves and thrown against the huge stones piled in enormous shapeless masses on the beach. There were men whose heads had been wrenched from their bodies, women whose arms or legs were missing, and poor little helpless children whose features had been horribly bruised. Some of the bodies were altogether devoid of clothing. Among the passengers on the Connemara were 17 young women who were travelling to Liverpool, and thence to Canada or the States.

A complete list of the names of the passengers is not available, because it had not been prepared at the time the vessel left Greenore. There were, however, on board 3 or 4 soldiers, whose names and addresses have been ascertained by means of identification discs and papers which were found in their pockets. Miss Williams, the stewardess, was to have been married shortly , and this was to been her last trip on the Connemara. A women passenger was on her way to England with her three children, for the purpose of welcoming her soldier husband on his return from the front. Nearly the whole of the members of the crew of the Connemara resided in Wales.

At low tide on Saturday the two vessels were lying at a distance of little more than a stone's throw from the shore. The Connemara , with her sides clearly exposed above the water, was to be seen directly opposite the residence of the men in the in the employment of the Irish Lights , while the Retriever was lying about 50 yards away, slightly towards the Louth coast. From the position of the vessels it would seem as though after the collision the Retriever reversed her engines and went astern. It is extraordinary, having regards to the proximity to the shore of the two steamer, that only one out of 94 souls on board should have survived.

Sole Survivor's Story

James Boyle, the sole survivor of the catastrophe, a stalwart young sailor of 21, resides at Warrenpoint. He had a truly miraculous escape from death, having been washed up on the beach in a completely exhausted condition after the small boat in which he managed to get away from the wreck had thrice capsized. To a Press representative he stated that the voyage from Garston to the Irish coast was quite uneventful. The sea was rough, there being a heavy broken swell, but on many occasions he had made the passage when worse conditions prevailed. He first sighted the Connemara when she was between the lighthouse and Greenore, and she was then about half a mile distant from the Retriever, which had s slight list owing to the cargo having shifted, but was completely under control and responded readily to helm. The vessels were on their proper course at that time; at least the Connemara appeared to be all right, and he knew the Retriever's position was correct because they had just got the leading lights, which indicated the entrance to the channel-in line. Both ships showed lights. He thought the Connemara was about to pass, and went down into the cabin to attend to the fire. Suddenly he heard the Retriever's whistle sounded thrice, and, realizing that something unusual was happening, he rushed up the stairway, but before he could reach the deck there was a collision, and the impact was so great that the ship shivered from stem to stern. Gaining the deck he found that the bows of the Retriever had cut deeply into the side of the Connemara, penetrating nearly to the funnel.

"Things happened quickly then," added Boyle, but there was no confusion or panic aboard the Retriever. Captain O'Neill, who was on the bridge- he had been there since 3 O'clock that afternoon- shouted the order -" All hands to the boats." Wm Clugston , Joe Donnan and I went to the starboard side to get a boat, there were 2 boats - and there Jos O'Neill joined us. We got the boat ready for putting off, and then stood by. Joe Donnan said he would go below for lifebelts, and he advised those who were wearing sea-boots to take them off. That was the last I saw of him, although I hear his voice a few minutes later crying , " Cut her away, cut her away." The Retriever gradually took a heavy list to starboard, swinging the boat well out from the side. I was holding on to the rope ready to jump into her. It was then 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 gradually 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 seemed to be on fire.

"I saw the Retriever listing further and further." he proceeded and then she went to the bottom. My boat was tossed about for half an hour or so, and then a huge wave came and overturned her. I can't swim, but I managed to cling on somehow, and eventually got astride the keel. I was gradually carried in towards the shore, going straight towards a light upon which my gaze was fixed, and then another huge wave swept me into the sea again, and the same wave righted the boat. I got back into her, and then when I reached the surf the boat capsized for the third time. I thought I was lost, but I felt the sand under my feet and managed to crawl nearer safety on hands and knees. The moon was shining brightly at the same time - and indeed even from the Retriever I could see the shore quite distinctly and nearly all the time I was drifting I could make out the forms of men on the beach. I shouted to men to come to my assistance and was giving up however, thinking they did not hear me, when Mr Hanna and Tom Critchley picked me up."

Coastguard William Wise, of Kilkeel, in an interview with a reporter said Friday night was wild with a strong W.S.W. wind blowing dead along the shore, and the master of a vessel like the Retriever would naturally hug the coast line in order to take advantage of any little shelter it afforded. I knew Captain O'Neill, of the Retriever well. Probably no man had a better knowledge of the lough: he knew literally ever stone and turn in it.

The captain of the Connemara was equally skillful, and which the only theory which I can advance is that one of the vessels became unmanageable and crashed into the other doing such damage that neither remained afloat for any length of time.

Inquest on the Victims

An inquest on the victims was held in the Courthouse, Kilkeel on Monday. The jury returned a verdict of found drowned in the case of the 58 bodies which have already been recovered. At the opening of the inquest Mr H G Burgess said he desired on behalf of the Chairman, Directors and General Manager of the L and N W R Co, to express their most sincere sympathy with the relatives and friends of the passengers, officers and crew of the Connemara, who had sustained such a bad bereavement. The company deeply regretted the disaster.

Mr W E Matthews, Superintendent of the Company at Greenore, who was the first witness. He said the Connemara left Greenore at 8.50 on Friday evening. There were 50 passengers on board, a crew of 31, 3 cattlemen and 1 luggage guard. The night was stormy, but everything was in the usual trim.

In answer to Mr Collins, the winesss said they did not receive at Greenore of the disaster till 9 o'clock the following morning, and consequently no steps could be taken to send out a lifeboat so far as Greenore was concerned.

The Only Survivor

James Boyle, the only survivor of the disaster, was the next witness. As soon as he had been seated in the witness chair he broke down completely and sobbed aloud. He said the Retriever left Garston at 4.35 on Friday morning, bound for Newry with a charge of coal. There nine all told in the crew. The wind was south-east up till 12 noon, with a moderate breeze. The wind changed to S.S.W. They were abreast of Skerries lighthouse at 10.45, and about that time the vessel was put on the steam-steering gear.

Between 5 and 6pm the cargo shifted owing to the storm, but nothing to cause any uneasiness on board. They came in sight of the lighthouse at 6.30 pm and it was blowing heavily on them They got their lights up about the Hellyhunter buoy.

The captain was steering at the time. Some time after they sighted the Greenore boat coming out, and witness saw the masthead light burning. Just at that time he had to leave the deck and proceeded to the captain's cabin.

While there he heard three short blasts from the Retriever's whistling and the ringing of the telegraph, which indicated that his vessels was about to go astern. Before opening the cabin door he heard the collision and rushed on deck.

The vessels were then in contact. There was a heavy sea, and it was blowing hard. The Retriever came clear of the Connemara and grounded of the north side of the channel.

Coroner- Would you say the cargo of the Retriever had shifted again?

Witness- no; there had been further list.

District inspector- What did you see of the Connemara?

Witness- She was settling down and sunk in about seven minutes.

What order was given on board your vessel?

Witness- "All hands to the boats."

Witness then described how he, Olugston and Joe Donnan got ready and Donnan's shouting to any who had heavy boots to take them off. The retriever took a list to starboard and the boat swung off of its own accord. He had hold of the rope and swung into the boat.

He heard Joe Donnan's vote again shouting "Cut Her Away." The Retriever listed the further to starboard heavily and went down. He saw nothing more of the crew after that but he manged to drift ashore in the boat which in its course to the shore was capsized twice, the waves washing on to the keel after she was first overturned. When he reached the surf he crawled on his hands and knees as far he could get.

Mr Mullan- Which side of the Connemara was struck by the Retriever?

Witness- I could not give you a definite answer. I did not see her sheering off either.

The jury brought in a verdict of found drowned, and expressed deep sympathy with the relatives of the victims.