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The Carlingford Lough Disaster... Co.Down's worst maritime tragedy

In Nov. 1916, Ferry Steamer, "SS Connemara" collided with "SS Retriever" in Carlingford Lough. Both ships sank. 94 lives were lost .

SS Connemara

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The Carlingford Lough Disaster... Co.Down's worst maritime tragedy

Commemorative headstone to the Carlingford Lough Disaster
This commemorative headstone
was placed in a Kilkeel churchyard
by pupils of Kilkeel High School

Most people have heard the story of the "Princess Victoria" ferry disaster in which 135 lives were lost in 1952. However another maritime tragedy, also involving a cross channel passenger steamer, appears to have been largely ignored.

Ironically, the two ships lie in only 6 metres of water. Many of those aboard were young men going to the mainland to seek work. Numerous stories are told of how their parents did not know they were on the ship and thought that their offspring had gone across the water and hadn't bothered to write or make contact again. There is a commemorative headstone in a graveyard in Kilkeel and also a stained glass window in the Cathedral in Dundalk.

Bill Quinn, a retired boatbuilder from Kilkeel is a well regarded local storyteller
Bill Quinn
"There was one house in Newry Street with eleven coffins outside it..."

Bill Quinn, a retired boat builder from Kilkeel is a well known local storyteller.
He talks here about the disaster. Click here to listen...

Fact, folklore and fiction

article by Sean Patterson

It could be argued that this is an event which deserves a much higher profile, even though the loss of life was not as great as that on the Princess Victoria. Ironically, had the Carlingford Lough Disaster occurred during peace-time, not war-time, the results may have been much more horrendous. Had the London and North Western Railway steamer Connemara been carrying even half of her complement of 800 passengers, the loss might have been catastrophic when one considers the steamer sank within minutes of its collision with the SS Retriever.

Painting of the SS Connemara, 1897
Painting of the SS Connemara, 1897 (Courtesy of Sean Patterson)
The actual cause of the tragedy was thoroughly researched and recounted by Bangor historian Ian Wilson in "Sea Breezes" in 1978. The Connemara, outward bound from Greenore to Holyhead was struck amidships by the SS Retriever of the Clanrye Steamship company of Newry at the seaward end of the Carlingford cut at the entrance to Carlingford Lough, in gale force conditions. From eyewitness accounts it appears that as the two vessels approached each other in the narrow sea-lane, the Newry collier, homeward bound from Garston, swung to port, striking the passenger vessel amidships. The collier then went astern and grounded. Within minutes both vessels had sunk. 86 crewmen, passengers and cattlemen perished on the passenger ferry. Because of war-time restrictions she was carrying only third class passengers. Eight members of the 460 ton Retriever drowned. The only survivor was James Boyle, a young ordinary seaman who reached shore clinging to a capsized lifeboat. Like any shipping tragedy, behind the bare facts of the collision and the sinking lies a human tragedy. Many very poignant accounts have emerged from the disaster. Some are documented while others have been passed by word-of-mouth from generation, possibly becoming distorted with passage of time.

As always, chance played its part in determining who sailed on the fateful night of November 3rd 1916 and perished, whilst others decided not to travel. This became very apparent in my role as a primary school teacher. Two children in the same primary seven class were linked by this tragedy. One boy's great grandfather John Henry Tomelty was a fireman on the Retriever, a coal fired steamer. He missed her departure from the Albert basin in Newry on her final journey to the coal port of Garston. Rather than lose steady employment, he procured a bicycle, cycled 3 miles to the Victoria sea lock, at the seaward end of the Newry ship canal, and boarded the 10 year old vessel as she lay in the chamber of the sea lock.

Whole family was due to sail

John Carroll, whose great granddaughter was in that same class made a decision that practically saved his whole family. During the previous summer his eldest son had gone to South Wales and had written home that work there was plentiful. John decided to bring his whole family across and was due to sail on the Connemara on Friday 3rd November. He then decided to bring his departure forward by two days, sailing on Wednesday. His grandson remarked to me, "the fact that they did not sail speaks for itself. One Carroll generation would have been almost wiped out."

Life or death on the spin of a coin

Whatever made John Carroll change his mind is uncertain. The fate, however, of brother and sister Patrick and Catherine Kearney was decided by the toss of a coin. They were travelling from Newry to meet a relative in Liverpool. Whilst awaiting the boat train to Greenore at Edward St Station in Newry they discussed with Sergeant Fitzpatrick, the RIC officer on duty that night the possibility of the Connemara sailing in such stormy weather. The latter was of the opinion that the sailing would be cancelled and believed taking the Dublin steamer would be a better option. According to the Frontier Sentinel of November 16th 1916, Mr Kearney hesitated and then said he would "abide by the spin of a coin." He spun the coin in the air and decided to go. The police sergeant, remarking that the chance of a coin might be unlucky still advised him to alter his route but Mr Kearney persisted, adding that an acquaintance was to meet him on the arrival of the Greenore boat. Both sailed.

Premonition of disaster

Mrs A Small of Cleveland St, it appears, had a premonition of disaster and heeded the warning. She told the Armagh correspondent of the Press Agency she had "a vivid and terrible dream" in the early hours of Thursday morning of sailing on the Greenore steamer on a stormy night. She saw clearly an explosion and steam rushing from a broken pipe. She found herself and her daughter in the water with bodies floating around her. Believing the dream to be a premonition she told her friends and relatives. Despite their scorn she was adamant she would not travel on the Greenore steamer "for love nor money."

Rats left the ship

According to the family members of 19 year old Mary Angela McArdle from Mulladuff in County Monaghan, her sister-in-law in Chicago awoke after a nightmare in which she saw Mary Angela drowning. Mary Angela was sailing to join her brother and sister-in-law in Chicago. It was also claimed by family members that on the night of the sailing, rats were seen leaving the Connemara - an ill omen. This apparently was also remarked upon by Peter Killen, a cattleman who believed it was time he found another ship. He did not.

Ghost of lady in white

It appears that others involved in the sinking and indeed their relatives may have had supernatural experiences warning of disaster. According to an article in the Donaghmoyne Parish magazine of 1986, a young man named Simon McGarrell was on holiday in the area from England with his mother. Simon, with his mother's permission decided to remain for another week after she had returned to England. The night before he sailed his friends held a small party for him. After the party, Simon followed his friends to the Lara Cross. He told them that a lady in white passed through the wheel of his bicycle. They laughed at him and then left him home. But according to the article, whilst they were returning home, the white lady passed in front of them before disappearing behind a pile of stones. They searched for her but could not find her. Later as the three of them stood near the Lara Cross, the white woman walked through them. Simon sailed on the following day on the Connemara.

Ghost Ship seen

Perhaps the most interesting supernatural phenomenon relating to the Carlingford Lough Disaster is that of the appearance of the Lord Blayney, "the ghost ship of Carlingford Lough". On December 18th 1833, the 200 ton wooden paddle steamer foundered on the rocks near Prestatyn in Wales, whilst en route from Warrenpoint to Liverpool. All on board perished. A possible cause may have been that the captain of the steamer mistook the 'Point of Ayr' light to be the North West Lightship which had in fact broken adrift of its moorings.

In his book Legendary Stories of the Carlingford Lough, MG Crawford describes a sighting of the Lord Blayney: "we could see the tall masts and funnel of a steamer appear as if she were rising from the grey breast of the sea; then the mast head light shining like a star burst full upon us. The ship tossed as if knocked about in a storm, although where she lay was dead calm. We could hear the sound of swishing water against her side, and the wind blowing through her rigging, as she rolled onward on her course. When she came opposite the quays at Warrenpoint we saw a cloud of steam go up as if the whistle was shrieking a warning; then slowly she sank; her stern lights vanished beneath the waves".

The appearance of the ghost ship is ingrained in local folklore and is said to herald a tragedy in the Lough. It was reported to have been seen before an earlier sinking in the Lough, that of the sailing vessel Robert Burns. On the afternoon of November 3rd 1916, relatives of James Boyle, the only survivor, claimed to have seen the Lord Blayney. It is interesting to note that since the loss of the Connemara and Retriever, the ghost ship has been reported several times. After delivering a talk on the tragedy I met a lady, very much in possession of her faculties I may add, who was quite adamant that she had seen this particular vessel.

Stewardess was on final journey

There are other incidents of people who for one reason or another should or should not have been on the Connemara that fateful night. According to contemporary newspaper reports, Lizzie Collins had intended taking the Dublin steamer but ended up on the Connemara. Robert Conlon, a railway man from Dundalk, was on his way to a wedding with his two aunts, Maggie Glassbrook and Lillie Fillingham, in Wigan. Mrs Fillingham was accompanied by her son Robert, aged 2, and daughter Jane, aged 4. Robert's brother Patrick was to accompany him but at the last moment had been asked to drive his employer to Dublin. Marriage was also on the mind of Miss Williams, a stewardess on the Connemara. She was soon to be married and had given in her notice. This was to be her last trip on the Connemara. It is also worth mentioning that John Burns, a cattleman from Greenore, had taken the place of his brother. Also among the list of passengers, painstakingly drawn up by CJ McCarthy of Dundalk and J Lane of London, is an un-named seaman from Wales who had just signed off the SS Bessbrook of Newry, a rival steampacket of the Dundalk and Newry Steampacket Company. Ironically, because of the weather conditions, the Bessbrook did not sail that night.

Drowned with handcuffs on

Whilst many of those travelling that night were visiting relations or starting new lives, a group of soldiers were heading for the Western Front. Private RA Kenna had already been wounded twice, whilst Private Philip Goodfellow had been attending the funeral of his sister. One recruit, however, from outside Newry, may have been under arrest for desertion and, according to the local press, his body was found after the collision handcuffed to that of a sergeant. This, however, is disputed by some of his relatives who claim he was not handcuffed when his body was discovered.

Other sinkings...

There are probably many more personal stories relating to this tragedy when on a stormy November night two fine steamers and 95 people happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was the worst incident involving the loss of a Newry steamer. However, it is worth noting that in total seventeen Newry registered colliers were lost between 1900 and 1942. four disappeared without trace. Several others including the Retriever foundered with heavy loss of life.

The Clanrye Steamship Company lost three out of six vessels in its ownership between 1900 and 1916. Its owner, Fred Ferris, ordered another vessel of similar dimensions to replace the Retriever, registering her under the ownership of the Newry and Provincial Coal Company. Following the liquidation of that concern in 1924, she passed to Ferris's main rival, Fishers of Newry, and was renamed Agba in 1938. She subsequently sank following a collision with a Danish steamer near Sanda Isle in December 1940. No lives were lost.


This article was originally written for the Yearbook of the Down County Museum 2002. It appears here by kind courtesy of the museum and its author Sean Patterson. Sean is a primary school teacher and canal enthusiast and has a special interest in Newry maritime history.
You can visit the Down County Museum website by clicking here


Pat Devlin of County Down has also written an excellent article about the Carlingford Lough Disaster in which he tells the story of the only survivor, James Boyle.
Click here to read it...



Brenda Reeves - July '08
Hi...Having just found this site, I am wondering if John Carroll was a granny was Bridget Carroll, youngest of four children and she married Peter Woods...her elder brother Patrick Carroll went to America...2 sisters Mary-Anne and Kate stayed in Newry...anyone know te connecton ?

Mrs G - Feb '07
Two of my Great Aunts were sailing on the Connemara - Margaret Alice & Rose Maguire from County Fermanagh. Unfortunately their names were never officially recorded. They were travelling to connect with a New York bound ship in Liverpool. Rose was already living in the states and had come to bring Margaret Alice over. Rose was due to be married and was meeting her fiance in Liverpool.

He travelled on to the States but returned to visit Fermanagh n the 1970s and contacted Roses brother Patrick Joseph Maguire. In all the years he still remembered the girl he had loved 60 years before.

P Hamill - Jan '07
The Stained glass window in St Patrick's in Dundalk is in memory of the lives of the lives lost on board the steamship - Dundalk SS - sank by German UBoat in WW1 off Liverpool.

Grace Mc Mahon - Nov '06
I am doing about the carlingford disaster in school. We got a sheet that had put this story into a more adventurous style. I think it was so tragic. We all had to write a story about the collision. Instead I did a diary of James Boyle. I would like ot thank everyone who put this page together as it has helped me write my diary.

Grace Mc Mahon
age = 9

Angela Maguire - 'Oct 06
Samuel Mc Comb was my grandfather. He was in his early thirties when he was drowned on November 3rd 1916 in Carlingford Lough when the ss Retriever and the ss Connemara collided, losing all passengers and crew with the exception of one young man James Boyle from Warrenpoint, a crew member on the Retriever.

I don't know much about my grandfather except that he was born and raised a protestant in the Canal Street area of Newry, and converted to Catholicism when he married my grandmother Elizabeth Morgan who came from the High Street area of the town.
They had three children, a boy John, 6 years old, a girl Clare (my mother) 4years old, and a baby daughter 6 months old named Veronica when he died.
My mother (now deceased) had only sketchy information about her father as her mother (my grandmother) didn't talk a great deal about the tragedy, but she did say that life was difficult for them growing up as children with no father.

Her mother was awarded £50.00 in compensation for the loss of her husband, and when funeral expenses and lawyers were paid, she was left with £25.00 to raise her family!
There was no contact from or help offered from my grandfather's family so Elizabeth, my grandmother had to do the best she could on her own.

The shipping company that owned the Retriever gave her a job cleaning their offices!!
She went to the houses of the wealthy and did their washing, because she had a 6month old baby, she was able to be a wet nurse for a while, and she took in a lodger, who occupied the parlor of their 2up 2down house Monday to Friday in Queen Street.

I feel I just wanted to write some small piece about my grandparents as a remembrance of them as we approach the anniversary of the tragedy. They were ordinary people, not exceptional in any way. No one will write articles about them or know who they were. In fact, I suppose they would be considered unimportant people. But they were important to me!! I didn't have the privilege of meeting them or knowing them, or hearing their voices, or being cuddled as a child by them, and so I thank you for this opportunity to put a small record somewhere of the importance of my grandparents, Samuel and Elizabeth Mc Comb.

Angela Maguire - Oct '06
My grandfather Samuel Mc Comb was one of the crew of The Retriever. My mother, who was four years old at the time, had only very sketchy information as her mother (my grandmother) didn't talk much about the tragedy. I would very much like to correspond with anyone who would have information about my grandfather.

Janet Conlan
Stewardess was on final journey
In this paragraph you mention Robert Conlon a railway man from Dundalk and his brother Patrick who did not get on the ship. It was Patrick Conlan who got on the ship and Thomas Conlan (his brother) who was called away to drive his employer to Dublin. My father, who was Thomas Conlan`s eldest son was named Patrick after Thomas`s brother who died.

Eleanor - Feb '06
Where can I find a list of the passengers on these ships?

Kathleen Morris - December '04
Thank you for this information. My great uncle Matthew Murphy, from Killeavy was on the Clonallon boat, would anyone have any information on this sinking, I would appreciate your help.Thank you

Mary Lennon - December '04
Do you please have any information on the Clonallon boat sinking in December 1904 ? My great uncle Matthew Murphy was lost on that boat. My uncle is now the only remaining nephew. Any information would be greatly appreciated. Thank you

My great grandfather and great aunt were aboard the Retriever going to a family funeral in Ireland. The family would be grateful for any further news and information.
Dan Gaul, Ipswich, Suffolk

Andrew, Anglesey - Feb '08
SS. Connemara: My distant relative Isaac Woodalls was a Fireman on the SS Connemara and was lost in the disaster. He lived in Holyhead. Today, his grandson Ted Woodalls lives in Valley, near Holyhead. The cemetary in Holyhead's Maeshyfryd Road another family member therein buried is a survivor of HMS Warrior sunk in 1916. My paternal Gt granpa came off HMS Cape of Good Hope before that was sunk in 1915, but his nephew was killed in action on HMS Monmouth 1914 - lost all hands. There's another other mariner, drowned 1844 off New York on the paternal line. Myself ? I watched the SS Conchita sink mid Indian Ocean 1967 she settled down evenly, with the weather decks near to sea surface..hardly any hull visible and, even at this stage there were still four crew onboard. All were rescued. The Conchita went down bows first, stern up, the foremast made a splash, the wooden bridge broke off on impact..gone. too old and not seaworthy.

Caubeen - Feb 08
One hopes the facts stated in this article pertaining to the Carlingford disaster are more accurate than those those given at the beginning, about the much later loss of the MV Princess Victoria roll-on, roll-off car ferry on the Stranraer - Larne route. That ship was lost during the great European Windstorm of 1953, at 1.46 pm on 31 January, and 133 lives were lost, rather than the year and number stated above.

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