Louth’s worst maritime disaster

By Don Baldwin

A gut-churning screech of grating metal reverberated through the bowels of the ‘Retriever’, as the sudden collision sent a shuddering spasm down the ship’s spine; jolting her from bow to stern. Instinctively, James Boyle the cabin boy, raced up onto the deck and straight into a nightmarish scene.

Tormented by wicked winds, the angry sea had suddenly hurled the ‘Retriever’ straight into the side of the ‘Connemara’ as the two ships passed in the narrows of the Carlingford Cut. Powerful and merciless the raging wind snatched the desperate screams and the bawling of frightened cattle, hurling them all with equal disdain out into the cold dark night. Frigid water surged hungrily in through the ‘Connemara’s’ breached hull, swarming about its defenceless boilers, which violently exploded with the chilling onslaught.

Intuitively, James cut loose the lifeboat and leapt in with one fluid movement as the sea devoured the ‘Retriever’ beneath him. Waves clawed at his flimsy craft seeking to drag him down into the deep as the sea reared-up beneath him. The wind continued to howl its displeasure at the sole survivor, overturning his battered boat several times before spewing the shattered youth out onto the jagged shore; where strong hands hauled Boyle to the safety of land.

The Connemara and Retriever tragedy on the 3 November 1916 was surely the worst maritime disaster in Louth’s history. Yet like so many local calamities, it too was somewhat overshadowed by the turbulent national and international events of the time. The ‘Retriever’ had left Garston for Newry with eight members and a cargo of coal at 4am earlier on that Friday morning but, according to James Boyle, gale force winds and mountainous seas had slowed their progress and shifted the ship’s cargo.

The ‘Connemara’ which had been carrying 86 crewmen and passengers along with a cargo of cattle had left Greenore shortly after 8 o’clock that evening bound for Holyhead. And it had been hammering into the teeth of a fierce gale blowing in from the south-west, which was driving against an outgoing tide of eight knots.

Two miles from Greenore, the ‘Connemara’ passed the Haulbowline Lighthouse marking out the Carlingford Bar and entered into a narrow channel known as the Carlingford Cut. The ‘Cut’ is only about 300 yards wide and with the atrocious combination of wind and wave that night, there was very little room for error in the churned up cauldron of the channel. Half a mile beyond the Bar the ‘Connemara’ met the inbound ‘Retriever’. Both vessels were showing their lights and there was no reason to suspect that either Captain had not shown due diligence. The Watchman at the Lighthouse seeing the two ships way too close for comfort, immediately fired off warning rockets but it was too late.

The ‘Retriever’, battling against wind, tide and an unruly cargo, suddenly lurched into the ‘Connemara’s’ port side, ripping into her hull and penetrating right into the funnel. For a brief moment the stricken ships remained locked together in one last fatal embrace, before the ‘Retriever’, having thrown its engines into reverse before the collision, swung clear: allowing the sea to rush into the ‘Connemara’s’ gouged open hull, flooding the engine room and exploding the boilers in an instant. The ‘Connemara’ went down within minutes while the ‘Retriever’ sank 200 yards away soon after; its exposed boilers encountering the same violent end. In total, 94 people perished.

James Boyle, the only non–swimmer on the ‘Retriever’ being the sole survivor of the tragic accident: sad proof indeed that there are times when ‘the swift do not have the race, nor the mighty ones the battle’.

A grey morning revealed a waterline littered with wreckage, the carcasses of animals and the bodies of the passengers and crew were strewn all along the shore. On the first day 58 bodies were found; many badly burned and mutilated. For many days afterwards the bodies of people and animal carcasses washed up along the coastline from Cranfield to Kilkeel; some took weeks to make landfall. The scenes of grief and despair as families identified their loved ones during those dark days were truly heartbreaking. The bodies of the dead passengers and crew were temporarily stored in barns and people’s houses; those identified being taken home by their families. Some were never identified and were buried in a mass grave at the Church of Ireland at Kilkeel.

The inquest was held on the 6 of November 1916 in Kilkeel, the coroner and members of the jury journeying to the scene of the tragedy to view the wreckage and the bodies that had been collected. James Boyle gave evidence of his gruelling ordeal, breaking down several times as he recounted the details of that terrible night. “Contrary to what one might suspect, there was no panic or confusion on the ‘Retriever’,” stated Boyle. Captain O’Neill gave the order in a firm clear voice, to take to the boats. Boyle, William Clugson and Joe Donnan immediately went to get one of the two available boats ready for launching. Joe Donnan went below for lifebelts and advised them to remove their sea boots. “That was the last I saw of him,” continued Boyle, “although I heard his voice a few minutes later crying ‘Cut her away, Cut her away!’, I was holding onto the rope ready to jump into her, I cut her away springing in at the same time.”

As word of the tragedy raced through the area, accounts of strange portents, which had foretold the disaster, soon began to emerge. The Ghost Ship ‘The Blaney’ had been clearly seen reliving its death throes near the shores of Warrenpoint although it had suffered its sad end off the coast of Wales. Faithless rats had also been seen slinking off the ‘Connemara’ the night before she had sailed, “never a good omen”, wryly remarked a cattleman and considered that it was high time that he too moved to another vessel; alas not soon enough. Some passengers had suffered ghastly dreams predicting the awful accident and had refused to travel; others had experienced similar nightmares but put no store in such things and sadly perished as a result.

There are few visible signs of Louth’s worst maritime disaster around Carlingford Lough today. North of the Lough, pupils from Kilkeel High School respectfully erected a headstone over the mass grave in the Old Church Yard in 1981.

On the southern shore in 2006, the Greenore and Greencastle Community Association erected a tasteful granite seat in Greenore to mark the 90th anniversary of the disaster; in a poignant ceremony attended by many stalwarts from the maritime community.

Beneath the waters there is little left of either ship. The ‘Connemara’s’ ruptured boilers are now a welcome sanctuary for the denizens of the deep; their violent end long forgotten while the ‘Retriever’s’ scattered cargo of coal still serves as a constant reminder to scuba divers, of the tempestuous nature of the sea.

James Boyle went on to live another fifty fruitful years in Warrenpoint and died on the 19 April 1967. Throughout his lifetime James refused to discuss the details of that harrowing night; only finally agreeing to give an interview in the twilight of his years.

‘For there is never a slaughter that one man does not come out of to tell the tale’.

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