The Owencarrow Viaduct Accident in 1925. ….

The featured image above shows the Viaduct in good condition. [7]

In the February 1963 edition of The Railway Magazine there was a letter from L. Hudlass which said: “The accident on the Owencarrow Viaduct, on the Letterkenny & Burtonport line, Ireland, of January 30, 1925, involved a westbound train running from Londonderry to Burtonport, on the Burtonport extension of the Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway. The 380 yd.-long viaduct, sited between Kilmacrenan and Creeslough in County Tirconaill is in wild and open country and, on the day in question, a gale of 100mph caught the train broadside on and one carriage plunged through the parapet, pulling another with it. The couplings held and neither of the vehicles fell into the valley, but roof destruction caused several passengers to be thrown out, three people being killed outright, a fourth dying later in hospital. Being situated on a north-south section of the line, the 30ft.-high viaduct, across Glen Lough and over the Owencarrow River, caught the full force of the westerly gales. When the line was in operation a wind velocity of 60mph meant the exclusion of open wagons from the train, while a wind speed of 80mph caused the suspension of all traffic. The breach in the viaduct parapet was still visible in 1949. Other derailments due to gales gave been recorded on the west coast of Ireland.” [1]

One day, I will get round to covering the route of the Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway (L&LSR) which ran from Derry to Burtonport through some of the wildest of Co. Donegal scenery.

This article is by way of a taster and focusses on an incident at Owencarrow Viaduct in the 1920s.

The Londonderry and Lough Swilly Railway ran from Derry to Burtonport via Letterkenny. [2]

The Owencarrow Viaduct was sited between Barnes Gap and Creeslough and was, other than earthworks, the major civil engineering structure on the L&LSR.

The Owencarrow Viaduct with a Burtonport train crossing. From an old postcard. The photographer is not known. [8]
 

The Google Maps satellite image and Google Street view images below show what remains of the structure in the 21st century.

The Owencarrow Viaduct in Co. Donegal. [Google Maps]
The remains of the Owencarrow Viaduct, seen from the Northwest on the L1332. [Google Streetview]
The remains of the Owencarrow Viaduct seen from the West on the L1332. [Google Streetview]

Wikipedia/Wikiwand covers the accident in a single paragraph: “Disaster occurred on the night of 30 January 1925 at around 8pm at the Owencarrow Viaduct, County Donegal. Winds of up to 120 mph derailed carriages of the train off the viaduct causing it to partially collapse. The roof of a carriage was ripped off throwing four people to their deaths. The four killed were: Philip Boyle and his wife Sarah from Arranmore Island, Una Mulligan from Falcarragh and Neil Duggan from Meenbunowen, Creeslough. Five people were seriously injured. The remains of the viaduct can today be seen from the road (N56) which carries on from the Barnes Gap on the road to Creeslough.” [2]

The scene of the accident. This picture was taken on 31st January 1925, the day after the disaster. The photographer is not known. [3]

There are a number of accounts of the accident available online which provide a bit more detail of the tragic events of 30th January 1925.

Walking Donegal looks at the event through the eyes of fireman John Hannigan who was on the footplate that day. [4] Long after that day Hannigan recalled “vividly the events of the night, the passing years ha[d] not erased the memory of the harrowing scenes or stilled the sound of the screams of agony. He still relive[d] the feeling of hopelessness he endured as he surveyed the scene of desolation in the fleeting moments, oblivious to his own danger, he scrambled over the wreck-strewn terrain to run the two odd miles to Creeslough to raise the alarm.” [4]

Hannigan was interviewed in 1984. [5] He was 85 when he gave that interview, a few years before he died in 1987 at the age of 88. Much of the text of the interview was reproduced in a Donegal Daily news item on 14th November 2019 and was extracted from a Christmas Annual published by Letterkenny Community Centre in the 1980s.

Hannigan spoke eloquently of his experience of working on the railway, first joining the staff of the L&LSR when he was just 15 years old, he was just 26 the night the train left the rails in the storm. After years of efficient service on the footplate, he realised his youthful ambition and was promoted to the position of driver the following year.

John Hannigan. [5]

Speaking of the first part of the journey from Derry, Hannigan said, “We left Derry that evening around 5.15pm, we had two wagons of bread next to the engine. They were sent out from Derry by Stevensons and Brewsters Bakeries. After that was three carriages, a first, a second and a third class, behind that were six wagons of general merchandise and the guards’ van at the end. Neilly Boyle was in charge as guardsmen who was from Burtonport, who later was a conductor on the buses.” [5]

When the train reached Letterkenny a bit of shunting was required to remove the six wagons and replace them with others. Hannigan remembered that they were using locomotive No. 14 which was a 4-6-2T and is shown below.

Locomotive 4-6-2T No 14 seen here at Pennyburn, Derry, 1931. Donegal Railway Heritage Centre (DRHC) Collection. [8]

By the time that they reached Kilmacrennan Station the wind was starting to blow hard and Hannigan and the train driver, Bob McGuinness, consulted about the state of the weather, wondering about whether it would be safe to go ahead.  Hannigan commented: “I had often gone over the viaduct in a smaller engine. We decided to proceed. Bob slowed down to a snails pace and as we crossed the bridge we did not think that the storm was all that bad.”

From Hannigan’s recollection of the evening it seems as though a freak gust of wind hit the train close to the end of the viaduct. He said:  “The carriage behind the two bread wagons was raised up on the line, it was like a hump on its back. It then fell against the parapet and the roof was smashed, two passengers were thrown out, Phil Boyle was killed, his wife was injured and died afterwards.” [5]

“A Mrs Mulligan also lost her life, they had fallen through the roof and into the river below. Another man, Andy Doogan, was found dead near the viaduct, he must have also been on the train.” [5]

As the minutes ticked by, the wind continued increasing in strength, the hostility of the gale made it hard for voices to be heard. Hannigan remembered managing to stumble across the bridge to the end of the train to free Neilly Boyle jammed against the bridge railing. He then trekked the two miles to Cresslough Station for help. “Between running, walking and falling I finally made it. On the way, I called at the homes of the two-level crossing men and brought them with me. We told John Gallagher the Station Master what had happened. Next we alerted the local guards and doctors. I got a lift back to the scene. It was about quarter to eight. A young priest, Fr. Gallagher was attending to the dead and injured.” [5]

The ‘Why Donegal?’ Facebook page carries a less personal account of events. [6] The train apparently left Letterkenny at 7:05PM. The journey to Kilmacrennan was uneventful, but “by the time they reached Barnes Gap, the driver remarked that the wind was bad. As the train approached the Owencarrow viaduct a strong gale was blowing. He slowed down to 10m.p.h. and was a few dozen yards from the Creeslough side of the viaduct and almost clear of it, when a sudden gust came so strong that it blew the carriage nearest to the engine off the rails. Two were derailed in all. One somersaulted and the roof was smashed. The four occupants of the coach were thrown through the roof into the rocky ravine forty feet below. The victims were Philip and Sarah Boyle from Arranmore Inland, Una Mulligan from Falcarragh and Neil Duggan from Meenbunowen, Creeslough. Duggan’s home was only a stones throw from the crash.” [6]

“Six of the injured were taken to Letterkenny General Hospital. Of the 14 passengers, just one was unhurt, a young woman who was flung from the upturned carriage and landed on the soft boggy soil.” [6]

The ‘Why Donegal’ Facebook page includes a few photographs of the viaduct as it remains today which were taken by Jacqui Reed.

The Owencarrow Viaduct in the 21st century (c) Jacqui Reed. [6]
The Owencarrow Viaduct in the 21st century (c) Jacqui Reed. [6]

References

  1. L. Hudlass; Owencarrow Viaduct Accident; a letter in The Railway Magazine, February 1963, p148-149.
  2. https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Londonderry_and_Lough_Swilly_Railway, accessed on 30th May 2021.
  3. https://www.monreaghulsterscotscentre.com/owencarrow-viaduct, accessed on 30th May 2021.
  4. http://www.walkingdonegal.net/owencarrow-viaduct-disaster-by-john-hannigan
  5. https://www.donegaldaily.com/2019/11/14/dd-motoring-brian-mcdaid-recalls-the-owencarrow-viaduct-disaster, accessed on 30th May 2021.
  6. https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=416203555247099&id=358197231047732, accessed on 30th May 2021.
  7. https://twitter.com/Donegalcomuseum/status/956480040069488640?s=09, accessed on 30th May 2021.
  8. https://donegalheritage.wordpress.com/2020/01/31/the-owencarrow-viaduct-disaster, accessed on 30th May 2021.

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