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The Cleggan Bay Tragedy

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The north-west coast of Ireland receives frequent battering from North Atlantic storms, making the occupation of fisherman an extremely hazardous one. The gale of October 1927, took the lives of 45 men.

Memorial to some of the men lost at sea.

Memorial to some of the men lost at sea.

Irish Fishing

Traditionally, fisherman on the west coast of Ireland used currachs, small open boats that did not venture far from the shoreline.

By 1920, they started using bigger boats, called “nobbies,” so they could go out into deeper waters and fish for herring and mackerel. However, even these vessels were only about 45 feet (13 m) long.

It’s in these somewhat flimsy boats that generations of Irish fishermen put to sea.

Traditional Irish currach.

Traditional Irish currach.

The October 1927 Storm

The Irish Meteorological Service (Met Éireann) notes that “Strong south-westerly winds had blown for several days during late October 1927 as a succession of Atlantic depressions moved across and to the north of Ireland.”

However, on the evening of October 28th, the sea was calm and a good catch of herring looked likely. As darkness fell, a north-westerly gale brewed up very quickly and drew in very cold Arctic air. The result was “exceptionally treacherous sea conditions off the west of Ireland.”

The Cleggan Fishermen

Cleggan is a village at the head of Cleggan Bay. Its people have always been fishers. Out towards the ocean to the west there’s another fishing village called Rossadilisk.

On the evening of October 28, 1927, a Dr. Holberton was listening to the weather forecast on his radio. When he heard the news of a powerful storm approaching he sent his farmhand to warn the fishermen not to go out. The alert came too late.

The boats from Cleggan had already left because the sea looked calm and the prospects good for catching herring. Men in currachs from the Inishkea Islands to the west were also out, as were those from Rossadilisk.

The story was the same up and down the coast. We know these details because of the 2001 book, The Cleggan Bay Disaster, written Marie Feeney, whose grandfather was one of the survivors.

When the storm died down, the families ashore counted their losses, and they were terrible. The dead from Cleggan and Rossadilisk added up to 26, leaving behind widows and children.

Cleggan Harbour.

Cleggan Harbour.

The Men of Inishkea

Men in rowboats on the sea learn to read the weather well; if they don’t they don’t live long. The fishermen from Inishkea had a keen sense for approaching storms, but on that night everything look calm.

In her 1998 book, Within the Mullet, Rita Nolan wrote that “The hurricane came screaming out of the night and tossed their currachs around like paper boats. Many more would have been lost, but a number of them, with their uncanny instinct for weather, sensed a sinister change and turned for home, shouting at others to do likewise.”

Of the 30 boats, 24 returned. The other six boats got into trouble. Each boat had two fishermen in it. Only two of the dozen survived; the rest drowned.

John and Anthony Meenaghan were the two that lived. Their little boat was driven to the mainland shore where the exhausted men found help.

The priest who conducted the funerals for the lost fishers said “No braver seamen exist than the inhabitants of these islands. One is constrained to admire the dexterity with which they handle their frail craft.”

The losses shattered the heart of the community and the islands were abandoned. By the early 1930s, everybody had left and settled on the mainland. The islands are now occupied by birds, seals, sheep, and donkeys. In the summer, a few birders and others visit and wander among the derelict homes of the islanders.

More Fishing Tragedies

The gale created havoc elsewhere. Nine boats had set out from Lacken Pier at about 5.30 pm. They were within 1,000 yards of land when the tempest suddenly struck at 7.30 pm.

According to the Mayo Historical and Archaeological Society, “Soon, the roaring of the storm made conversation impossible and in the blinding rain the fishermen could not see where they were headed. Some of the crews cut their nets, and literally blundered their way to shore.”

Some of them made it back to safe harbour, but two fishing boats were not so lucky. They were blown onto the rocky shoreline and their boats dashed to pieces. Nine men from Lacken Pier died.

One fisherman is quoted as saying “We were blown about like a feather in the wind.”

At 9.30 pm, the wind abated, but not before it had taken a ghastly toll.

Abandoned Inishkea.

Abandoned Inishkea.

A Relief Fund

The tragedy of the deaths of 45 fishermen came five years after the government of William Thomas Cosgrave abolished the widow’s pension in Ireland. The scale of the catastrophe touched the hearts of many and a relief fund was set up to help the families that had lost their breadwinners.

Accounts of how much was collected vary but it was a considerable amount so the government in Dublin decided to take control of the distribution of money. It was administered by a committee that had no members from the areas affected, and little expertise in such matters. The result was that families that were quite literally starving found the funds gummed up in bureaucratic tangle.

The committee decided that generosity was not part of its mandate, noting that the families “only receive sums to cover the reasonable wants of the poor people and that no extravagance in the allowance should be permitted.”

Some of the families that were devastated by the loss of husbands, brothers, cousins, and uncles had to live in extreme poverty.

Bonus Factoids

  • In earlier days, the people of Inishkea had a well-deserved reputation for piracy. Ships would be lured onto rocks by false navigation lights and then robbed of their cargoes. Coastguards were posted in the nineteenth century and the wrecking and piracy came to an end.
  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics fishers and related fishing workers have the highest rate of fatalities of all occupations. Their death rate sits at 100 per 100,000. For comparison, police officers have a fatality rate of 12.9 per 100,000.

Sources

  • “Major Storm off the West Coast on October 28th 1927.” The Irish Meteorological Service, undated.
  • “New Book Tells of Tragic Night when 45 Men Died.” Lorna Siggins, Irish Times, March 11, 2002.
  • “1927 Drowning Tragedy: Inishkea and Lacken.” Goldenlangan.com, undated.
  • “Within the Mullet.” Rita Nolan, Standard Printers, 1998.
  • “1927 Drowning Tragedy.” N.O’N, Mayo Historical and Archaeological Society, October 28, 2007.
  • “The Cleggan Bay Disaster.” Hugh Duffy, undated.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on August 03, 2020:

Thanks Alison. I'm pleased to be of assistance with your students. Ciao.

alison milne on August 03, 2020:

extremely interesting, for myself as an English Teacher in Italy. Never knew about this disaster and enjoyed reading the article, watching the video and listening to the song,. as did my student! ps at present doing distance lessons and using sites like this are perfect. learning language and learning something new at the same time is I believe very stimulating.

Lorelei Cohen from Canada on July 29, 2020:

A dangerous life indeed. I also cannot imagine those who sailed during the early years of exploration or how many people lost their lives at sea during those years.

fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on July 28, 2020:

Wonderful article! I love the history of Ireland. How sad that government withheld funds for the survivors and their families. Always about greed, not the people. Thanks for your article.

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