Dave Mullen recalls the day the ill-fated boat Pride of Cratlagh sailed from Purteen Harbour to its doom, carrying five members of the Shark Island film company, of which only Hugh Falkus, who swam 1.5 miles in freezing waters to a shark boat, survived.
Back in the 1950s when you’d go to the pictures, there would often be a short film, a featurette, of around half an hour in length, shown before the main feature. When a film crew of six arrived on Achill Island off Co. Mayo in May, 1951, the film they were there to shoot, Shark Island, was one of those featurettes.
Sadly, out of those six people that crossed the bridge at Achill Sound, only two would leave the island alive as a result of a tragic accident whilst filming at sea.
The crew was made up of a series of remarkable individuals. Claire Mullan, was a young actress of 20 from Dublin working on her first film. Charles Osborne was a Donegal fisherman in his 30s who had settled on Achill some years previously with his family and, in addition to being the film’s fixer and location manager, was also one of the lead actors.
Bill Brendon was a talented cameraman with a bright future ahead of him. Sam Lee (50), the film’s director, was referred to in his obituary as Britain’s greatest stuntman who had made a living from jumping off trains and even, once, the Eiffel Tower!
Hugh Falkus was a producer and the other lead actor, who had been a Spitfire pilot shot-down over Dunkirk before being captured by the Germans and spending the war in P.O.W. camps, eventually escaping ten days before the war ended and going-on to become a brilliant nature filmmaker.
Diana Falkus, 27, married Hugh shortly before work on Shark Island began and she had written the storyline for the film as well as working on the continuity.
Shark-fishing on Achill at the time was a big industry, employing dozens of men. Although the business had moved-on a bit from the Hemingway-style of men in little currachs firing harpoons at giant, lorry-sized basking sharks, this style of fishing was still a recent memory and it was this that caught Hugh Falkus’ imagination when he’d heard about it from a BBC radio talk by Charles Osborne in 1950.
Shark Island was to tell the story of a young Englishman, Peter (played by Falkus) inheriting part of a family fishing concern on Achill and coming to Ireland to learn the ways of shark harpooning alongside his cousins Seán (Osborne) and Kathleen (Mullan).