By Sean Andrews
At momentous times when the focus is on great conflicts and widespread loss of life, what would normally be considered a dramatic and newsworthy event in calmer times, can often become a mere footnote in history. So it was with the Carlingford tragedy.
In 1916, the First World War raged across Europe. In Ireland the country was still coming to terms with the Easter Rising and the execution of its leaders, which took place earlier that year.
On the evening of the 3rd of November, an autumn storm blew across Ireland. In the wind-swept east coast port of Greenore, close to the mouth of Carlingford Lough, the steamship Connemara was preparing to set out on its regular ferry run to Holyhead in Wales with passengers, livestock and general cargo.
On board was a crew of 31, many of whom were natives of Holyhead. Although the ship could carry up to 800 passengers, there were only 55 on board that stormy evening, due to wartime restrictions. Among the passengers were several soldiers going back to serve in France, people with family and work commitments in Britain and a group of women emigrants beginning a long journey to the United States.
Three passengers were cattle drovers taking care of the livestock on board. While the Connemara was making ready to slip her moorings, the 460 ton collier Retriever, which had set out from Liverpool earlier in the day, was battling heavy seas as it approached the Irish coast, heading for the entrance to Carlingford Lough and its home port of Newry.
The nine crew were local men, very familiar with the Lough and its dangers. It was a dark night, and because of the fear of German U-boats, which were active in the Irish Sea, most shipping kept lighting to a minimum.
The Connemara pulled away from the quayside at 8pm and steamed towards the entrance of the Lough, heading for the open sea. Captain Doeg, an experienced Scots mariner, was well used to rough weather, but had no inkling of the disaster which was about to befall his ship. Both the outbound Connemara and the inbound Retriever approached one another close to the Carlingford Bar with heavy seas running. The keeper at the nearby Haulbowline Lighthouse became alarmed when he saw they were coming dangerously close and fired off warning rockets, but he was too late.
As the ships came alongside in a narrow deep water channel, the Retriever, very heavily laden with tons of coal and thus not particularly manoeuvrable, lurched to port and struck the Connemara amidships.
This tore a large hole in the hull, which immediately began to fill with water. On the bridge of the Retriever, Captain O’ Neill, a seaman from Kilkeel, immediately put his vessel into reverse, but it too began to take in water through the badly damaged bow. Once doused with sea water, the boilers on the Connemara exploded, the vessel caught fire and sank within a few minutes. No one aboard survived.
The Retriever went down about twenty minutes later with the loss of all but one of its nine crew members, a 21 year-old fireman called James Boyle, from Warrenpoint.
He could not swim but clung to the wreckage of a ship’s lifeboat, which the crew had managed to launch at the last moment. As he came close to the shore he was pulled from the waves by two local men. Some animals managed to swim from the Connemara, and ended up wandering exhausted on the shore line.