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The First and Last Trains to Achill

An extract from “Fánaíocht i gContae Mhaigh Eo” by Séamus Mag Uidhir

Chapter XIV

It is now more than 40 years since talk began of building a railway from Westport to Achill. After much debate and discussion it was finally decided to build it as far as Gob a’ Choire (Achill Sound). It is difficult to describe the excitement that gripped the local population when they heard that work was ready to begin. They firmly believed that with the coming of the railroad, they would never again see a hungry day.

How useful it would be for the droves of seasonal labourers who made the annual trek from Achill to Scotland or England to have the train to bring them directly to Westport instead of having to go by boat in order to board the ship for Glasgow. But although the train did indeed help the island in many ways, that is not the main point that concerns us here. In those times it was impossible to meet any two people whose conversation did not eventually come around to the value of the railway in one shape or other. Little notice was given to the dire predictions of the old people that the first train to Achill would bring a cargo of bodies, as would the last.

Many, especially the young, scornfully dismissed such talk as the superstitious nonsense of the old and paid it no heed. But there is many a strange twist in life and it would soon become apparent to even the most skeptical that there is often more wisdom in the words of the old than we might like to accept.

The year the railroad was due to be completed, the seasonal labourers prepared as usual for their trip to Scotland. There was disappointment that the first train would not be running for another week but they could not afford to wait. They would have to go, as always, by boat to Westport.

More than one hundred men and women left the island by boat en route to Westport. All were strong and healthy and most in the bloom of youth. All went well until they approached Westport Quay. The Glasgow ship was waiting offshore for a tide to bring her in and as one of the Achill boats passed, most of those aboard rushed to that side to get a look at the big ship. It was a calm morning with hardly any breeze so that their boat was travelling very slowly. Unfortunately, a sudden gust of wind blew up and sent the sail flying to the same side as where the crowd was standing. The combined weight of the sail and the people quickly turned the boat on its side.

All those on board were thrown into the sea and many drowned. Some might have survived were it not for the fact that the sail had enveloped them and kept them submerged. Those who escaped the sail survived. When the boat turned on her side the water flooded into the hold drowning all but one of those below.

When the crew of the ship and the other boats saw what was happening they rushed to assist those in the water. Those who had been trapped beneath the sail or below were beyond help, but the rest survived. Thirty-four people perished but all the bodies were recovered. They were taken ashore at Westport and placed in coffins prior to being brought back to Achill.

It was then decided that the best way to bring home the remains would be to complete the remaining short piece of the railway and to take them by train. This was done and the train brought them home, the first cargo brought by train to Achill, and proof enough to the islanders that there was more to the prophecy than superstition. The resting place of those brought home on that fateful train journey is marked with a beautiful memorial in Cill Damhnait cemetery in upper Achill.

The years passed and the trains came and went from Achill to Westport with the rail company doing great business for many years. But times changed and in 1937 it was decided that the railway would have to close since it wasn’t even clearing its costs, never mind making a profit. Great controversy ensued between the local people, who didn’t want to lose their railway, and the company, but in the autumn of that year the closure order came, as it was now a loss-making enterprise. By then the owners had their workers stripping every little thing to do with the railway so that they could finally bring the rails as well.

While all this was taking place calamitous news reached Achill in September of that year. Ten young islanders had been burnt to ashes in Scotland, when they were trapped in a fire in the house where they had been staying. Their remains were brought home and a special train brought them from Dublin to Achill, the last special train ever to serve the island. Not surprisingly, many local people now remarked that the prophecy should have been heeded, as it had been clearly shown to be true, and not the word of some witless old hag. The remains of these ten young people were also laid to rest in Cill Damhnait. 

Séamus Mag Uidhir (1902-1969) was a native of Gaoth Sáile in northwest Mayo. He was well known as travelling Irish teacher and as a vocational teacher.

© An Gúm 1994