The First and
Last Trains to Achill
extract from “Fánaíocht i gContae
Mhaigh Eo” by Séamus Mag Uidhir
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
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