85th anniversary of Inishowen double drowning tragedy

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An Inishowen drowning tragedy which claimed the lives of a Buncrana farmer and his wife will be marked in a special way this Sunday with a family gathering in Buncrana to remember the couple on the 85th anniversary of their deaths.

Edward and Mary Anne Doherty from the Upper Illies were drowned on August 21st 1930 while returning home by pony and cart from Carndonagh Fair. They took the short and direct mountain road over Glentogher and past the base of Slieve Snaght, but, in conditions which were extremely stormy with severe flooding, their horse and cart was swept off the road close to Meenaharnish Bridge.

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The couple left ten children orphans, the youngest aged just nine, and their deaths had a major impact on the close knit Illies community. All of Edward and Mary Anne’s children are now deceased and this weekend’s special commemorative event has been organised by the couple’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Family members will be travelling from England, America, South Africa and Australia for Sunday’s reunion which will start with an anniversary Mass in St Mary’s Church, Cockhill - Edward and Mary Anne are buried in the adjoining graveyard - followed by a bus tour to the Illies and then a dinner and social evening in the Inishowen Gateway Hotel.

As a grand-daughter of Edward and Mary Anne Doherty, I will be among those attending the reunion. Thanks to the ‘Journal’s’ extensive historical archive, I have been able to source ‘Journal’ reports published at the time, which are reproduced here, detailing the tragic events surrounding the deaths of my grandparents.

I was brought up in Derry, but almost every Sunday when I was growing up, our family headed to the home in the Illies where my father, Paddy Doherty, grew up. My father’s brother, Quentin, lived there with his wife, Bridget and their children. Hung on the wall in the kitchen of their farm house was a black framed newspaper cutting from the ‘Derry Journal’ telling the tragic story of the deaths of my grandparents.

For Mary's Story. DER2715MC071

For Mary's Story. DER2715MC071

When I started working for the ‘Journal’ I tracked down the reports written at the time and discovered a much more detailed account than that contained in the framed copy in the family home. I discovered from the ‘Journal’ report that my father had been at Carndonagh Fair along with his parents and was the last family member to see them alive. He had returned to the Illies by train and when he reached home and found his parents were not there, he went out with a search party to look for them. Their bodies were discovered early the following day not far from the family home.

My father died when I was only 10 so I never had the opportunity to ask him about the drownings, but my older brother recalls that sometimes when we made our weekly family trip to the Illies our dad would drive via Quigley’s Point retracing the final journey of his parents. As he drove along, he pointed out landmarks such as Slieve Snaght, the twin bridges and Meenaharnish Bridge where his parents are believed to have perished - i n his own quiet way telling us their story.

After the deaths of their parents, two of the Doherty children, Quentin and Ned, stayed in Buncrana, five others, James, Maggie, Dan, Paddy and Mary later moved to Derry and the remaining three, Bridget, John and Cornelius settled in England and Scotland. Maggie, the eldest girl was engaged to be married, but she broke off the engagement to care for her younger brothers and sisters. There are now five generations of descendents of Edward and Mary AnneDoherty and they will all be represented at this weekend’s reunion.

This report of the tragedy was published in the ‘Journal’ of August 25th 1930. on August 21st.

An especially sad tragedy of the storm in Inishowen and one that has evoked a wave of sympathy and sorrow throughout the whole peninsula, was that which resulted in the deaths of Mr. Edward Doherty, a small farmer of the Illies and his wife Mary Anne Doherty.

They had been in Carndonagh Fair and were returning home in their pony and cart at about seven o’clock on Thursday night. They took the short and direct mountain road over Glentogher and past the base of Slieve Snaght where the streams were swollen to ten times their normal size and in some places were literally raging torrents.

It was revealed at the inquest that their horse and cart in which they had driven across the bleak mountain must have got swept off the road at a culvert about 200 yards past the Meenaharnish Bridge. The road was flooded at that place to a height of five feet when another vehicle passed there a little earlier than the time the deceased are believed to have passed. The border of the road was invisible at this point. People living near the spot state that the river was swollen to an enormous extent. They compared it to Lough Swilly, the whole valley below being filled with water. The hills on all sides slope down to the river from Slieve Snaght and there are no trees on these vast slopes - miles in extent. It is nearly all virgin bog. So, there was a large area to act as a catchment for the torrential rain, and no obstruction on the land to border its swift flow down to the river in the bottom of the valley, to which the deceased had descended just after the waters had attained their maximum strength and depth.

Mr Doherty’s body was carried about 700 yards down the stream and his wife’s a little farther, and almost to the door of their home which stands on the hillside slope.

The cart was clearly turned right over by the flood, as, when it was found, both the wheels and sides were gone and have not yet been recovered. The pony, strange to relate, succeeded in extricating itself, and was discovered the following morning calmly grazing in a field not far from the bodies of Mr. and Mrs Doherty.

The latter were got by a search party - the husband’s body on the grass beside the Crana River and his wife’s a little below entangled in a bush on the bank. Mr. Doherty’s body was without his overcoat and his jacket coat - evidence that he had managed to divest himself of both in a desperate, but unfortunately unavailing attempt to fight a way to safety for his wife and himself through the boiling waters.

The tragedy cast a gloom over the whole Illies and over Buncrana too, where the deceased were well known and highly respected and the deepest sympathy is everywhere extended to their orphaned family in their irreparable and tragic bereavement. They leave ten children, seven sons and three daughters, the youngest, a child of nine years.

The Inquest

An inquest was held on Friday evening by Dr P O’Callaghan, Coroner of of Inishowen, in the home of the deceased, whose bodies were laid out in an adjoining room.

Patrick Doherty, a son of the deceased, gave evidence of identification, and said he last saw his parents about 5.30pm in Carndonagh Fair. Witness went home by train to Ballymagan Station, arriving in his own home about 9.30pm. His parents had not then reached home, although they should have been there if they had taken the shorter route over the mountain. After changing his wet clothes he went out to search for his parents. About three quarters of an hour later, James McLaughlin, a neighbour, told him that the pony had been seen going down the river. Witness added that further search was abandoned owing to the swollen state of the river, which resembled a lake.

At daybreak on Friday the search was resumed. Witness was informed by Neal Doherty, another neighbour, that the bodies of both his parents had been found in the Crana River, and that they were being brought home. His father was about 58 years and his mother 45.

Patrick Doherty, a brother of the deceased, Edward Doherty, who was a member of the search party, described the finding of the bodies. The body of Edward Doherty was lying on the grass four yards from the edge of the river. Further down the body of Mrs Doherty was entangled in bushes at the edge of the river.

Guard J McMahon (Buncrana) gave evidence of finding the cart which was minus both wheels and side wings.

Medical evidence was given by Dr James McCormick who stated that in both cases death was due to asphyxia, following drowning.

The coroner expressed his deep regret at the tragic occurrence and together with the foreman of the jury, Mr H Grant, Inspector Cronin, on behalf of the Civic Guard and Dr McCormick extended sympathy to the bereaved family.

THE FUNERAL

The funeral of Mrs and Mrs Doherty which took place yesterday, was at once an evidence of the sorrow occasioned by their sad deaths and the high esteem in which they were held. The whole Illies was in mourning and every household in the district sent its every available member to join in one of the largest and sadly impressive funerals ever seen in that area. It was a wonderful tribute from a warm-hearted and grief-stricken people - a tribute all the more moving for its spontaneous simplicity.

There was a sadness and a sympathy that could be felt when, in the presence of a great concourse who stood with bare and bowed heads, the remains of husband and wife, encased in oak coffins, were being reverently borne from the home in which they had lived their married lives and reared up a family that were a credit to them, and placed in the two waiting hearses. And, many an eye was wet as the orphaned sons and daughters, feeling the weight and the bitterness of their tragic bereavement, followed the remains of their parents on their last journey.

Down the five miles from their little mountain home to St Mary’s Church, Cockhill, the sad procession wound its way. It was a unique cortege. Old and young, men and women and children participated in that solemn silent march.

A long line of country carts - carrying men and women too old to walk, men with hair whitened by age and bonnetted and shawled women who must be bordering on four score - mingled with the modern motors that conveyed mourners from Buncrana and Derry. There were traps with their loads of sympathisers, a large contingent of cyclists and men on horseback. The young and strong went on foot. It was indeed a unique cortege - strikingly impressive, almost articulately sad. There was a depth of sincerity about it, a simple old world Irish dignity, an unaffected impression of the grief, the sympathy and the esteem of the countryside, that moved all who beheld it.

Down those five miles it came, along the road that only last Sunday, the deceased, in the fullness of life, had travelled themselves to Mass, under the same sunny sky, and with the Crana in whose flood-swollen waters they had met their deaths, now flowing its normal peaceful course below them to the sea.

On arrival at the church, a further great crowd had assembled and up an avenue of prayerful sympathisers, while the bell tolled its solemn requiem, the remains were borne to the main entrance where they were received by the Rev W. Doherty, PP, the Rev T. Agnew, CC and the Rev. W. Elliot, CC, before being carried up the aisle and placed side by side on catafalques in front of the altar.

Mass was celebrated by Father Elliot, who, in the course of a beautiful panegyric, paid a touching tribute to the deceased. When he referred to the circumstances of their death and to the tragedy that had carried off husband and wife together, leaving their home desolate and their children orphans, many sobbed audibly.

On behalf of the relatives, he thanked the congregation for their sympathy and on behalf of the congregation and of all the people in the parish, he extended heartfelt condolence to the bereaved family. He concluded by asking them to pray then and often for the eternal and happy repose of the souls of the deceased.

The remains were then interred in the same grave in the churchyard outside. The whole yard and the approaches were crowded and in the vast throng not a sound was heard but the voice of Father Elliot as he said the Last Prayers. It was the saddest and most solemn moment of a sad and solemn ceremony. The silence remained unbroken until the last shovelful of clay was placed on the filled grave. They all fell on their knees, and a united murmur of prayer rose up from the bowed multitude - prayer for Edward Doherty and his wife, Mary Anne - the closing tribute of a people’s respect, sorrow and undying faith in the union of the Church militant and suffering in God’s mercy and love.