Photos recall graveyard collapse

GRAVEYARD COLLAPSE... A large crowd congregates at the scene of the Long Tower graveyard collapse in January 1934. What looks like a coffin can be seen on the left of the photograph. [Photo: Bigger & McDonald Collection/Libraries NI]
GRAVEYARD COLLAPSE... A large crowd congregates at the scene of the Long Tower graveyard collapse in January 1934. What looks like a coffin can be seen on the left of the photograph. [Photo: Bigger & McDonald Collection/Libraries NI]

These remarkable photographs reveal the extraordinary scenes witnessed by passers-by when a church graveyard collapsed into a Derry street nearly eighty years ago. The following story - compiled by local historians Sean McMahon and Trevor Temple for their book, “Derry: Day by Day” - tells the truly grisly tale of the day when tombstones, coffins and human remains ended up scattered across a busy city street.

The Long Tower churchyard, Derry, was the scene of a serious landslide on January 8, 1934, caused by the collapse of the eastern boundary wall.

People living in the neighbourhood were startled and terrified by a crash, when the wall opposite Stanley’s Walk gave way and tons of earth, headstones, and a number of coffins came toppling down to the street with a great noise.

Only two people, it was believed, witnessed the landslide, and neither of them was in close proximity at the time, and nobody was injured, though a youth was struck by a flying piece of stone.

On going to investigate, the residents of the locality were met with a tragic and gruesome scene. They were shocked at the disaster, which had occurred.

Strewn amongst and protruding at places were the remains of human bodies, bones of arms and legs, and skulls, as well as bits of rotted coffins and broken headstones.

The wall, which was forty yards long and twenty feet high, was on the eastern side of the graveyard, and was built in a semi-circular shape on the steep incline leading to Lecky Road.

Practically the whole of this boundary wall cracked and collapsed, and a landslide of the cemetery, for a distance of sixty yards, for a breadth of twelve feet, and to a depth of about nine or ten feet, followed.

The human remains, as far as possible, were gathered together and placed in a box.

A graphic story, typical of the experience of many people in the houses nearby, was given to press representatives by Mrs Maggie McNelis, of Foster’s Terrace, whose house was nearby.

She said she was sitting in the kitchen nursing a baby when she heard a terrible crash and noise like thunder, so loud was it.

She had a terrifying time with the shock that she received. She rushed out with the child in her arms to witness the catastrophe.

One of the eye-witnesses was George Dornan who said he was coming from his home when he saw a big crack in the wall.

Suddenly the wall gave way with a terrific crash, which could be heard over a wide area, and collapsed in a piece.

A piece of flying stone struck James McCloskey, a young man who was standing at a corner ten yards away.

Young children were passing to go to school at the time, and some of them actually saw stones falling on the street, and they ran up the church steps out of the way.

The roll was called in the schools, and every child was accounted for, while in the houses in the district a check was made of all the inmates, and police were later that day satisfied that nobody had been caught by the collapse of the wall, barring the slight chance of a stranger being there at the time.

Later also that day, the human remains found at the place were buried in the graveyard temporarily near the chapel.

POSTSCRIPT: In 2009, priests in the Long Tower parish authorised the excavation of a piece of land in the grounds of the church.

A “mound” - located in one of the upper graveyards at Long Tower Street - contained the remains of the graveyard and wall which collapsed into Lecky Road in 1934.

A local undertaker and members of the Long Tower Restoration Group conducted an investigative “dig” of the mound with a small earthmover.

While no human remains or coffins were found, anything unearthed belonging to a grave was collected and put to one side with a memorial to the ‘Holy Souls of the Long Tower’.

‘Derry: Day by Day’, by Sean McMahon and Trevor Temple, is published by Brehon Press.