Achill Island: The Kirkintilloch Tragedy (1937)
Achill in County Mayo is the largest of the numerous islands along Ireland’s Atlantic seaboard. It is a mountainous island with hills reaching over 2,000 feet. The hilly region extends right down to the coast in places resulting in very high cliffs. North and south of the island are the famous Blacksod and Clew bays of the Mayo coastline.
For centuries there were numerous agricultural communities inland, but those declined after the Great Famine of the mid-nineteenth century causing many islanders to leave Achill to work elsewhere at certain times of the year. In common with other communities of the Atlantic seaboard, and especially island communities, housing was of a very primitive type with little improvement over hundreds of years.
Seasonal migration was aided by various improvements in transport access to Achill during the nineteenth century. The 120 ft Michael Davitt Bridge across Achill Sound was opened in 1888 and the Westport-Achill railway was completed during 1894-5. The need for the railway was underlined by the Clew Bay disaster of June 1894 from where the ships carrying emigrants would leave for Glasgow. The annals of Achill register the disaster of a local ferry boat that capsized when thirty-two Achill islanders lost their lives.
The lot of the migratory worker was harsh in the extreme and often culminated in disaster. By the 1930s about 1,800 young Irish people were arriving in Scotland each year to find work in the potato fields during the harvesting season (June-October). They formed a distinctive group within the total migration of 9,500 seasonal labourers from Ireland to Great Britain each year.
Because so many of them came from Achill, this group was described in an Irish government report as ‘Achill Workers’ although some came from neighbouring parts of County Mayo and from western Donegal including the area of Burtonport and the Aran islands. By and large, recruitment of ‘tattie hokers’ or potato pickers seems to have been exclusive to the counties of Mayo and Donegal, although a small number from Galway are also recorded. Each squad of twenty to thirty harvesters was recruited by an Irish ‘gaffer’. Typically, the squad was drawn from a single Mayo or Donegal community or across neighbouring communities. Squad members were often related.
Each ‘gaffer’ was employed by a Scottish potato merchant who placed contracts with local farmers for the purchase of potato crops. The farmers provided primitive accommodation for the ‘tattie hokers’ in farmstead outhouses, while the potato merchants provided them with food, with an unsurprising emphasis on ‘tatties’.
The Kirkintilloch Tragedy
In the early hours of Thursday, 16 September 1937, a fire broke out in a farm workers ‘bothy’ or hut in Kirkintilloch when ten young ‘tattie hokers’ from Achill lost their lives. The cause of the fire was never fully explained and this led to much speculation, most of it ill founded. The carelessness of the Scottish potato merchants and the ruthlessness of the Irish ‘gaffer’ system were blamed. The Burgh of Kirkintilloch was also blamed for failing to adopt and enforce the bye-laws governing seasonal workers’ accommodation in the years before the fire. There have been suggestions that the fire was started deliberately by a person with a grievance of some kind but it was never proved.
The Fatal Accident Enquiry established the cause of death of the young Achill men as asphyxiation from carbon monoxide gas due to a cooking stove that had been overloaded with coal and its exhaust vent blocked. The overloading of the stove would not in itself have been a cause of fire and the mystery to some extent remained unsolved.
The young women of the potato squad had been asleep in a cottage next door to the men’s bothy and escaped injury. Their emotional distress soon became apparent when it was realised that several of them had lost brothers in the fire. Of the ten victims of the disaster only two did not have a sister in the squad. One of the women lost three brothers and another lost two.
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster all sections of the Kirkintilloch community rallied round to provide support. Two of the young women from the potato squad were accommodated by local families. On the evening of the disaster the Town Council agreed to open a public relief fund for the survivors and families of the victims. A JP Glasgow solicitor made a commitment to attend to the legal interest of the Bothy Fire families. Friendships were formed that have survived down to the present time.
Ireland and Scotland: Commemoration
Solemn Requiem Mass was celebrated in Holy Family and St. Ninian’s Church, Kirkintilloch. It had originally been intended to bury the victims in the town’s Old Aisle Cemetery, but this plan was quickly altered when a telegram from Ireland arrived bearing the words Beir Abhaile Ar Marbh (‘Bring Home Our Dead’).
Following mass, the coffins were dispatched on the long journey to Achill with relatives of the dead walking behind the hearses as far as the Kirkintilloch boundary. There special buses were provided to take them to the port of Broomielaw, Glasgow. There were emotional scenes as the ten coffins were carried on board the Burns and Laird vessel Lairdsburn and laid on an upper deck.
After an overnight voyage, the ship reached Dublin and came slowly up the Liffey watched by an estimated 6,000 people on the quayside. The coffins were then transferred to the three rear coaches of a waiting train for the overland journey to Achill. On Monday, 20 September, a long funeral procession crossed Achill Island, each coffin carried on the roof of a motor car, to be placed in a mass grave at Kildavnet Cemetery. A monument remembering the victims stands in an extension to the island’s ancient cemetery.
The disaster has never been forgotten either in Ireland or in Scotland. Tribute has been paid to the victims on more than one occasion. A memorial mass was said in Achill in 1987, the fiftieth anniversary year. In 1997 a memorial plaque with a street name Achill Place was unveiled in Kirkintilloch in the presence of communities from Achill and Kirkintilloch. Remembering the event is now part of local culture in both places that is likely to continue for many years to come.
Ita Marguet, May 2013
Note: Acknowledgement is given to sources on The Kirkintilloch Tragedy 1937. It follows a text by the author on Achill Island: Co. Mayo, Ireland (Ita Marguet, May 2013).