The Lough Neagh Disaster

by Ken Austin

Lough Neagh

Tuesday 23rd August 1904 was one of those long hot summer days, that only seem to occur in our memories. The weather had been changeable all that month in Lurgan, with rain and thunderstorms, but as August wore on, the days grew warmer and the accessible shores of Lough Neagh were thronged with visitors taking advantage of the sailing boats and excursions across the Lough. For six young people on a picnic to Coney Island, that day would be their last.

Lough Neagh, is a freshwater lake, the largest by area in the British Isles, it supplies 40% of Northern Ireland's water. With an area of 151 square miles (392 km2), it is the largest lake on the Island of Ireland and is ranked 31st in the list of largest lakes of Europe. It is located 20 miles (30 km) to the west of Belfast and is approximately 20 miles (30 km) long and nine miles (15 km) wide. It is very shallow around the margins and the average depth in the main body of the lake is about 30 feet (9 m), although at its deepest the lough is about 80 feet (25m) deep. Despite its size, Lough Neagh is not that easily accessed or viewed. Its marshy edge means roads seldom follow the lake shore and you can drive quite close to the lough without seeing it.

Lough NeaghThe origins of Lough Neagh are part of Irish Mythology. In the Irish mythical tale Cath Maige Tuired ("the Battle of Moytura"), Lough Neagh is called one of the 12 chief loughs of Ireland. The origin of the lake and its name is explained in an Irish tale that was written down in the Middle Ages, but is likely pre-Christian. According to the tale, the lake is named after Echaid, who was the son of Mairid (Mairidh), a king of Munster. Echaid falls in love with his stepmother, a young woman named Ébliu (Ébhlinne). They try to elope, accompanied by many of their retainers, but someone kills their horses. In some versions, the horses are killed by Midir (Midhir), which may be another name for Ébliu's husband Mairid. Óengus (Aonghus) then appears and gives them an enormous horse that can carry all their belongings. Óengus warns that they must not let the horse rest or it will be their doom. However, after reaching Ulster the horse stops and urinates, and a spring rises from the spot. Echaid decides to build a house there and covers the spring with a capstone to stop it overflowing. One night, the capstone is not replaced and the spring overflows, drowning Echaid and most of his family, and creating Loch n-Echach (Loch nEachach: the lake of Eochaidh or Eachaidh).

Five of the six counties of Northern Ireland have shores on the Lough (only Fermanagh does not), and its area is split among them. The counties listed clockwise are: Antrim (eastern side and northern shore of the lake) Down (small part in the south-east) Armagh (south) Tyrone (west) Londonderry (northern part of west shore) and is fed by the rivers Blackwater, Ballinderry, Moyola, Six Mile Water, Main and Upper Bann are major tributaries, Glenavy and Crumlin are minor tributaries and the Lower Bann flows to the sea at Portstewart.

Traditional working boats on Lough Neagh include wide-beamed 4.9-to-6.4-metre (16 to 21 ft) clinker-built, sprit-rigged working boats and smaller flat-bottomed "cots" and "flats". Barges, called "lighters", were used until the 1940s to transport coal over the lough and adjacent canals. Until the 17th century, log boats were the main means of transport. In the 19th century, three canals were constructed, using the lough to link various ports and cities: the Lagan Navigation provided a link from the city of Belfast, the Newry Canal linked to the port of Newry, and the Ulster Canal led to the Lough Erne navigations, providing a navigable inland route via the River Shannon to Limerick, Dublin and Waterford. The Lower Bann was also navigable to Coleraine and the Antrim coast, and the short Coalisland Canal provided a route for coal transportation.

By 1904 the lough was also being used for leisure activities and many local people had sailing boats and dinghies there. One such were the Green family, well known and respected coal merchants who lived in a large house at the head of the 'Cut'. William Green, of Kinnegoe, had long seen the potential of leisure activities on the lough and so at the turn of the century, with some of the profits from his coal business, purchased a small harbour and a number of pleasure boats on Lough Neagh.

Coney IslandThe Green household was filled with the laughter and chatter of young people, that day in August 1904. William's two daughters, Winifred (22) and Dorothy (17), with their brother Frank aged 19, their cousins Hugh and Frank Green both 18 from Belfast had arrived that morning with two school friends, John and Herbert Catchpool from Guernsey in the Channel Islands. Dorothy, suggested a trip across the lough to Coney Island for a picnic and her father gave them permission to take the pride of his fleet, “The Osprey”, an un-ballasted centreboard half-rater, said to be fast, slick and beautiful. All were experienced sailors and strong swimmers. At 4.30pm armed with their picnic and swimming costumes they set off from Kinnegoe Quay across the lough. The weather was warm and windless and the waters of the lough were calm, so that they had to paddle part of the way. They reached the island safely and spent a few pleasant hours with their picnic, swimming and chatting in that new Edwardian era of freedom, which would have been impossible a few short years earlier under the rigours of Victorian life.

At about 6pm the wind got up and the waters of the lough began to rise as they all got back aboard 'The Osprey' and headed for home. Even though the wind had reached gusting point and the waters became as rough as any sea, the party did not think to reef or trim the sail. Shortly after seven o'clock when they were off Ardmore Point, about three miles from home, the boat began to fill, and in a short time capsized, leaving the young crew clinging to the upturned hull of the boat in rapidly chilling waters. Frank Green, the brother of Winifred and Dorothy and an expert swimmer had received a blow to the head when the boat had overturned and complained of a throbbing pain. He suggested that one of them should swim to shore for help, while the others tried to cut away the sail and righten the boat. As he reached down to cut away the ropes he appeared to pass out, slipping from the boat into the murky waters and was never seen again. The brothers Catchpool soon became exhausted, and let go their hold, they're hands clasped as they slipped into the water. For over an hour the others clung to the boat, cold, wet a frightened. Winifred helping to support her younger sister Dorothy, and her cousins Hugh and Frank. Hugh at last too lost his hold, but Winifred seized and held him for a time, but another squall arose, and he was torn from her grip washed away and drowned, his brother meeting the same fate soon afterwards. The two girls then reasoned that they must attempt to swim ashore. After struggling for half an hour, Dorothy was unable to go on, and exclaiming, "I Hope I will lose consciousness soon. Lord Jesus forgive me my sins. My darling mother," sank immediately, though her sister made frantic efforts to save her, she was unable to and found herself alone in the vast waters of the lough. Dorothy Green was on her holidays from school in Wales. On Tuesday morning she had received news that she had passed the Oxford Local examination with honours. Later her head-master wrote that she was "a credit to her school and to her country." Alone, cold and semi-delirious, her eyes blinded by spray Winifred Green swan on for a further two hours until finally touching land and wading ashore. After a walk of some miles, she found a farmhouse, and called up the occupant. She then collapsed, and lay unconscious for several hours. Miss Green, who is 22 years of age, was the next day well enough to give police and newspaper correspondence particulars of the accident.

Lough NeaghThe disaster was a tremendous sensation at home and abroad, as the Green family were so well known and respected in both Belfast and Lurgan. Hundreds of fishing boats took part in the five day search for the bodies, the names of McCaughley, Tennyson, McAlinden, Plenderleith and Baxter appear in the reports, sadly they were never found, although the wreckage of The Osprey was washed up on the shore. The funerals were enormous and protracted. The Osprey was not exactly over-loaded by seven people, all of whom were used to sailing, though the Club limited the racing crew to four, but a large party of tired, cold and possibly seasick young people may have hindered speed of action at a critical moment. Although the club racing rules required the carrying of lifebelts or buoys there is no evidence that these were on board that day to help even some of the party. Life belts were bulky work jackets seen on old pictures of life-boatmen and too cumbersome to be worn in a small sailing boat.

In considering this accident, which cast a blight over lough sailing for decades, it must be remembered that it was almost another fifty years before small centreboard boats had built-in floatation tanks and would be comparatively easily righted after a capsize. The disaster fortified the general opinion that Lough Neagh was a dangerous place. Any large expanse of water can be dangerous but the lough is less so than other places such as Carlingford Lough where squalls descend from the surrounding mountains.

A last word must be said for the bravery, strength and courage of Miss Winifred Green and the long months and years of recovery it must have taken to come to terms with that nightmare summer day, so long ago.

Lough Neagh

My thanks to the Craigavon Historical Society for some of the research material used in this article.

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