Living in west Donegal where very little trees grow owing to blowing sand and salt from the wild Atlantic Ocean, anything yielded by the sea was highly sought after. Over the years many prizes were yielded from the incoming tide; mostly coming from shipwrecks or having been washed overboard off ocean going ships that plied their trade along a transatlantic shipping lane close to Donegal’s northwest coast. All sorts of treasured flotsam was washed ashore ranging from candle wax, pitch resin to prime timber; material essential to the coastal communities. The biggest “prize” of all came in 1854 when the sailing barque Salaia ran aground in Keadue Bar carrying enough timber to reroof the parish church of Lower Templecrone at Kincasslagh.

 

In 1940 two young men were washed off the rocks at Carrickfinn while trying to retrieve incoming timber logs. Nineteen year old Charlie Patterson was drowned while somewhat miraculously his fourteen year old friend Hughie Duffy was washed back ashore. Hughie later perished along with eighteen of his neighbours and friends when a floating wartime sea-mine exploded at nearby Ballymanus on the 10th of May 1943.

When war was declared the morning of 3rd September 1939, the workers from west Donegal were coming out of Mass, not in their native parishes but in Scotland, the land that they migrated annually since pre-famine times. It was customary for young men and their fathers to leave home to work on the arable lands on the eastern Scotland after the farmer would write them a letter with their boat fare and stating when he required their help. They worked on these farms until the harvest was won; returning via Derry close to Hallow-Eve.

Many incidents like the finding of the lifeboat and victims from the sunken SS Andorra Star, torpedoed by U47 on 2 July 1940 seventy five miles west of Bloody Foreland to the the heroic rescue of SS Stolwijk by the crew of the Arranmore Lifeboat off Innisdooey later that year, brought closer the reality of war. A couple of years later twenty seven members of a shipwrecked crew were saved when their lifeboat got into difficulty off Gola Island.

An Aer Lingus aircraft taking off from Donegal Airport. the site of the explosion is extreme right of the background

Apprehensively the coastal dwellers proceeded with their everyday struggle for survival, a survival that was made all the more difficult by the travel and work restrictions to their migratory breadwinners. But in 1943 a sea-mine explosion on the shore at Ballymanus, situated between the coastal villages of Annagry and Burtonport was to change the lives of the people for generations. Ballymanus is adjacent to the townland of Braade and the aforementioned Carrickfinn, the location of the present Donegal Airport, recently voted the most beautiful landing strip in the world.

On a beautiful day in the month of May, all available hands were busy fertilising their farms with a broad seaweed called leagh, that washed ashore after Scread na Bealtaine, a seasonal storm. After completing their chores, the young boys of the Braade met for fun and games. Fifteen year old Hugh Sharkey and his brother John (13) went down to their uncle Charlie Sharkey’s house to play with their fifteen year old cousin Anthony. Also joining them was their neighbours John Joe Carson (14) and Dominic Sharkey (15).

John Sharkey, John Joe Carson and Anthony Sharkey (John still attending national school lit the fire in Mullaghduff NS for the teacher that morning

Here the boys played the popular game of pitching pennies until late in the evening. Charlie Sharkey came out of his cottage to admire the setting sun; that evening it was a huge fireball setting behind Ballymanus to the west.

Charlie speculated on what kind of bounty the incoming tide would bring as he showed the young lads the large block of cooking lard he found on the Braade Strand a few days earlier. He cut of a portion from the block and gave it to Dominic, instructing him to take home to his mother. Having finished their game, the remaining boys decided that they would go to the shore. Here they met Jimmy Duffy (16) and his brother Hughie Duffy (17).

Jimmy and Hughie Duffy

The Duffy brothers told them about an large object floating in the incoming tide and they should go over to have a closer look. On landing at Ballymanus there was a large crowd of young men and boys gathered. Other contemporaries on the beach were their neighbours Manus O’Donnell and John Boyle,

John Boyle

brothers Denis and Owen Harley from Rannyhual, and their neighbour Joseph Harley who was accompanied by his collie dog. The three Harley cousins were also related to the Duffy’s.

Brothers Denis and Owen Harley and neighbour Joseph Harley

Other teenagers present were Michael Sharkey and John McGinley both from Mullaghduff and Patrick Gallagher from Rannyhual.

Michael Sharkey, Patrick Gallagher and John McGinley

The oldest of these teenagers was John McGinley aged nineteen years while the youngest were Owen Harley and Michael Sharkey, both aged fourteen.

At the start of World War One, the German Navy mined the entrance of Lough Swilly, then an important naval base. Also mined was the transatlantic shipping lanes close to the north Donegal coast. HMS Audacious became the first causality of that war when it stuck one of these semi-submerged floating bombs seventeen miles north-east off Tory Island. Over the years the mines broke away from their anchorage and sometimes floated ashore.

Images from the Gallagher Collection

Local man Lanty Gallagher, a retired naval gunner together with Free State Army personnel dismantled a mine that weighted two hundred-weight in the Gweedore Estuary, a mile east of Ballymanus in 1934 and in May 1943 the national press reported that Tory Islanders got all sorts of valuable nicknacks when they successfully dismantled a mine on the island themselves.

Irish Times May 1943 (c) British Newspaper Archive

This report was later proven to be false.

On that fateful Monday evening upwards of one hundred men assembled at Ballymanus strand after word circulated throughout the close knit community. Here they watched the mine bobbing eastwards towards land. Although excited, the crowd dwindled, due to the coolness of the setting sun, some left to attend a labour meeting in the local hall, while others went home as they were migrating to Scotland the following day. Of those that remained was married man Jimmy Anthon Rodgers, the respected leader of Mullaghduff Fife and Drum, a marching band that was founded in 1881.

Jimmy A. Rodgers leading the Mullaghduff Fife and Drum on St Patrick’s Day 1943

The other men present were John Roarty, Dan Boyle and Edward Gallagher of Mullaghduff, Paddy Boyle and John Boyle from Ballymanus, James McGarvey from Belcruit and brothers Owen and Dominic Gallagher who were brothers of teenager Patrick. Dominic, a married man and father of two young boys, rocked his three-month old baby boy to sleep before going to the strand to look for his brothers.

John Roarty
Edward Gallagher
Owen Gallagher
Dominic Gallagher

As the the mine came close to land, it was observed to be over two metres in diameter, with some of its spikes bent.

example

 

Fearing the mine would explode on its approach, the area coast watcher, Lieutenant Morgan Dunleavy and those present hid behind a small hill. The mine landed on the rocks and washed out and in with the tide. On seeing that it didn’t explode those present made their way down to the waters edge to inspect the mine.

One of the last to arrive was thirty-four year old Anthony Murty Rodgers.

Anthony M. Rodgers

Anthony worked in Scotland in the building of jetties for the war effort, and saw at first hand sea-mines being dismantled and the devastation caused even in a controlled manner. He returned home after his father’s death in July 1942 also lost his younger brother James Murty at sea when his ship SS Oropos was sunk by a U-Boat off the Canadian coast a few months previous.

When Anthony heard of what was believed to be a mine, he left his home in Rannyhual, a mountain pasture two miles from the shore to warn those gathered of the impending danger.

Lieutenant Dunleavy believing the mine was relatively safe, left the scene by motorcycle at 9.50pm to seek the help of the Ordnance Corps who were stationed in Letterkenny. He was the only member of the security forces present. The local Gardai in Annagry received three different reports of a sea-mine floating in Innisfree Bay that day from local fishermen. Sergeant Allen, Garda Boylan and Garda Coneally who were on duty choose not to act, a decision that caused devastation before nightfall.

The carved out rockpool marks the spot where the mine beached

Standing close to the mine the men watched as it rolled to and fro on the rocks with the action of the tide. One of the men arrived with a rope from a fishing boat that was moored nearby and threw it out a few times before it caught the mine. They all began to pull the mine towards the shore, it rolled off the rocks on to one side.

There was a flash and an explosion; the mine went off with a thunderous detonation, blowing many of the ill-fated victims high into the air and their bodies when recovered from the sea, some time later, were badly mutilated.
The time, recorded on mantle clocks that stopped when the explosion shook houses in the neighbourhood, was 9.53pm.

The ghastly scenes which followed this horrific event baffle description. No sooner had the roar of the explosion died away, when it was of the replaced by the groans and agonising cries of the dying and the less severely injured. In the fading light of day the beach seemed strewn with mangled bodies. A few people who had miraculously escaped went to the assistance of the injured, and were quickly joined by others who had rushed to the scene of the disaster. Very soon a dense crowd congregated and scenes of confusion were witnessed, as relatives of the men, who were known to be at the shore, dashed frantically to and fro seeking tidings of their fate. One of the most pitiful sights was a father walking up the beach carrying his dead son’s leg.

Large boulders cut square out by the explosion

Out of the twenty-four present, sixteen were killed instantly, three severely injured boys Anthony Sharkey, Hughie Sharkey and John Joe Carson were removed to Letterkenny Hospital.
Manus O’Donnell was removed to his home in Braade where he succumbed later that night. A couple of the survivors who were standing only yards away from the mine at the time and escaped completely uninjured.

The remains of dead;

  1. John McGinley, Mullaghduff: (19 yrs 3mts)
  2. Patrick Gallagher, Rannyhual: (18 yrs)
  3. Hughie Duffy, Braade: (17 yrs 3 mts)
  4. Joseph Harley, Rannyhaul: (17 yrs 3 mts)
  5. John Boyle, Ballymanus: (17 yrs 3 mts)
  6. Jimmy Duffy, Braade, brother of Hughie: (16 yrs)
  7. Denis Harley, Rannyhaul: (15yrs 9 mts)
  8. Owen Harley, Rannyhaul, brother of Denis: (14yrs 4mts)
  9. Michael Sharkey, Mullaghduff: (14 yrs 9mts)
  10. John Sharkey, Braade: (13yrs 8 mts)
  11. Owen Gallagher, Rannyhaul: (20 yrs 6 mts)
  12. Edward Gallagher, Mullaghduff: (22 yrs 5 mts)
  13. John Roarty, Mullaghduff: (24 yrs 4 mts)
  14. Dominic Gallagher, Rannyhual; (27 yrs 10 mts) brother of Owen and Patrick, husband of Gracie and father of Patrick (4 years) and Séamus (3 months).
  15. Jimmy A. Rodgers, Rannyhual; (34 yrs 5 mts), husband of Cecelia.
  16. Anthony M. Rodgers, Rannyhual: (34 yrs 6 mts).

were taken to Mullaghduff Hall which acted as a morgue and a wake house.

Mullaghduff Hall today
Scene from the wake, with 18 coffins side by side in the Hall (C) Irish Newspaper Archive

The remains of John Joe Carson (15 yrs) who died in hospital were taken to the hall the next day. One week later Anthony Sharkey (15 yrs) died from the loss of blood.
Hughie Sharkey (15yrs 7mts) although severely injured made a full recovery. His wrists were pierced and he was also hit by a piece of shrapnel that was too close to his heart to remove.

The people were left in a deep sense of shock. Many homes lost loved family members and people for miles around had lost their friends. It took many years for lives to return to normal in this small rural community. The emotional scars were the most difficult to heal; for some they never did.

(c) Pat Gallagher

Written by Jimmy Duffy

7th May 2018

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