On the evening of 30th January 1925, a Lough Swilly Railway train was blown off the rails while crossing the viaduct spanning the valley of the Owencarrow on the Letterkenny & Burtonport Extension in stormy weather. Four passengers died, three at the scene, the fourth some hours later.

Graving Dock Station, Derry: As the clock ticked towards 5.15 pm on Friday the 30th January 1925, Lough Swilly Railway 4-6-2T No. 14 was being readied for departure to Burtonport, 741⁄2 miles to the West. On the footplate was an experienced crew – driver Bob McGuinness with 20 years’ experience as driver, 13 as regular driver on the Burtonport Extension, fireman John Hannigan with 7 years’ experience as fireman, two as regular fireman with Driver McGuiness.

L&BER 4-6-2T No 14, the train engine, seen here at Pennyburn, Derry, 1931. Donegal Railway Heritage Centre (DRHC) Collection.

As they waited for the last passengers to board, conversation between the two switched to the weather and in particular the rising wind, with McGuinness referring, with some trepidation, to the prospect of crossing the viaduct spanning the Owencarrow Valley, to the west of Kilmacrenan, which they were due to reach about 8 pm that evening. It was a prospect he always feared when the winds were strong.

But with all passengers on board, thoughts turned to the job in hand and, Guard Charles Mullan having given the signal, the train eased away from the platform and across the Strand Road.

Stops at the intermediate stations to Letterkenny were brief, the inclement weather not encouraging traffic, and they arrived on time at Letterkenny, where many of the passengers left the train. Burtonport based guard Neil Boyle, having just worked the 3.50 ex-Burtonport train as far as Letterkenny, joined the train, exchanging roles with Guard Mullan, who returned on the Derry bound train.

Neil Boyle spotted Arranmore merchant Phil Boyle on the platform, along with his wife Sarah and son Phil junior. Speaking to them, he learnt that Phil junior had been in Letterkenny Hospital for two weeks for treatment of a hand injury and his parents, on return from a stay in Dublin, collected him from the hospital that afternoon. As a result of delays in his discharge, they had missed an earlier train and Mrs. Boyle was heard to express her unease at travelling on the night train with the wind rising as it was. However, she was persuaded to board the train. Her unease was shared by another passenger, Mrs. Úna Mulligan from Falcarragh, who was returning home from a stay with her daughter on Inch Island. She stepped off the train at Letterkenny, with a view to discontinuing her journey, but after a few minutes’ consideration, decided to travel after all.

A few minutes were spent taking stock off the train at Letterkenny before the whistle sounded and the journey recommenced at 7.05 pm, five minutes behind schedule. Behind No. 14 on leaving the station, the train now consisted of four vehicles, namely covered wagon No. 55S, six-wheel carriage No. 12S, Bogie Carriage No. 11B and combined bogie carriage and guard’s van No. 8B. On board were fourteen passengers.

As they headed out into the open countryside, the crew’s conversation increasingly focused on the rising gale, knowing that they would soon be making the exposed crossing of the Owencarrow Valley. This undoubtedly occupied the minds of the passengers too, as the carriages rocked in the gale more than would normally be the case. Despite the heavy winds, the skill of the crew ensured the train was still only five minutes behind schedule as it arrived in Kilmacrenan.

Kilmacrenan Station: Burtonport train paused at the down platform, May 1937. HC Casserley

With the wind howling through the station, the train pulled up at the platform, to be greeted by Stationmaster Rory Delap. He spotted Neil Doogan step out of the train, his usual stop, but was surprised to see him hesitate then turn to re-board the train. Enquiring as to why, Doogan replied that, with the wind so strong, he’d struggle to walk home against it, so he’d rather carry on to Creeslough and walk home with the wind at his back. His decision, like that of Mrs Mulligan earlier, was to prove tragically significant.

As the wind continued to blow hard, the crew became increasingly concerned about the next stage of the journey and the crossing of the long and exposed Owencarrow Viaduct. Bob McGuinness admitted he always feared the crossing when the wind gusted, dating back to a scare he had in that very station a number of years previously. On that occasion, a sudden violent gust, ripped through the station, knocking over wagons just taken off the train and ripping off part of the station roof. It made him fearful of what might happen if the train encountered a violent blast when exposed on the Viaduct, a fear that always hit him whenever there were high winds [1].

Owencarrow Viaduct: The approach from Letterkenny, May 1937. HC Casserley

The train once again started on its way at 7.52, still five minutes behind schedule, and gradually headed towards the Creeslough road, eventually crossing at No. 8 Gates, and climbing to run through the more open moorland that was Barnes Gap. Towards the northern end of the Gap a summit was reached and thereafter the train began a descent, turning back across the road on a three arch viaduct to run along the south west slope of the valley of the Owencarrow. The descent continued as the train negotiated the curve leading to the Viaduct.

Owencarrow Viaduct: Burtonport train crossing. From an old postcard


Driver McGuinness, having checked his vacuum brake and handbrake and found both in working order, slowed the train, in accordance with Board of Trade regulations, to maintain a speed of 8 to 10 mph. On first entering the viaduct, he looked back and could see that the whole of the train was running normally. On a second look back a short time later, he could see the sidelights of the Guard’s Van, which indicated all seemed to be well, so he continued to maintain his reduced speed in the face of the gusting wind. About 2/3 of the way across, where a gentle ascent commenced, as he was reaching for the regulator to increase steam, a sudden, exceptionally severe gust of wind caused him to again look back, whereupon he saw that the first carriage, No. 12, was off the line and raised in the air. He immediately applied the brake and promptly pulled up, as carriage No. 12 toppled over the parapet, pulling the wagon between it and the engine also sideways to the parapet [2].

Fireman Hannigan crossed the footplate to the driver’s side and looked back, his immediate words to the driver being “there is harm done tonight” [3]. The two got down from the engine and walked back the length of the train to determine what had happened. At the rear of the train they saw the Guard’s Van, precariously balanced against the parapet. Inside was Guard Neil Boyle – to him, the wind, on entering the viaduct, was blowing strong but steady and he noticed nothing unusual in the running of the train until a sudden blast of wind raised his van and knocked him over. The van was dragged about a van length and came to rest at an angle. His immediate impulse was to open the door on the high side to get out, but with the roaring wind he was frightened to do so. To his relief, driver and fireman came to his rescue [4].

Together, the three men set about helping the injured passengers who were calling for help and, having done what they could do in the immediate aftermath, McGuinness asked Hannigan to proceed with all speed to Creeslough, a distance of 23⁄4 miles, to summon aid. He and Guard Boyle continued to give what limited assistance they could but realising that doctors were urgently needed, and they could offer little more, he also sent Guard Boyle for help, in case any mishap had happened to Fireman Hannigan.

Hannigan, meantime, made what haste he could against the force of the wind to Creeslough. On the way, he called at the cottage of Ganger John McDermott [5] and informed him of the accident. The Ganger went to the scene to offer what help he could while Hannigan proceeded to Creeslough.

Meanwhile, at Creeslough, Stationmaster Jimmy Gallagher had received the signals from Kilmacrenan that the train had departed, and he anticipated its arrival at 8.10 pm. When the train was some ten minutes overdue, his porter was sent down the line to see if he could see it coming, returning about 15 mins later to say there was no sign of the train. At this, Gallagher informed Kilmacrenan and Letterkenny that it hadn’t arrived. While awaiting a reply, John Hannigan arrived at 9.10 pm and informed him of the mishap. He immediately arranged for a local doctor and clergyman to proceed to the scene, together with members of the Civic Guard and some other volunteers. He then wired what details he had to Letterkenny, Burtonport and the General Managers office [6].

In Letterkenny, stationmaster Robert Bell received instructions at 9:30 p.m., from the General Manager’s office, to arrange for a Driver and Fireman to prepare an engine at once, to take as many men and equipment as could be quickly gathered and two doctors and proceed to the Viaduct to give all assistance possible. A further instruction by phone at 9:50 p.m. altered this for him to proceed at once to the Viaduct by car with two Doctors and any men available, the train would follow once General Manager Henry Hunt and Permanent Way Inspector McElwaine had joined from Derry. He left Letterkenny about 10:30 p.m., arriving at the scene about 11.30 p.m. to learn of the fatalities and injuries. His account gives an illustration of what the rescuers had to face [7]:

I arrived at the scene of the disaster about 11:30 p.m. and heard that Phil Boyle, Neil Doogan and a woman passenger were killed, and that 10 people were injured. I learnt that all the injured had been removed to various places and had received medical and other attention except Edward McFadden, one of the more seriously injured, who was waiting attention in a cottage close by. I went with Drs McGinley and Patterson who rendered him medical aid.

I, with Porter Starrett, returned to the scene of the accident and, after some difficulty, gained access to the Viaduct. It was still blowing a strong gale, and I had occasionally to hold on to the railing to prevent myself being blown over. The engine appeared to be in order and on the track. The covered wagon following the engine was derailed and leaning against the parapet wall; the next vehicle (3rd class Swilly Carriage) had turned somersault and was, as far as I could see in the dark, a complete wreck, three compartments having being completely demolished in the contact with the parapet wall; the next vehicle on the train, a Burtonport trio, was lying over on its side, some distance down the stone embankment; the last vehicle of the train (Burtonport Combined Van) was partially hanging over embankment, only about half of this vehicle had cleared the main hand rail on the viaduct.

I then went down the embankment and examined carriages, the embankment under them and the marsh surrounding to make sure that no person had been overlooked. In this work I was piloted by one of the local people and accompanied by Porter Starrett and motor driver Charles Dorrian, both of Letterkenny. I found no person and formed the opinion that nothing more could be done until the breakdown train arrived. I proceeded to Creeslough and wired particulars to the General Manager, who was coming on the breakdown train. I also wired to Falcarragh for information concerning the woman passenger who had been killed and unidentified, and I learnt that she was a Mrs Mulligan of Falcarragh [8].

I again then returned to the Viaduct to meet the General Manager on arrival of the breakdown train and remained with him until he got full particulars of what I had done and observed.

Newspaper reports also painted a picture of the scene:

The cries of the passengers could not be heard in the darkness owing to the screaming of the gale from the open Atlantic, which filled the valley with its eerie moans. From thatched cottages, nestling in the glen, warm patches of light dotted the gloomy surroundings until, at length, with that sense of tragedy ever present in Donegal, some doors opened, and lights began to move about, attracted by the blaze of the engine and the screaming of its whistle. Friendly hands, eager to help, were rendering assistance, and some of the passengers were taken to the nearest shelter, while the injured received every assistance it was possible to give. Messages sent to Derry brought a special train to the scene with nurses and doctors and railway officials. This only arrived on the spot after 2am. The gale had by then moderated and, with powerful lamps, it became apparent that the disaster was more than at first appeared. The coaches were utterly wrecked, and broken glass and woodwork littered the viaduct. The ironwork on the viaduct was twisted and torn by the impact. Heart rending scenes were witnessed as women ran about frantically in the darkness calling on their friends. Some of these were Irish speakers and prayers in Irish could be heard as they stood in little groups holding on to the iron framework, those of them who could not be persuaded to leave the scene of the disaster [9]

As the day dawned, the scale of the tragedy became apparent. The derailment occurred towards the western end of the viaduct, at a point where large boulders are piled high against the walls, believed to have been done to provide extra support. The engine and wagon had remained on the rails. The first coach was upside down with its roof missing; the second coach lay on its side on the boulders while the third coach lay at an angle against the railings. The unfortunate passengers of the first coach were hurled onto the rocks and plummeted down to the valley floor, sustaining injuries as they fell and further injury as boulders which had been displaced fell on top of them. Those in the second coach fared a little better but were badly shaken about while Guard Boyle, the only occupant of the third coach, was shaken but unhurt.

Owencarrow Crash Scene: Viewed from below the morning after. DRHC Collection
From an old newspaper clip, the scene on the viaduct. While poor quality, the overturned coaches can be made out and Neil Boyle’s Guard’s van lies perilously against the viaduct railing. Irish Independent, Feb 1st 1925.

Philip Boyle, Úna Mulligan and Neil Doogan were pronounced dead at the scene, while Sarah Boyle suffered horrific injuries and died a short while later in Letterkenny Hospital. All were in the first coach. Nine passengers were injured, four seriously. Philip Boyle Junior, who shared the same coach with his parents was thrown largely clear of the rocks and was relatively unhurt, though was found wandering in a somewhat dazed condition.

On a somewhat happier note, one young lady, Mary Campbell from Meenbanad, was catapulted from the carriage but miraculously was thrown clear of the rocks and landed unharmed in soft boggy ground and, in struggling to get free, left her shoes buried in the bog. She walked bare- foot some miles to a house, where she was given fresh shoes and dry clothes [10]. Another lucky escapee was Kathleen McGinley, a teacher in Temple Douglas. She usually travelled by train to her parents’ home at Creeslough every Friday but, on this particular Friday, while on her way to the station, she met an old man who advised her against travelling, for he said he feared that a serious accident would take place on the viaduct. Kathleen took his advice and returned to her boarding house [11].

Who was this man with a foretaste of doom? There were rumoured sightings of an old man apparently talking to passengers on the platform at Derry and Letterkenny and, during the weeks before the disaster, there were reported unusual sightings of an old man walking along the Burtonport Extension. He even possibly appeared on the night as the train approached the viaduct. The sightings were believed to be that of the ghost of an individual killed during the building of the Extension.

In the aftermath of the crash, the Board of Trade Engineer, Thomas Batchen, was sent to investigate the cause of the derailment. In response to the request of the Coroner, he attended the inquests into the deaths of Philip Boyle, Úna Mulligan and Neil Doogan at Creeslough and that of Sarah Boyle at Letterkenny, acting as assessor to the Coroner.

Questioned about the speed of the train, the three crew members were insistent that the train had slowed to between 8 and 10 mph on entering the viaduct, in keeping with regulations. A dissenting voice on this point was Neil Doogan’s son who, from his home near the viaduct, watched the train crossing that night, as he had done on many occasions before, and claimed that it was travelling faster than he had seen on previous occasions. Questioned about the wind, the crew, and passengers that commented, believed the high wind was no worse than had been experienced on previous occasions, until a sudden, severe gust was experienced at the time of the accident.

In his report, Batchen first described the nature of the line approaching the viaduct and the crossing itself. From a summit in Barnes Gap, 2 miles from the viaduct, the line descended continuously on a 1 in 50 gradient, then rounded a sharp curve to enter an approach embankment of 176 yards, followed by a steel viaduct built on masonry piers and consisting of 8 spans of 41 feet, 4 spans of 75 feet and 3 spans of 140 feet each, making a total length of viaduct, including abutments, piers and masonry parapets of 360 yards. The extreme height of the viaduct from the lowest part of the Valley to the level of the rails was 54 feet. The remainder of the way across the Valley was occupied by a length of 134 yards of embankment at a maximum height of 35 feet and having in it two masonry arches of 40 feet span each. Between the parapets of the viaduct and those of the arches there is a space of 47 feet, against which rocks and boulders were stacked. This particular spot was the scene of the accident.

The evidence presented indicated that the night was stormy, but not of such violence as to cause doubt or anxiety in the minds of the train men as to the safety of the train. Recordings around the coast on the night indicated wind speeds of between 34 and 44 mph, not sufficiently strong to overturn any of the coaches. He believed that in the long and narrow Owencarrow Valley, 140 feet above sea level and in the straight path of the wind, the velocity was likely to be greater. He calculated that a direct pressure of 28 lbs. per square foot would have been required to overturn the coaches, equivalent to a wind velocity of 93 mph. In accordance with witness statements of a severe gust at the time of the accident, such a velocity may well have been attained and, crucially, he believed that the nature of the embankment, and the boulder pile, may have resulted in an upward funnelling of the wind and resultant increase in its force. The first carriage was then blown completely over the parapet wall and held there in an upside- down position by the couplings.

He referred to the verdict of the Coroner’s Jury at Creeslough which, in attributing no blame to the train crew, suggested that if a proper protecting railing was present along the whole length of the viaduct, from cutting to cutting, without any intervening gap, no lives would have been lost. While agreeing with this opinion, Batchen did not recommend the erection of a railing as the construction of a sufficiently substantial structure would, in his opinion, be impracticable on the edge of an embankment only 12 feet wide. Instead, he recommended that the Railway Company place two anemometers at selected sites west of Kilmacrenan and, when a wind velocity dangerous to trains was reached, all traffic should cease [12].

In a subsequent exchange of correspondence, the Company were reluctant to place anemometers at the viaduct as, being 51⁄4 miles from Kilmacrenan and almost 3 miles from Creeslough, would necessitate providing for a resident staff. Instead it was agreed to place instruments in a site near Dunfanaghy Road where wind speeds were believed to be similar to those at Owencarrow. In September, 1926, Henry Hunt was able to report the instruments were installed and in operation and in the first few weeks of operation, winds of over 80 mph had been recorded on three occasions, resulting in temporary suspension of trains on the Burtonport Extension.

Despite the heavy damage suffered in the derailment, 6-wheel coach No. 11S was rebuilt and returned to service and is seen at Pennyburn in May 1937. HC Casserley.
Similarly, bogie coach No. 11B, though less severely damaged, was also rebuilt and is seen at Letterkenny in May 1937. HC Casserley.
Left: Despite the heavy damage suffered in the derailment, 6-wheel coach No. 11S was rebuilt and returned to service and is seen at Pennyburn in May 1937. Right: Similarly, bogie coach No. 11B, though less severely damaged, was also rebuilt and is seen at Letterkenny in May 1937. Both HC Casserley.

John Hannigan went on to be an engine driver for the Company and, whether intentionally or by coincidence, drove the last train across the Owencarrow Viaduct, as the rails were lifted in July 1949:

As a sad, but interesting, sequel to the journey to Gweedore in 1946, I was privileged to travel with the demolition train when it crossed Owencarrow Viaduct for the last time. On Tuesday, July 19, 1949, I joined Driver Hannigan on the footplate of No. 12 … and by 11 am we had drawn out of Letterkenny with a train consisting of a wagon, four flats (actually the frames of passenger vehicles) and a brake composite coach. Grass growing on the track made the running far from easy, and only frequent use of the sanders enabled us to breast the 1 in 50 gradients between Letterkenny and Kilmacrenan. After some shunting at Kilmacrenan, the engine propelled the train.

Near the foot of the ascent to Barnes Gap, we stopped again to take water from a small river, through a petrol-driven pump carried in the van. This procedure was necessary because the track already had been removed at Creeslough, the nearest station with a water tank. No. 12 climbed to Barnes Gap in fine style, and then we made a cautious run over the serpentine descent to the viaduct. A short distance beyond the viaduct, the track ended abruptly and only a bare path of ballast extended across the bog to Creeslough.

Men were soon at work loading the train, and by 2.30 pm the last train ever to cross Owencarrow Viaduct began its return journey, with a full load of rails and sleepers [13].

With the rails gone, the metal girders remained in place for a few more years until they too were stripped away in the the 1950’s, leaving only the stone pillars and central steel columns, still standing to this day, both as a tribute to the skills of the contractors and a memorial to those who lost their lives on that stormy night of January 30th 1925.


[1] Recounted by Alex McGuinness, son of Robert, to journalist Ken McCormack, Derry.  [2] Robert McGuinness witness statement to coroner’s inquests and BOT investigation.  [3] John Hannigan witness statement to coroner’s inquests and BOT investigation.  [4] Neil Boyle witness statement to coroner’s inquests and BOT investigation.  [5] John McDermott witness statement to coroner’s inquests.  [6] James Gallagher witness statement to coroner’s inquests and BOT investigation.  [7] Robert Bell witness statement to coroner’s inquests and BOT investigation.  [8] “Mrs Mulligan’s face was so terribly disfigured it was impossible to identify her at first. It was only by articles on her body and wearing apparel that her identity was ultimately established”. Derry People Feb. 7th 1925. [9] Sunday Independent Feb 1st, 1925.  [10] John Sharkey. Personal communication.   [11] Sarah McCaffrey, Creeslough quoted in That Old Sinner (Frank Sweeney, Irish History Press) p 286.  [12] Thomas M Batchen – report to the Director, Transport and Marine Branch, Department of Industry & Commerce, Dublin. Dated 23rd February 1925.  [13] K. Longbottom. Railway Magazine, Nov. & Dec. 1949, p. 353.

© Researched and written by J. Begley        January 2020