By the beginning of 1921 the war for Irish Independence was raging throughout the country. The remoteness and nature of the Donegal countryside was particularly suited to the guerrilla warfare tactics adopted by the Nationalist Volunteers and Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) patrols and barracks were a particular target for attack, particularly in more isolated areas. Such was the success of this approach that, with few exceptions, all RIC barracks in the county were evacuated by October 1920 and were quickly ransacked and burnt to prevent reoccupation(1).
The British Military presence for the area was based in Derry. Units of the Dorsetshire Regiment had been deployed there from April 1918 and from the latter half of 1919, the First Battalion of the Regiment occupied Ebrington Barracks as the Londonderry Brigade of the Regiment (2). In response to Nationalist attacks, the army made frequent forays into Donegal to enact reprisals and were facilitated in these movements by the Lough Swilly Railway Company who operated the railway extension to Burtonport in the far North West. Such traffic was a welcome boost to the Company’s finances but resulted in trains and their crews being targets for attack(3).
In West Donegal, the local Volunteer Force, under the command of Joe Sweeney, a veteran of the Easter Monday occupation of the General Post Office in 1916, was playing its part in the Nationalist campaign. Their ability to engage, however, was somewhat limited by the availability at short notice of Volunteers and the loss of numbers through seasonal migration. Things improved in January1921 with the arrival of the No. 1 Flying Column, a full-time active service unit of experienced Volunteers, recently founded in Derry, with the aim of supporting local Volunteers. They were under the command of Peadar O’Donnell, a native of Meenmore, who had returned to Derry after a period of active service in County Monaghan (4). One of their first engagements was to participate in the attack on a suspected troop train near Kincasslagh Road Station on the 12th January 1921.
The Railway Perspective(5)
In his office at Pennyburn, mid-afternoon on the 11th January 1921, Henry Hunt, General Manager of the Londonderry & Lough Swilly Railway (LLSR) received an envelope marked “Very Secret and Urgent”. Inside was a letter from the Commanding Officer of the Londonderry Brigade, requesting a special train be arranged for the following morning, early, to transport two officers and 25 other ranks from Derry, collecting a further two officers and 25 other ranks from Letterkenny, then to proceed to Burtonport. Orders had been issued for the Derry group to be at the Lough Swilly Station at 03.00 hours, and for the Letterkenny party to be present at their Station at 04.00 hours. The train would only be required to convey the troops one way, return expected by the ordinary train, probably on the evening of the 13th.
L&BER Tank Engine No 2B, the engine on the military special, prepares a passenger train at Derry for the far North West just as on the morning of 12th January 1921. (Courtesy Donegal Railway Heritage Centre)
Hunt then immediately arranged for notification to be sent to stations along the way, advising of times of the Special and the requirement for staff to be on duty and the requirement for all lamp signals etc to be lit for the passage of the train. Acknowledging receipt of the Officer’s request, and advising arrangements had been put in place, Mr Hunt also highlighted a problem that the short notice presented in that, given the curfew situation in place, there was insufficient time for a permit to be obtained for the Derry stationmaster and train guard, who would need to leave their homes at 2 am, so a military escort was necessary for safe conduct to the station.
The Guard’s Log details the passage of the train the following morning, 12th January 1921.
Down the line, at Kincasslagh Road Station, as stationmaster Paddy Gallagher was getting out of bed in preparation for the special train, he heard knocking at his door, followed by shouts to “open the door at once”. He lit his hand lamp, prior to opening door, but was told to put it out. On opening the door, he was confronted by two masked men in overcoats, asking when his first train was due in? When he replied at 8.30 am, from Burtonport, they said they were aware of another train due to reach Burtonport about 7 o’clock, but he insisted he only knew of the train from Burtonport at 8.30 am.
His visitors then departed and he returned to his house, keeping a look out from the upstairs window for the 3 am special. At 7.10 am he went out and opened the gates for the train. Soon after, at around 7.30 am, Ganger McGarvey called in to say he had encountered a number of men positioned on both sides of a nearby cutting and that the line was blocked with large stones. They took McGarvey’s hand lamp off him. At this, Gallagher went to the office and called up Crolly Station but could get no answer. He then called Gweedore to attempt to have the train stopped there but was informed the train had already left.
On coming out of the office, he heard the noise of the train and could see the smoke of the engine coming up the cutting but could do nothing but stand and look on. On hearing the firing of shots, he took shelter. He then heard footsteps and saw a masked man running up the platform towards him. He was ordered into the office, whereupon the man cut the telegraph wires, then ordered out again and told to lock the door and put out his light before the man disappeared(6).
The attack on the train was described by train guard, Robert Carson:
“The first thing I noticed wrong was shots being fired at the train and immediately the van in which I was travelling was lifted up off the rails by a large stone but alighted on the rails again, the cross bar and brake blocks been (sic) damaged. At this stage, the engine was derailed by another large stone and train was brought to a standstill. Bombs were thrown at the train and bullets penetrated the woodwork of the van and windows of carriages. One bomb thrown at the van passed through both windows which were open and exploded outside. The engine was also badly damaged. I could see in the darkness the forms of a great number of men moving about among the rocks by the side of the railway line” (7).
At 8.00 am, Stationmaster Murray, at Gweedore,informed Henry Hunt that telegraph wires were cut on the Burtonport side and that the Special had not yet reached Burtonport. When asked if he knew of its whereabouts, he replied that he believed it to be still about Kincasslagh, to which Hunt instructed him to urgently employ any means to obtain information.
At 9.15 am, Burtonport Stationmaster John Gallagher informed Hunt that the 3 am train had not arrived and confirmed telegraph wires had been cut. An update at 10.45 brought the news that the train had been held up at the 71 milepost(8), the engine was disabled and telegraph wires were cut. The line, however, was in order and the men were safe. A somewhat different account, though, was given by train driver Bob Turner, who had made his way to Burtonport. Confirming the train had been ambushed between Crolly and Kincasslagh, he stated the bogie had been derailed and motion had been broken by big stones on the line, but also stated the line was spread.
Uncertainties surrounding the derailed train had caused the 8.20 am train from Burtonport to be delayed and it was subsequently cancelled. John Gallagher then sent the engine of this train out to bring the Special train in to Burtonport. However, Ganger Conaghan soon informed him that rails had been removed on the Burtonport side of Kincasslagh Road and the engine was held up there, awaiting repair to the line. According to Dungloe Road Stationmaster Charlie John McBride, this damage to the line must have been carried out after 7.30 am. as the milesman, who had walked that length of the line, reached Dungloe Road before 8 am and reported nothing amiss. An officer and attachment of men then arrived at the station and took out tools, together with milesmen and other staff, to repair the line(9).
Following the necessary repairs, the damaged train reached Burtonport at 2.35 pm. John Gallagher reported bullet holes in the woodwork and windows of carriages. The brake blocks and cross bars of the carriages were bent and, on a brief inspection of the damage to the engine, he suggested it was not advisable to send No. 2B out in its present condition.
Trains beyond Gweedore were suspended with immediate effect, and the service was reduced until further notice, to two trains daily – at 7.30 am and 4.0 pm from Derry and at 9.0 am and 3.0 pm from Gweedore. The service changes impacted on staff, with the porters at Burtonport, Dungloe Road and Crolly and the milesmen for the Gweedore to Burtonport section being dispensed with and Burtonport based Guards, Sweeney and Boyle and brakesman Rogers being transferred to Gweedore(10).
The Volunteers Perspective:
The sequence of events from the Volunteers perspective draws on Joe Sweeney’s account of events (Capuchin Annual, 1970), a brief account of his report to Volunteer Headquarters (An T-Óglach, 15th March 1921) and witness statements of some of the men involved in the attack, given to the Bureau of Military History, Ireland (BMH) in the early 1950s. There are some discrepancies in accounts, likely due to the passage of years between the event and the collection of statements.
On the afternoon of the 11th January 1921, Joe Sweeney, Officer-in-Command of the West Donegal Brigade of the Volunteer movement was approached by John Duddy, Lough Swilly Railway guard, and informed of a special fish train that was to leave Derry in the early hours of the following morning, to arrive in Burtonport at 7.0 am. This information was later confirmed by Burtonport based railway guard Neil Boyle. Suspicions were raised, as there was no fishing in Burtonport at the time, and it was presumed likely to be a troop train, related to the visit to the area, and the brief detention, of a suspected intelligence officer, some days previously(11).
Late in the evening, Joe Sweeney told Patrick Breslin (Adjutant, No. 1 Donegal Brigade) to alert Peadar O’Donnell, leader of the No. 1 Flying Column, to assemble all available men from both the Flying Column and the local 1st Battalion (Dungloe Companies) at Dungloe for 2.0 am (12). The late notice meant the Volunteers were slow to gather and by 5.0 am, with 35 armed men gathered they made a forced march to Kincasslagh Road Railway Station (Meenbanad), where they were later joined by Phil Boyle, leader of the Meenacross Company, with a number of men(14).
According to Sweeney’s report to Headquarters – “the station building, a short distance away, was taken possession of and a green light displayed”(15). He also alleges – “I asked the stationmaster, Anthony (sic) Gallagher to try and find out on the telegraph if there were military on board the train, but as soon as he tried to make contact with Letterkenny, the whole system was earthed”(16).
In the darkness, they selected a cutting, just over ½ a mile on the Crolly side of the station, known locally as Paddy Ghráinne’s Cutting. They had a dilemma as to how to halt the train – they remained uncertain as to whether British forces were aboard and, if this was not the case, lifting the rails could result in the death or serious injury of the train crew and would only anger the local people. Instead, large boulders were rolled onto the line to halt the train’s progress. With difficulty, due to the darkness, men were placed on either side of the cutting in a staggered fashion to try to prevent the possibility of those on one side of the cutting shooting those on the other! A man was sent up the line towards the oncoming train with instructions to throw a grenade if he saw military on board.
Soon the train could be heard approaching, its whistle blowing to alert the station. The explosion of a grenade was heard and as the train came into view, heavy fire was directed at it from both sides of the cutting. The engine collided with the rocks, but its momentum carried it for some distance beyond where the Volunteers were lined up. Joe Sweeney had positioned himself somewhat ahead of where he thought the engine would stop but instead found it directly opposite him and a Lewis Gun, mounted in the cab, firing at him.
The confusion caused by the failure of the train to halt at the desired location allowed the military to escape from the carriages, take up position along the railway line and return fire. Joe Sweeney had instructed Peadar O’Donnell to end engagement if he saw that they were outnumbered and soon the whistle signalling retreat was sounded.
The military later marched to Burtonport, using advance, rear guards and flank guards, where they occupied the old R.I.C. barracks, and remained there for a few days. Among the officers was the suspect man who had been held and questioned by the Volunteers in Dungloe, before being released. This officer, with some others, commandeered cars and went to the hotel in Dungloe, where he had been previously captured, allowed himself to be blindfolded, as he was when taken prisoner, and from memory, guided the cars to the house where he had been detained, which his party then examined but nothing was found(18).
The following are extracts from the witness statements of some of the Volunteers involved showing differences from Joe Sweeney’s account: –
According to Phil Boyle: – “We were not long in position when scouts signalled the approach of the train. The train crashed into the stones and was partly derailed. We opened up on the carriages which were carrying British military. Our fire was directed downwards on the train. Fire was kept up for about 20 minutes when we got orders to withdraw. We suffered no loss. It was reported that up to fifty of the British were wounded”(19).
Patrick (Kit) O’Donnell (Lieutenant, Dungloe Company) stated: –“When the train came into the ambush, No. 1 section opened fire. It continued on until opposite my section, where it stopped, and we then opened up on the carriages, firing down the embankment at point blank range. I was using a rifle; most of the others had rifles. Some of our men threw Mills bombs. Parts of the carriages began to fly in splinters. There was a machine gun mounted on the engine, but they got no chance to use it. The soldiers in the carriages made no attempt to fight. We kept up fire on the train for about 20 minutes and then withdrew. I will say that the whole of our party did not exceed 22 men”(20).
Patrick Breslin (Adjutant, West Donegal Brigade) gave the following account: “The train came along at a fast pace, blowing its whistle to warn the Crossing Keeper, and the engine struck the blocks with a loud bang. The crash was terrific. Fire was opened immediately on hearing the sound of bursting hand grenades and was simultaneous from both sides of the line. The crack of rifle fire and bursting of hand grenades was deafening. I discharged 5 rounds rapidly into the first carriage and paused slightly to observe the effect. I observed soldiers opening carriage doors and trying to crawl out. I fired a further five rounds at the nearest targets.
It was now morning twilight and still a bit dark. Visibility was bad, even at such close range, and it was difficult to ascertain the effect of our fire. The train had cut through the block, left the rails, but still remained upright. … I got a glimpse of a straggling line of khaki-clad figures running along the railway line. With other members of my section, I kept firing for some time longer, and Joe O’Donnell, who had passed by, asked me did I hear a signal whistle to retreat. I told him I did not, but when I had a look around, I found that the four of us were all that were left on the Dungloe side of the line. Patrick O’Donnell then told me that he had heard the signal to retreat”(21).
John O’Gorman (Quarter Master, No. 2 Flying Column, 1st Brigade, 1st Northern Division) said: “The line was blocked with rocks and the engine ran into the obstruction. Some of the train lay over against the cutting. I had a Lee Enfield and I was firing down into the train. Bombs were thrown but there was no reply from the troops on the train. There was a machine gun mounted on the engine, but they made no effort to use it while we were firing. After 15 or 20 minutes firing, a whistle sounded. That was the signal for us to cease fire, so we retired. It was reported that there were 50 British soldiers wounded. We suffered no losses”(22).
While Seamus McCann (No 1 Flying Column) reported: “We had not long to wait until the train arrived. As soon as it came to our position, all our men armed with bombs used them, endeavouring to put them into the carriages. Then fire was opened with rifles and shotguns. The exchange of fire lasted for some time, the military replying to our fire from the engine tender of the train. This fire forced our men to withdraw and the train succeeded in passing through the cutting”(23).
Newspapers and Rumours:
Just what occurred during the ambush is coloured by rumours that circulated after the event and by the newspapers, for whom “considerable difficulty has been experienced in getting authentic details of the ambush of the troop train on Wednesday near Kincasslagh Road Station”, as communication with West Donegal was virtually cut off, reports instead largely relying on travellers arriving in Derry from the region.
In contrast to Joe Sweeney’s and the Volunteer accounts of late notice and a hurry to the scene, press reports claimed it was carefully planned and that obstacles had been placed at three separate points on the line with plans to blow up the bridge at Crolly included(25). It was also subsequently stated that Minnie Ward, the captain of Loughanure Cumman na mBan, brought guns from an arms dump near her home to the Volunteers at Meenbanad on the night in question(26).
As to what occurred when the train struck the boulders on the line, press reports consistently simply say the engine was derailed while the Volunteer accounts above vary between “partly derailed”, “off the rails but upright”, “lying over against the cutting” and “passing through the cutting after the assailants withdrew”! Joe Sweeney’s report to Headquarters stated “the tender was derailed” but the engine concerned, No. 2B, was a tank engine, with no tender. These discrepancies are undoubtedly a consequence of the darkness of the scene and errors of recall.
Joe Sweeney had positioned himself some distance ahead of where he thought the engine would stop but it “ploughed through the stone barricade and came to rest some yards past me”(27). Newspaper reports suggest it may have carried on for up to 160 yards and this put the attackers at a disadvantage, as they had to change position and, instead of firing down on the train from the top of the embankments, were now behind rocks and below the train(28). As soon as the train appeared, it was fired on from both sides of the cutting and, as soon as the military could locate the source of the firing, they responded, their own rifle fire supplemented by a Lewis gun in the cab of the engine(29). As the firing progressed, soldiers began to appear from the carriages and take up position along the line. Recognising the disadvantage of their altered position and the numbers of troops involved, the order to withdraw was given.
It was claimed in a number of press reports that the attacking party may have numbered one hundred(30). This seems most unlikely given the small numbers of Volunteers available at short notice. Joe Sweeney’s report to Headquarters described the operation as “exceedingly risky as we were half the enemy strength(31)” and , as the military on the train consisted of fifty soldiers and four officers(32), this is somewhat in keeping with Patrick O’Donnell’s estimate of no more than twenty-two men, though at odds with Patrick Breslin’s count of 35 men(33).
Reports of casualties varied and appear biased on both sides. The initial communique from Military Headquarters in Dublin Castle stated that the train had reached its destination without injury to its occupants and the Northern newspapers in general endorsed this view. Joe Sweeney admitted that because of the darkness and the arrival of a relief train it was difficult to assess the number of any military casualties. Some of the Volunteers commented on reports circulating that fifty soldiers had been wounded(34) with perhaps some fatalities(35). One unsubstantiated report claimed blood was seen flowing from the carriages (36) while Patrick Breslin, in his witness statement said the carriages were blood stained(37).
This, though, is in contradiction to Burtonport Stationmaster Gallagher’s report of the arrival of the train with bullet holes in the woodwork and windows but no reference to blood. Also, there are no reports of medical help being brought to the scene and, as the train eventually reached Burtonport at approx. 3 pm, some eight hours after the attack, any wounded soldiers would not have been left without medical support for so long.
Patrick O’Donnell, in his witness statement, told of a sequel to the ambush when, in 1922, as a captain in the National Army, stationed in Buncrana, he was in a pub one night when a one-armed, smart-looking young man with “a military cut”, came in. On enquiring in the bar as to who the stranger was and how he had lost his arm, a local man, that the young man had stayed with, said he had told him he lost his arm in the train which was ambushed at Kincasslagh Road Station. He had also said that there were about 50 British soldiers shot in the train, which was in keeping with some of the rumours that had circulated on the Nationalist side(38).
Northern newspapers persistently printed rumours or reports of casualties and fatalities on the Volunteers side, but these were unverified. The Belfast Newsletter and the Londonderry Sentinel, both referring to reports and rumours “persistently circulated in the district”, claimed that five of the attackers had been killed, the latter stating that the five were reported to have been buried in a bog(39). The Derry Journal, however, quoting “a report published in Unionist newspapers” that five dead rebels had been buried in a bog, suggested that this was simply sensation-mongering(40). All the Volunteer accounts claim they sustained no casualties.
On the afternoon of the 13th January, Henry Hunt received a letter, marked “Secret”, from Brigade Headquarters, Derry, requesting a train be arranged to convey 8 officers and 160 “Other Ranks”, together with 10 tons of baggage and 50 bicycles, from Derry to Burtonport on the 14th. Troops would arrive at the station at 07.00 hours, for departure at 07.30 hours. There was also a request for a pilot engine to run ahead of the train and it was stated that it might be necessary to retain the train between Gweedore and Burtonport for the use of the troops for a few days.
This train appears to have proceeded without incident. The Londonderry Sentinel on the 15th January reported that a very large party of troops had arrived by train the previous day and were “displaying great activity in the district” and also that “many people, mainly males, hurried to the coast and took boats to the islands”.
Patrick Breslin also talked of their arrival: – “Following the attack on the troop train, British forces in great strength were drafted into the Rosses, but beyond the arrest of some sympathisers on the civil side, we had no losses(41)”.
Meanwhile, on the 13th January, Hunt sent RB Newall, Engineer, and William Napier, Locomotive Superintendent, to the area to assess the damage to the locomotive and rolling stock involved in the ambush and to obtain an accurate description of the scene of the attack, ahead of preparing a claim for damages. Arriving in Gweedore by train, they proceeded towards the scene of the attack by gangers’ bogie, being the only means of transport available, as the military had requisitioned all motor vehicles. They were brought to a halt shortly before the scene, where a pair of rails with attendant sleepers had been removed and thrown over the embankment, which at that point was about 18ft high. The line at either end had also been slewed, the effect of which would have been to precipitate any train over the bank. Boulders, large enough to derail any engine, had also been placed in the cutting on the Burtonport side and telegraph wires had been cut in a number of places. They returned to Gweedore as men accompanying them were unwilling to proceed, warnings having been received to stay away from the attack site, but also to inform Gweedore of damage to the line. They then returned to Derry. For repairs to the track, Newall recommended that men should be brought in from Derry to do the work, for fear of reprisals, and, for safety’s sake, as the position is very exposed, they should be well guarded by military, both while working and on the journey to and from the place(42).
On Saturday, the 15th January, Napier and Newall returned on the 10 am train to arrange for the return of the engines and the other stock marooned at Burtonport to Gweedore and Derry. On arrival at Gweedore station, shortly after 2 pm, they were required to wire Burtonport to advise of the purpose of their visit and request permission from the military to proceed. The necessary approval eventually arrived, and they proceeded by light engine, reaching Burtonport at 4.30 pm, to be informed that the Commanding Officer, Major Dyer, wished to speak to them. After a brief inspection of the damaged engine, they were escorted to meet the Major.
He informed them that two engines and two trains were required for military use the next day, but the rest of the stock could be moved at any time. He impressed upon them that this use of the trains by the military on the following day must be kept absolutely secret but did not inform them where the trains would be going. By the end of the interview, darkness had descended, making it impossible to leave Burtonport that evening.
Newall and Napier spent the evening making arrangements for moving the stock and on arrival at the station at 9.0 am the following morning, all engines were in steam in accordance with instructions. A careful examination of the damaged engine and carriages was first made to ensure they were in a fit condition to be worked to Derry.
Major Dyer reached the Station at about 9.30am with a large body of troops and informed Napier that a party was to travel to Kincasslagh Road Station and another to Letterkenny, while the remainder would continue to Derry, accompanying three prisoners who had been detained in Burtonport following a military round-up in the aftermath of the train attack. These were named(43) as John E. Boyle, County Councillor and former magistrate and prominent Dungloe trader, Michael Forker, Glenahilt trader and Joseph McBride, shop assistant of Burtonport(44).
One engine, five carriages and two wagons were to remain at Burtonport at the disposal of the military. Arrangements were made for the removed stock and the troop train to travel simultaneously. A pilot engine, with a single carriage which contained the prisoners and a military guard, set off in advance, followed by a train of goods wagons, then the troop train and finally, an engine hauling the damaged engine, No. 2B. The speed was controlled so as to allow abrupt halt should the need arise and, with the help of no Sunday traffic on the line, they reached Derry without incident(45).
As a sequel to the events, the Railway Company submitted a claim for malicious damages for £1,500, made up of damage to engine and rolling stock (£500), damage to permanent way (£400) and loss of traffic and additional wages (£600). The train crew received a small reward for their co-operation in running the special train – Henry Hunt received a cheque for £5 from Military headquarters for distribution as he saw fit, and this was duly done as: – Driver Turner £2.10s; Guard Carson £1.10s and Fireman Crawford £1.
©Researched and written by Joe Begley with contribution from John Sharkey-January 2021
 For a full account of events in Donegal during the War of Independence see Ó Duibhir L, The Donegal Awakening: Donegal and the War of Independence, Mercier Press, Cork 2009. ISBN 978 1 85635 632 9.
 Keep Military Museum, Dorchester https://www.keepmilitarymuseum ; Forces War Records https://www.forces-war-records.co.uk/units/245/dorsetshire-regiment/
 For details of attacks on the railway see The Lough Swilly Railway. Patterson EM. Colourpoint (Revised Edition 2017); That Old Sinner. The Letterkenny & Burtonport Extension Railway. Sweeney F. Irish History Press (2006).
 Based on Lough Swilly Railway file of communications, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) D2683/3/B/317
 PJ Gallagher report to Henry Hunt, 12th January 1921 (PRONI D2683/3/B/317)
 R Carson report to Henry Hunt, 12th January 1921 (PRONI D2683/3/B/317)
 Posts marking mileage from Derry were placed every ¼ mile along the Extension. These could then pinpoint the location of any issue on the line – in this case, just over ½ mile from Kincasslagh Road station.
 CJ McBride report to Henry Hunt, 12th January 1921 (PRONI D2683/3/B/317)
 Instruction by telegraph from Henry Hunt 13th January 1921 (PRONI D2683/3/B/317)
 Ó Duibhir L, The Donegal Awakening:Donegal and the War of Independence, Mercier Press, Cork 2009. ISBN 978 1 85635 632 9. p206
 Patrick Breslin’s Witness Statement (BMH WS 1448, 27th June 1956) states instructions were for 3.0 am.
 Major-General Joseph A Sweeney. Donegal and the War of Independence. Capuchin Annual, 1970, p436
 Phil Boyle states (BMH WS 1328, 19th December 1955) he received a dispatch from Peadar O’Donnell at 1.0 am and had to get men out of bed. He then ran them nearly all the way to reach Kincasslagh Road at 5.0 am.
 An t-Óglach, 15th March 1921, p.4
 Capuchin Annual, 1970, p436. (Contrast with stationmaster Paddy Gallagher’s statement above)
 Unlike the other evacuated RIC barracks in West Donegal, that at Burtonport was spared due to special local pleading and so was available to the British Army when they reached Burtonport.
 Capuchin Annual, 1970, p436.
 Phil Boyle’s Witness Statement (BMH WS 1328, 19th December 1955). The suggested number of soldiers wounded is most unlikely given that there were only 54 military personnel on board and Joe Sweeney’s account of them marching to Burtonport “using advance, rear guards and flank guards”.
 Patrick (Kit) O’Donnell’s Witness Statement (BMH WS 1327, 18th December 1955). Reference to the “22 men” is at odds with Patrick Breslin’s statement that they “succeeded in getting 35 armed men together”. His statement that the machine gun mounted on the engine was not used is at odds with other accounts.
 Patrick Breslin’s Witness Statement (BMH WS 1448, 27th June 1956)
 John O’Gorman’s Witness Statement (BMH WS 1332, 22nd December 1955)
 Seamus McCann’s Witness Statement (BMH WS 763, 12th December 1952)
 Londonderry Sentinel 15th January 1921.
 Derry Journal 14th and 17th January1921; Belfast Newsletter 17th January 1921.
 This claim was made in 1943 in her application for a Military pension, in relation to her involvement in the War of Independence – http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/detail.aspx – and is difficult to verify as, although she had “handwritten references” to support her claim, none of the witness statements mention her involvement on the night.
 Capuchin Annual, 1970, p436
 Derry Journal 17th January 1921
 Patrick O’Donnell’s Witness Statement is at odds with other accounts when he states the military did not respond.
 Derry People Jan 15th, 1921; Freeman’s Journal 13th January 1921; Irish Independent 13th January 1921
 An t-Óglach, 15th March 1921, p.4
 As stated in initial request from Commanding Officer of the Londonderry Brigade to Henry Hunt, 11th January 1921. Lough Swilly Railway file of communications, PRONI D2683/3/B/317
 The discrepancy between the two men may be a result of inclusion of the ten or so Flying Column members who joined the local Volunteers.
 See for example Witness Statements of Phil Boyle and John O’Gorman.
 Government data shows seven men from the Dorsetshire Regiment died on service in Ireland 1918-1923, none were killed in action https://www.cairogang.com/regiments/regiments.html
 O’Duibhir, L. The Donegal Awakening: Donegal & the War of Independence, Mercier Press, Cork 2009. p210
 Whether this is what he witnessed or is influenced by subsequent rumour is difficult to determine – he also stated that “visibility was bad, even at such close range, and it was difficult to determine the effect of our fire”.
 It has not been possible to find any report or comment to verify this story, made in a statement 33 years after the alleged encounter.
 Londonderry Sentinel 15th January 1921; Belfast Newsletter 17th January 1921
 Derry Journal 17th January 1921
 Patrick Breslin’s Witness Statement (BMH WS 1448, 27th June 1956)
 RB Newall report to Henry Hunt, 14th January 1921 (PRONI D2683/3/B/317)
 Londonderry Sentinel 27th January 1921
 John E. Boyle was first detained without charge in Derry then later transferred to Ballykinlar Internment Camp in Co. Down where he remained until August 1921, the Derry Journal of 10th August announcing he had been released unconditionally the previous day. No reports of the subsequent fate of his two fellow prisoners could be traced.
 William Napier report to Henry Hunt, 17th January 1921 (PRONI D2683/3/B/317); Larne Times 22nd January 1921.
ST. PATRICK’S DAY IN THE ROSSES. The anniversary of St. Patrick’s Day, on Tuesday last, was celebrated in Lower Templecrone with the greatest enthusiasm, yet with the utmost good order and decorum. About ten o’clock a.m. the Calhame amateur fife and drum band, followed by a large procession, started for Kincasslagh Chapel. On leaving Calhame, which is situated in the north-eastern part of the parish, the procession consisted of several hundreds of stalwart young men, wearing green sashes and other decorations, and as they moved along the were swelled by contingents from several townlands along the route. There were two beautiful green flags carried in the procession with large portraits of St. Patrick and Daniel O’Connell, with a sprinkling of shamrock and suitable mottoes. After Mass and benediction, the procession again formed on the strand immediately outside the chapel yard, and proceeded westward, marching round the residence of their late and lamented parish priest, Very Rev. D. O’Donnell, whose memory will be cherished in the Rosses for generations to come. Miss Bridget Crerand, who resides at this place, and niece to the late Father O’Donnell, presented the band with a handsome gift. They next paid a visit to the residence of the curate, Rev. Father Scanlon, thence to the residence of the parish priest, Rev. B. Walker, at Burtonport, at which place the band played a selection of national airs, after which the Rev. Father Walker, who was still standing by, addressed the crowd (which by this time must contain some thousands), in very suitable language. bestowing great praise on the band, as well as on the whole procession, and at the conclusion of his address he made a presentation to the band through their leader, Mr. John O’Donnell, Calhame. Mr. O’Donnell, on behalf of the band, &c., in suitable terms thanked the rev. gentleman for his liberality, and encouragement towards them. After giving three hearty cheers for Father Walker and Father Scanlon, who was also present, as also for the Irish Parliamentary party, the procession again formed and marched via Aces, Meenanolobany, Cruckamore, Sheskinarone, Meenbanad, &c., &c. and back to their starting point, making a circuitous route of nearly the whole parish. They wound up by holding a ball as well for their amusement, as also for the purpose of putting the proceeds into a fund for buying equipment for the band, The band, under the direction and management of Mr. Patrick Gallagher, Calhame, would be no discredit to some of our best provincial towns. The uniform worn by the band was specially decorated for the day by Mrs. J. O’Donnell and Mr. P Gallagher, and which they did with a taste and skill that reflected great credit on them. The procession and the ball passed off without a hitch to mar the pleasant proceedings of the day.
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.
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.
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 .
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.
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 .
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” . 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 .
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  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 .
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 :
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 .
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 
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.
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 . 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 .
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 .
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.
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 .
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.
 Recounted by Alex McGuinness, son of Robert, to journalist Ken McCormack, Derry.  Robert McGuinness witness statement to coroner’s inquests and BOT investigation.  John Hannigan witness statement to coroner’s inquests and BOT investigation.  Neil Boyle witness statement to coroner’s inquests and BOT investigation.  John McDermott witness statement to coroner’s inquests.  James Gallagher witness statement to coroner’s inquests and BOT investigation.  Robert Bell witness statement to coroner’s inquests and BOT investigation.  “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.  Sunday Independent Feb 1st, 1925.  John Sharkey. Personal communication.  Sarah McCaffrey, Creeslough quoted in That Old Sinner (Frank Sweeney, Irish History Press) p 286.  Thomas M Batchen – report to the Director, Transport and Marine Branch, Department of Industry & Commerce, Dublin. Dated 23rd February 1925.  K. Longbottom. Railway Magazine, Nov. & Dec. 1949, p. 353.
© Researched and written by J. Begley January 2020
Siúlóid éadrom timpeall an t-aerfort is deise tírdhreach ar domhan ag eisteacht le béaloideas an ceantar álainn seo. Éist le scéal Cathlín Mhor, Banrion an Uaignis agus go leor eile, Longbhriseadh, Córas Oideachas, Oileán na Marbh, Seandálaíocht, Logainm, agus tuilleadh.
Fad: 4km -1.5 uair.