CALAMITY AT CLOWNINGS: OCTOBER 4 1853
The Great Southern and Western Railway line to Cork was only six years in operation when 18 people died in what is still the island’s third worst railway tragedy
At 6.20pm on October 5 1853 the piston rod on a locomotive snapped, stranding the newly operating noon express from Cork at a spot 974 yards south of Straffan Station, 874 yards from Straffan Bridge and 821 yards from Baronrath bridge, in a thick fog and gathering twilight.
There were a total of 45 passengers in the two first and three second class carriages.
Edward Croker Barrington, a solicitor for the company who was a passenger on the train, directed John O’Hara, stoker on the train, to signal a warning to a 20-carriage goods train which had been passed in Portarlington was approaching from behind that it might push the train into Dublin.
He was gone15 minutes when the goods train was seen approaching and, reassured, some of the passengers got back on the passenger train. But the goods train crashed into the stationary carriages at full speed, passing through first class carriage at the back of the train, overturning the a second class carriage shearing the roof off another carriage and driving the rest a quarter of a mile the other side of Straffan Station, reduced to “a heap of ruins”
William Hutchinson from Clownings was one of the first on the scene, having come to the rail bank to investigate the stalled train. Dr Geoghegan came to tend to the injured, and Edward Kennedy who was hunting nearby helped summon aid. The injured were kept in the Station house and three orphaned children brought to Lyons house.
The inquest was held initially at Straffan Station house and adjourned to Barry’s Hotel at Thirteenth lock. The victims came from Cork, Mallow, Kenmare, Birr, Laois, Kildare and Dublin.
They included: William Bateman from Cork, Mrs Latham Blacker from Gloucester Terrace in London, John Egan from Birr, Kate Hamilton Haimes (Mrs Kate Smith from Mallow), Jesse Hall from Co Kildare, TW Jelly from Straboe, Co Laois, Clara Kirwan from Abbey St in Dublin, Cherry Agnes Knapp from London, Margaret Leathley from Eccles St in Dublin, Christopher McNally from Dublin, Daniel and Anastasia McSwiney from Kenmare, Emma Pack from Birr, Margaret Palmer from Dublin, Joseph Sherwood from Dublin (servant to the Stokes family, Whitley Stokes’ sister and mother were on board) and four children. Christopher McNally was one of the country’s leading solicitors and Daniel McSwiney was a nephew of Daniel O’Connell.
The Dublin Unionist newspaper the Evening Mail alleged that the bodies of the dead and the dying were plundered by the local peasantry, an allegation disproven by the inquest and condemned by the rival Freeman’s Journal: “the people did not plunder the dead and dying but, on the contrary, assisted with the greatest alacrity and to the utmost of their power.” The only criticism at the inquest was of a carter named Connor from Celbridge who refused to carry the wounded until he was given half a crown.
The enquiry found that no warning was given by either red light or detonators. The stoker on the passenger train John O’Hara, engine driver of the freight train James Gass and guard on the freight train James Prey, were all arrested. O’Hara was alleged not to have alerted the following train with his lamp. James Gass is alleged not to have sounded the whistle on the freight train loud enough for his guard, James Prey, tho hear and apply the brakes.
According to Ireland’s Own, the Wexford-based weekly which keeps an eye on the supernatural, the spot is haunted by a man with a red lamp ever since.
A total of £27,000 compensation was paid to victims, an enormous sum of money at the time.