A momentary crash – a dense cloud, blacker than night, of suffocating vapour – an all-enwrapping, all-consuming flame of fire – and between thirty and forty human beings … all rejoicing but a minute before in life and its pleasures … were transformed into a heap of charred and indistinguishable remains.
Illustrated London News describing the Irish Mail disaster 1868.
… the papers day by day
Tell us how railroad screws have given way
Now bursts a boiler. O’er the embankments ridge
Rushes the hapless train; now falls a bridge;
Now sinks a viaduct; or wrapt in fire,
Or plunged in torrents, passengers expire
William Pickering, 1846
The first railway in Ireland was the Dublin and Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) line built in 1830. The network soon spread, facilitating the considerable traffic in seasonal harvest-time labour to England, and emigration after the Great Famine.
In London and the larger cities, the spread of the railway network seemed to offer a solution to the increasing problem of hygienically disposing of the dead, a concern brought to the forefront by the cholera outbreak of 1848-9. Plans were drawn up to construct cemeteries well away from built-up urban areas, served by railways that could transport the dead bodies and the mourners. The first such cemetery was opened on November 7 1854 and a daily train service was maintained until 1900.
Unfortunately, from the outset, trains were to make their own contribution to the cemetery population. William Huskisson, President of the Board of Trade, was killed at the inauguration of the Liverpool and Manchester line in 1815, and, henceforward, untold accidents would claim many lives.
The terrible accident at Armagh in 1889, which was occasioned by a runaway train fitted with no continuous brakes, led to a radical overhaul of railway safety, culminating in a Regulation Act of 1889 that required every train carrying passengers to be fitted with continuous brakes. All railway companies were compelled to adopt the interlocking of points and signals; as a result accidents fell dramatically.
In Tassagh graveyard the following inscription records the death of one of the disaster’s victims:
Erected by Richard and Mary Crozier in loving memory of their children: William M, who died 3rd December 1862 aged 8 years, Samuel who died 4th January 1866 aged 4 years Also their dearly beloved son William, killed in the Railway disaster 18th June 1889 aged 24 years.
A contemporary ballad by an unknown bard described the accident:
Twas on the twelfth day of June, in the year of eighty-nine,
The Sunday school excursion train set out on the southern line.
From Armagh town to Warrenpoint, nine hundred souls took train,
But seventy-six brave Ulster folk would ne’er return again.
The Times of 13 June 1889 made the tragedy the subject of its editorial:
The excursion season has opened with one of the most appalling disasters which have ever happened in the United Kingdom. An excursion train left Armagh yesterday morning crowded with school children. As it steamed up a steep incline, at a distance of two miles from the city, the couplings in the middle of the train parted. The rear half ran back down the incline, accumulating speed as it went, and dashed into the ordinary passenger train which was following the excursion at a short interval. The effect of the collision was to kill some sixty or seventy, or possibly even eighty, people.
The Belfast News Letter commented:
…the most appalling catastrophe of the kind which has ever taken place in the north of Ireland. It has plunged a city into profound mourning for the appearance of some quarters of Armagh last night suggested the visitation of remote antiquity of which it is recorded that ‘there was not a house in which there was not one dead’. In the neighbourhood of those public buildings which have been used as temporary morgues and surgeries, the scene last night resembles such as one can imagine occurring when some form of deadly pestilence has been raging unchecked and has converted a prosperous city into a charnel house. As the ghastly burdens were borne along the road during the afternoon and evening the gloom that was overhanging the city became greater.
The following inscription in Carrickfergus North cemetery was the springboard for a search that revealed a local man’s death on the continent:
Erected by Hannah Johnston in memory of her beloved husband Thomas Johnston of Milebush who died 16th January 1876, aged 63 years, their son Andrew born 19th January 1811, killed in railway accident, 9th march 1907, also his wife Elizabeth born 10th July 1837, died 16th of April 1900, their son James who died 16th February 1914, aged 69 years, Thomas Johnston 16th January 1876-77 [sic].
On the 11th March 1901 the Belfast News Letter reported that a Carrickfergus man, Andrew Johnston, was killed in a railway collision near Courtrai, Belgium:
Yesterday a telegram was received in Carrickfergus to the effect that Mr Andrew Johnston, principal flax buyer on the Continent for Messrs James Taylor & Sons limited, Carrickfergus, had been fatally injured in a railway accident near Courtrai in Belgium. The news caused much sorrow, the deceased gentleman being well known and universally esteemed. His son left Carrickfergus yesterday for Belgium. At this time of the accident the train was proceeding from Bruges to Courtrai.
In St John’s cemetery Donegore, close to the hill from where Henry Joy McCracken marshalled the Antrim United Irishmen prior to their fateful engagement at Antrim town, is found the following inscription:
Erected by James Nutt, in affectionate remembrance of his son Thomas Nutt, who met with an accident on September 22nd 1880, and died September 25th 1880, aged 30 years, also of his beloved wife Margaret Beck, who died March 25th 1881, aged 60 years, also the above James Nutt, who died December 9th 1890, aged 73 years, also their sons, Robert Beck Nutt, died 12th August 1914, and James Nutt, died 23rd July 1918, also Mary Jane Kinkead, the beloved wife of Robert Nutt, died 2nd December 1919, Not lost but gone before, Nutt, [Small Sandstone Plaque] In memory of James Nutt, accidentally killed G N R, 10th June 1919.
On June 12 1919 the Belfast News Letter reported the results of an inquest into the death of James Nutt of 54 Rockview Street, Belfast:
The evidence of James (sic) Nutt, brother of the deceased, showed that the latter often went for long walks. It is supposed that on Tuesday he went off in the direction of Dunmurry and, with the object of taking a short cut, crossed the railway lines about two hundred yards on the city side of the Finaghy Halt. The engine driver of the train that left Antrim at 5.30 pm on Tuesday for Belfast stated that when the train was approaching this spot he saw Nutt crossing the lines. He at once applied the brakes, but the train passed over his body. Witness did all he could to avoid an accident, and was of the opinion that if the man had not halted he would have been able to cross the line safely … Dr S. Hunter of Dunmurry, said deceased’s skull had been fractured, while the left arm had been amputated and both legs broken. Mr Young expressed the regret of the Railway Company at the accident and emphasised that they were not to blame. Deceased had no right to the crossing. A verdict of accidental death was returned.