Monday, 24 November 2014

Beir abhaile ár marbh – Bring home our dead

Beir abhaile ár marbh – Bring home our dead

Those of you who watched Celtic in their unfamiliar black strip winning the cup against Hibs a couple of years back may well recall the fuss made by an ignorant group of online self-appointed vigilantes. It seems they misread the banner of the Achill Island CSC and in their myopic prejudice came up with ‘Islam CSC.’  It was a classic case of people with a pre-existing prejudice against all things Celtic being predisposed to accept lies about them all the more readily. Seeing the Achill Island CSC banner online recently got me thinking about the long links the people of the island and indeed wider County Mayo have with Scotland. 

One of the saddest episodes in this history occurred in the early autumn of 1937 when 10 seasonal workers from the island were killed in a bothy fire in Kirkintilloch, north of Glasgow. The ten young lads were aged 13-24 and all were natives of Achill Island and working 50 hours a week on the potato harvest in order to support their families back home. They were locked in a bothy at night which was little more than a cow shed when a still unexplained fire occurred. The Irish women in an adjoining building escaped as did two men lodging with them. It was 1am when the fire was first detected by a fellow worker and the Scottish foreman, John Mackie, who had the keys for the padlock, was awoken but by the time he had got to the bothy and opened the door, the building was engulfed in flames and the roof collapsing on the poor lads trapped inside. One has to question why the Irish workers were locked-in in the first place.

The tragedy stunned not only Achill Island, but the whole of Ireland and Scotland. Questions were asked in Parliament about the appalling conditions the ‘Tattie Howkers’ lived in when they were working the fields of Scotland. Indeed Parliament passed a law the following year to force employers to treat such migrant workers better. In the wake of the tragedy, collections were taken up to ensure the 10 lost souls had a decent burial but when news reached Achill island, a telegram was sent to Glasgow from a heartbroken community which read… ‘Beir abhaile ár marbh.’ (Bring home our dead) The Scottish-Irish community began collecting money so that this would be possible and to their credit Celtic FC led the way with a donation of 100 Guineas. (about £7000 in today’s money) The club also allowed collections among fans at a home game where a similar amount was raised. Various community and church groups in Scotland and Ireland also rallied around and when the ten boys and men were taken to the Broomielaw to meet the boat to Ireland some 10,000 people crowded the quay to see them off on their last journey across the Irish sea.

The boat was met in Dublin by thousands of others as the lost boys continued the long, sad journey home. When they reached Achill Island there was grief which the Irish Independent Newspaper described in the following lines…

Sorrow which was almost too sacred to describe was seen at the Church of the Immaculate Conception. The ten coffins were laid on the catafalque before the High Altar, and around them were grouped the relatives of all the boys. They sobbed throughout the Mass and when they walked around the coffins at the end of the ceremony with wild cries of grief, they touched the coffins, fell across them, and kissed them.”

The cause of the fire in Kirkintilloch which killed the ten young Irish lads was never discovered. There were suspicions it wasn’t an accident and one woman came forward in 1982 to say that her husband had confessed to starting the fire many years before. The Police questioned him but met a wall of denial and had no proof to continue the investigation. Whatever the truth of the matter it was laudable that the decent people of Scotland and Ireland, of all faiths, joined together to help the families of those affected. Over £18,000 was raised (Almost £800,000 today) and this was eventually split and distributed to the families of the deceased and to the dozen or so survivors. Much as there has always been suspicion about the cause of the fire, we cannot, like those foolish people who misread the Achill island banner, jump to conclusions which suit our own prejudices. At the end of the day it is likely to remain a mystery.

Today a Celtic cross stands on Achill Island as a reminder of those poor boys who died so long ago. Achill Island is a small, tight knit community and everyone on the island would have known the young lads who perished. We can be thankful we live in kinder times when workers are treated better than the seasonal Irish labourers were in the past.
chuid eile i síocháin buachaillí
Rest in peace boys


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