Kildare Voice 9 November 2007
Fog Lingers over Straffan tragedy
When a goods train smashed into the back of a stalled passenger train on a foggy day in the townland of Clownings at a point 974 yards south of Straffan Station on October 5 1853, killing 18 people in the process, the impact was heard all around the world.
The Dublin to Cork railway line had been opened just seven years earlier and was still the subject of wonder and awe because of the way it had changed transport within Ireland.
The ill-fated express train had been inaugurated a few months beforehand to bring tourists to the south west. It took six hours from Cork with some Killarney carriages added in Mallow. That such a wonderful mode of transport could be the cause of such slaughter added to the shock.
The shock was not just confined to Ireland. The Straffan railway crash was reported around the world. Just two rail disasters to that date had killed more people, Versailles and Norwalk, Connecticut. It remains the third worst in Irish rail history – Armagh (80 killed, 1889) and Ballymacarret Junction in Belfast (23 killed, 1945),
The victims were disproportionately wealthy and middle class – notables of the changing society of the 1850s.
One was a nephew of the emancipator Daniel O’Connell, who had survived a duel in 1811 at nearby Oughterard. Daniel McSweeney from Kenmare perished alongside his wife Anastasia.
Another casualty was a 37-year-old solicitor from Gardiner Street, Christopher McNally had 17 clergy at his elaborate funeral and his grave is marked by a lavish headstone in Glasnevin.
A third was John Egan a grocer and draper from Birr, Co Offaly who had a large family,. The unfortunate TW Jelly from Stradboe, Co Laois, a racehorse owner was decapitated when he put his head out the window. Jesse Hall from nearby Littlerath also died.
Those who survived included James Collis, the captain of a steamer which who had been one of the survivors of a boiler explosion at sea a few months earlier, and the mother and sister of Whitley Stokes, who was just 23 at the time and went on to become the leading Celtic philologist of his generation, and draw up most of India’s civil legal code during a spell there. It is unlikely Whitley himself was on the train, although there are contradictory reports to that effect.
William Allingham, the poet who brought us |up the airy mountain and down the rush glen” in our childhood, was the author of a melodramatic poem commemorating the disaster.
After an enquiry, £27,000 compensation was paid to victims, the equivalent of €2.37m today.
In the haste to find someone to blame for the tragedy, three crew members were put on trial for being “accessories to the death” and in the end blame was settled on the guard, Paddy Berry and his lamp, who became a footnote in railway history books worldwide.
That chronicle of all things supernatural, Ireland’s Own, records a railman’s legend that Berry can still be seen at night wandering up and down the railway line at Clownings forlornly waving his lamp, in deep distress at what he had caused.
The reality is that Berry, if he does haunt the place (October is a good time to keep an eye out for him) is protesting at the injustice of his being made carry the blame for something well, well beyond his control.
William Hutchinson from Clownings, who had come to the embankment after the train stalled, recalled shouting at him: “what the devil happened to you that you did not stop him.”
Berry replied.”the driver did not seem to mind me.”
The piston rod had broken on the engine of the train, which consisted of three first and two second class carriages, each having four compartments and capable of carrying 160 passengers but carrying fewer than 50 on the day in question.
Croker Barrington, solicitor the GSWR company, was on board and he dispatched Berry down the line wih the lamp because he knew the good train from Limerick Junction had been passed at Portarlington and was following twenty minutes behind.
Despite the warning lamp the goods train careered in to the passenger train with full force, smashed the first class carriage from Killarney, and turned the second class carriage on its side.
The engine and the remaining carriages were shot along the track for three quarters of a mile before they stopped almost at the station house
Locals converged to aid the injured. A hackney driver from Celbridge was calumnied in the press because he refused to transport the injured until he had been paid. The Unionist evening paper in Dublin claimed the locals had gone through the dead and injured rifling their pockets. It was(a bit like the Sun accusation against Liverpool supporters after the Hillsbororugh disaster, and it caused similar outrage in North Kildare.
The local landowners played their part, Edward Lawless and Edward Kennedy, who had been hunting nearby.
It was Edward Kennedy of Baronrath who got the best mention in dispatches, having taken command of the rescue operation.
The injured were treated in the nearby station house, still on Ordnance Survey maps although it was demolished in the 1960s, and the inquest was later heard in the station house, occasionally moving to the platform to avoid disturb patients who were being treated in the next room.
The signal lights at the station could be seen from a distance of two miles on a long straight stretch of railway, but investigators admitted that the recently built Baronrath bridge obscured that view.
The cause of the disaster was like the train itself, difficult to see in the fog. With the benefit of 154 years of hindsight it is clear to us – the hydraulic brake wasn’t invented for 30 years after rail transport.
The goods train, carrying a lightish load by today’s standard, had just two block brakes to stop 30 tons of dead weight travelling at twenty miles per hour, one at the front and tone at the back.
The driver of the goods train was expected to apply this when he saw Berry waving his red lamp in the dense fog a quarter of a mile from the stalled train. It was a hopeless task.
Even after 154 years, the fog still hangs over the Straffan rail tragedy.
Eoghan Corry examines one of the worst rail disasters in Irish history in his regular history feature for the Kildare Voice.
My thanks also to John Noonan of Clane Local History Group who brought the rail disaster to me attention. It was well covered in the newspapers at the time – particularly in the Leinster Express.