Kirkintilloch Burning Disaster, Achill Island in Co. Mayo

The Kirkintilloch Tragedy occurred in the early hours of 16th September 1937.

Ten young people from Achill died in a fire in their accommodation in the town of Kirkintilloch just outside Glasgow, Scotland, where they travelled for potatoes picking, a long-standing custom for almost always young people.

On that day the large group of migrant workers from Achill Island arrived in the Scottish town from a farm in Edinburgh. They were twelve boys and fourteen girls and aged between 13 and 23 years old. Most of them were related to each other.

The potato merchants Messrs W & A Graham of Hunter Street, Glasgow, offered them this work and took them all to Kirkintilloch from Edinburgh by two vehicles. It was their last port of call before to coming back to Achill.

They reached their accommodation just in time for a good rest before the early getting up for work the following morning.

The accommodation was located in East High Street on the outskirts of the town. It was very basic and consisted of a shed, (or a “bothy” ) and an old four-roomed cottage next to the shed.

The term bothy referred to the temporary accommodation provided for those who went to Scotland to pick potatoes. 

The bothy was assigned to the young boys, while the slightly more comfortable cottage accommodated the girls. The foreman of the group, Mr Patrick Duggan and his young twelve-year-old son, Tom, were given the last room in the cottage.

The bothy had a sliding door fastened with a bolt and windows covered with wire netting on the outside. The beds consisted of potatoes boxes covered with straw and old blankets.

That night Tom couldn’t sleep and he was still awake when he saw a blaze in the bothy. It was around 1 o’clock. Immediately he raised the alarm, but the door was opened later when one of the potato merchants, Mr John Mackay, came to the scene.

Smoke and flames devoured the bothy and, when the local fire brigade entered the building, they found the boys’ bodies huddling together beside a wall opposite the door. It was impossible to identify all the bodies.

The names of the dead were: Thomas Cattigan, Patrick Kilbane, Thomas Kilbane, John McLoughlin, Michael McLoughlin, John Mangan, Thomas Mangan, Michael Mangan, Owen Kilbane and Patrick McNeela. 

Locals were shocked hearing such a tragedy occurred in their town, but the shock was even more profound on Achill Island. Many people and relatives gathered around the Garda station and post office waiting for any news from Scotland.

The bodies of the young Achill’s boys were brought to St. Ninian’s Church where a short ceremony before the journey back to Achill Island took place. Ten priests of Irish and Scots-Irish descent, locals and Gaeltacht people from Northern England accompanied the funeral procession. Dignitaries from both the British and Irish Free State Governments were also in attendance.

In the meantime, the coffins would be arriving from Glasgow via Dublin Achill’s people prepared the ceremony for their dead. Irish Press put under the spotlights the tragedy. Many Dubliners gathered along the Liffey quays to wait for the SS Lairdsburn with its flags at half-mast carrying the coffins.

A special train was waiting at the railway station and a railway line closed in 1934 was reopened to bring back home the bodies of the victims fulfilling the second part of Brian Rua O'Cearbhain’s prophecy.

Along the way back to Achill people gathered at bridges, level-crossings and stations to express their sympathy.

At Castlebar and Westport stations a huge crowd kneeled on the platforms.

They were buried in Kildavnet cemetery where a memorial of the tragedy can be seen.

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