ONE hundred and sixty years ago this December, 36 young men were drowned off the West Clare coast in Clarefield, which is located on the Kilkee-Carrigaholt parish boundary.
At least two, and possibly more, of the young men who died are buried in Kilnagalliagh graveyard, which is situated in a near-overgrown cemetery several miles from the main Kilkee-Carrigaholt road.
Various stories abound as to where the dead men were from and what led to their deaths on December 12, 1849.
About four years ago, photographer Katrina Morrison moved from New York to Kilkee and later onto Cross. She has developed a keen interest in sourcing and visiting derelict graveyards since settling in the west of the county.
Having read a number of British and Canadian newspaper reports from 1849, Katrina was led to believe that most of the men who died were from Kerry.
“That’s what I was told. I was told that they were coming here to find work that day and there wasn’t work. However, in accounts in the papers, it said that they were coming to get supplies in Kilrush,” she said, amid the wind and underneath the dying summer sun in Kilnagalliagh cemetery last Friday.
Later though, Noel O’ Shea, who lives about a mile from the cemetery, said that local people were adamant that most of the men who drowned were, in fact, from Carrigaholt.
“The local people here are very adamant that the people were from Carrigaholt, as opposed to what has been written about Kerry. They reckon that they were all from Carrigaholt, from age 18 to 24,” he explained in the company of his mother, Brigid, and wife Maureen.
“What we were told was they went to the workhouse in Kilrush. They were told there was food there but they were actually turned away. They were really weak and were drowned off Mount Pleasant,” he added. It’s not clear where they were going.
“Older people are very strong about that part of the history. I don’t know who wrote about this Kerry link. They didn’t accept that around here,” Noel maintained.
It’s believed that the Cox family, who were the resident landlords and lived in Mount Pleasant, dispatched a rescue boat on that midwinter’s night but unfortunately only five men were saved.
It’s said locally that the house, which is now dilapidated, is in fact haunted and that music can be heard resounding from Mount Pleasant now and then.
On a broader note, Katrina Morrison’s interest in graveyards has developed since she took up photography. Generally, she says that visiting cemeteries is a fairly peaceful experience.
“I’d say it depends on the graveyard. Some graveyards unnerve you. This would be one at first,” she said gazing around Kilnagalliagh.
“You come and it seems a bit in disarray but at the same time, you walk around, look at the graves and read about the people. There are a lot of different places in Clare where you would feel very peaceful, even in a graveyard that hadn’t been kept up,” Katrina said.
A further note of interest with Kilnagalliagh is its St Senan’s link. It’s believed that he died in a convent there, while stopped off on a return journey to Scattery Island from Bishop’s Island, Kilkee.
“The myth is that he was returning to Scattery from Bishop’s Island. They say that he used to go there for his fasting, during Lent I suppose. On his return to Scattery he stopped here. This place would have housed nuns in that time. So he stopped here for whatever reason and died here,” Katrina said.
Unable to put up with women during his time but dying surrounded by them, albeit even if they were nuns, wouldn’t have been the ideal way for St Senan to wind up.
“I think people found some humour in that since he wouldn’t allow women anywhere near Scattery. To come amongst the women and die in their arms, how ironic would that be? I suppose it makes you want to believe that it happened,” Katrina laughed.
Her fascination with graveyards was aided by the fact that she grew up next to one in the US.
“I just always found the graves fascinating, wondering what people were doing at, say, 60 years old in the 1800s. History here seems to go so much further back. A man by the name of Eamon Burke would have told me about Kilnagalliagh cemetery and the history that he knew of it, amongst other places, here in the west,” she noted.
A famine graveyard for children in the peninsula has also caught Katrina’s attention.
“A number of children had died in the famine and the families wouldn’t have had money to have any headstones. You still think about those small children who probably died of starvation,” she reflected.
Unearthing information locally can be tricky. Sometimes what’s not said or revealed can be of most interest. Katrina feels that she has developed a knack of discerning when people are not too keen to say too much about an old graveyard or monument.
“You can kind of tell. When there’s something they don’t want to talk about or something that makes you want to go digging a little further; you can kind of tell when people are not telling you the whole story,” she said.
Her passion for photography has led to miles of often solo travelling up and down the west coast of Ireland. In fact, Katrina is often met with suggestions from her son and daughter that maybe she could take up a less active hobby.
“There’s just so much to take pictures of here. My family is up in Donegal so I’ve been from Malin Head to Cork and everywhere in between. Sometimes it’s rainbows I go chasing, sometimes it’s abbeys. No matter where you go, there’s an abbey of some kind, or a church. I don’t really care for the modern ones at all,” she commented, shielding from the wind in Kilnagalliagh, which remains distinctly untouched by modernity.