THE INISHBOFIN ISLAND SALMON FISHING TRAGEDY OF THE 20TH OF JUNE 1929.
On the 19th June 1929 four men, Thomas Coll, Denis Coll, John Coll and Patrick Coll left Inisbhofin Island to go to fish salmon in a Drontheim yawl. Only one man, 25 year old Patrick Coll, survived that night to tell the tale of what happened when their fishing boat was involved in a collision at sea with a steamer.
The Drontheims were wooden clinker planked double endersailing yawls and were usually between 22 feet and 27 feet in length with one or two main sails and jib. According to Anthony Begley of Balllyshannon who is familiar with the history of the Allinghams, the first yawls were imported to Ireland from Trontheim in Northern Norway by a young Norwegian who met and married one of the Allingham family from Ballyshannon about 1820.
He could see that the yawls they had in Norway would be ideal for the North coast of Ireland and importing them to Ireland for resale would be a good business venture for himself. The yawls were relatively long and narrow beamed and punched the waves before going over them. They could be easily hauled up on to the shore by a small number of men where there were poor harbours. They became the fishing boat of choice on the north coast of Ireland from Blacksod Bay in County Mayo to the Glens of Antrim and beyond to Islay in the Inner Isles of Scotland (Na hOileain Aistigh).
The name Trontheim is pronounced as Drontheim in the Norwegian language and this explains their name. They were also called, sometimes the Greencastle yawl. Many of them towards the end of the 19th Century and early 20th Century were not imported from Norway but were made by a family of boat builders called Mac Donalds who were based mainly in Moville and Greencastle but also built Drontheims in other places further afield like Burtonport and Killybegs.
This expansion was largely at the encouragement of the Congested District Board a development agency established in 1893 that felt that the development of a fishing industry would be greatly to the benefit of the congested regions of the West Coast of Ireland. The yawls were often delivered around the coast on the decks of steamers to their new owners.
The Inisbofin men went out to the north west from the island that evening in June 1929 shortly after 8.00pm and shot their net probably at an angle almost perpendicular to the shoreline off Bloody Foreland. The nets were set about six miles from the shore according to the survivor. The weather was fine and there is no record of haze or fog that night.
Shortly after midnight they saw a steamer approaching from the West. They had a lantern that Patrick Coll held up in the hope that the steamer would see it but it seems that the steamer did not see the light and bore down on them. They tried to haul the salmon nets and leave the path of the vessel but the steamer collided with them breaking their fishing yawl in two.
The steamer hit them mid vessel on their port side. The oldest of the men on the boat, 65 year old Thomas Coll, was injured in the collision and had blood on his face according to the survivor. He died about 4 hours after the collision. Denis Coll, 28 years of age, disappeared shortly afterwards.
That left just two men still alive and clinging to the wreckage of the boat and nets. Then about 5.00am, John Coll, the youngest man on the boat at 22 years of age, said he could not stick it any longer and died. Patrick Coll said he said a prayer for the soul of John Coll. There was only Patrick Coll now alive holding on for dear life to the floating wreckage. He lost hope and believed that his end was near. He tied himself to the wreckage in the hope that the timber would not sink and in this way his body would be found to bring closure to his death for his family. However, he did not die and after nine hours in the water he was picked up by a steamer called Briarthorn, under Captain R. Griffiths, travelling from Westport to Liverpool.
By then Patrick Coll was in an almost dying state and lost consciousness when he was brought on deck of the ship. Captain Griffiths and his crew did great work in getting him on board and revived him over a two hour period. Patrick Coll told the Captain that a steamer had passed near him during the night but he did not have the strength to hail it. They landed him into Portstewart in County Derry.
He was after a short period none the worse physically for his ordeal although he was probably ‘well shook’ mentally. He made his way to Derry City where he spent the night at the Gweedore Hotel in the city owned by a Sweeney man and then went home.
The body of Thomas Coll was found on the 5th July 1929 floating in the water off Leenan Fort on the eastern shore of Lough Swilly by a local farmer John O’Donnell and members of the Civic Guards at Clonmany and British Army men based in Leenan Fort brought the body ashore. James Coll the son of Thomas Coll identified the body of his father for the inquest.
He said that he last saw his father alive on the evening of the 19th June at about 8.00pm. He said that it was not intended that his father would go to fish that night because he himself was the crew man on the boat. However, he had a sore hand and for that reason his father took his place.
It is not clear from the newspaper reports if the bodies of Denis Coll and John Coll were ever recovered.
Folklore recalls that a steamer put into Derry on the morning of the 20th June 1929 and that paint marks similar to the paint that had been on the yawl was to be seen on its bows. The accuracy of this assertion is probably impossible to verify, now, so many years on from that tragic night.
All four men survived the impact and if the steamer had stopped it would have been able to come to their rescue. Why the steamer did not stop will remain a mystery. It is inconceivable that a steamer could hit a yawl and make two bits of it and not know that the steamer had been in a collision.
A fund was established to assist relatives and Dr William Mc Neely the Bishop of Raphoe commenced the donations on behalf of the Diocese with a £20 donation about €1500 in today’s money. The boat was owned by a man on the crew that night. The nets were leased from a supplier in Manchester. The dead left a number of dependent children.