The sinking of the Neptune

This photograph was taken about 100 years ago and shows several boats from the Claddagh fleet moored at the quayside.

The fishing trawler Neptune was one of the finest boats in the fleet. It was a 40–50 ton trawler, bigger than most of the other boats, and was owned by Martin Ashe. On Monday morning, December 17, 1917, the boat left Galway with four men and a boy on board. They were Martin McDonagh from Buttermilk Lane, aged 60 and married; William Walsh, Quay Street, aged 40 and married, the captain; his son Patrick, aged 16; Bartley Gill, Quay Street, aged 50 and married; and Stephen Melia of Church Lane, aged 33 and single. Before they left, the skipper, Henry Connell, had refused to take the boat out. He was an experienced merchant sailor who had returned from the Great War and he felt there was some problem with the boat. His decision was for a number of years afterwards criticised by a family member of one of the deceased.

The crew began trawling at about 11am, and by 2pm, while fishing about three miles off the coast of Spiddal, they picked up a mine in their net. They were totally unaware of this and continued fishing. Trawlers occasionally picked up bits of old wreckage in their nets and they probably assumed that that was what they had netted. At 3.30pm, about a mile off Spiddal, they started to raise the trawl. As soon as the mine came in contact with the trawler, it exploded with devastating consequences. The four man crew were working on the winch while young Patrick stood watching on the deck. Apparently the force of the explosion shattered the boat, splitting it in two and hurling the crew up in the air. The skipper of a boat fishing nearby said the trawler sank within four minutes.

A motor launch heard the explosion and dashed to the scene, saw Martin McDonagh clinging to a piece of wreckage and picked him up, but despite their best efforts, they were unable to save him. Stephen Melia was also clinging to wreckage and was picked up by the other boat. They searched in vain for the missing men, but darkness and Melia’s weakened condition forced them to abandon the search. There were pitiful scenes at the quayside when the motor launch arrived with Martin McDonagh’s remains and a little later, the trawler docked with Stephen Melia who by now had recovered somewhat. He was the only survivor.

At the inquest, an officer from the motor launch said he did not know if any British mines broke their moorings or if there were lines of mines across Galway Bay, but he was certain that the mine which exploded was a German mine.

On Sunday next, December 17, the centenary of the disaster, there will be a special Mass in The Claddagh church in memory of the victims and all are welcome.

The latest journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society (Volume 68 ) has just been published. As usual it is a fascinating mixture of articles — Francois d’Arcy writes about Galway Tribes in Bordeaux in the 18th century, Mary Stratton Ryan has a fascinating piece on Lady Gregory’s Galway sketchbook, Pádraig Lane discusses literary depictions of Galway landlords in the 19th century, etc, etc. It is an ideal Christmas present for anyone interested in Galway history or archaeology.

The Old Galway Society is hosting a lecture this evening in the Victoria Hotel at 7.30pm. The title is “Memories of Christmas in the Country” and it will be given by Tim Byrne. All are welcome.

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