Belfast Telegraph

Armagh rail disaster that left 89 dead to be remembered in musical drama

The Armagh rail disaster
The Armagh rail disaster
Teacher Shelley Lowry

By Gillian Halliday

A new musical drama is to commemorate the 130th anniversary of the 1889 Armagh rail disaster, which claimed the lives of 89 people.

Eighty-Nine is the brainchild of Portadown speech and drama teacher Shelley Lowry, who is staging the production with a cast of her young students in Armagh.

Men, women and children - the youngest a two-year-old boy - died in the train crash near Armagh in 1889.

On June 12, 1889, around 1,200 adults and children from all sections of the community were travelling to Warrenpoint on an outing organised by the Armagh Methodist Sunday School.

A statue of a young girl holding a bucket and spade which stands in The Mall in Armagh is a poignant memorial to all of those who died.

Shelley, who used to work for the BBC in London on programmes including Top of the Pops, said Eighty-Nine was her speech and drama school's way of honouring those who perished in the rail disaster.

"The thing that really struck me is that Presbyterians, Methodists, the Church of Ireland and Catholics came together for the day, for what was the highlight of their year," she said.

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"The ticket price had been lowered and as a result it was heavily oversubscribed. The disaster was a tragic combination of circumstances."

The tragedy unfolded three miles outside the city as the packed train was trying to climb a slope but was pulled back by its own weight.

Shelley said the idea to commemorate the disaster arose was suggested by one of her students last spring.

"An awful lot of young people and children died and the play is to honour their memory. It's a tribute to them," she explained.

"We researched the stories of the families affected. A few records exist online and a few people have taken upon themselves to do research into it.

"We looked into the minister of Armagh Methodist at the time, Reverend William McMullan, who conducted 35 funerals after it happened including his own son's, who was also called William.

"We went to his grave and it was all grown over. It's so important to keep the memory of what happened alive.

"We must also remember that this disaster led to changes in legislation to make rail travel safer."

Following the tragedy, an Act of Parliament was passed to ensure that such a catastrophe would never occur again.

Shelley - who is also a speech and drama adjudicator - said the one-off musical drama would be broadly authentic to Victorian Ireland.

"We're using songs from the 1800s, with a couple of modern songs," she said.

"There are traditional Irish songs, music hall songs that at the time people in the audience would join in."

"We're trying to focus on the stories of these people (because) sometimes these can be forgotten - their hopes, aspirations and dreams.

"There's a love story and the excitement of the children on the day. The final message is one of redemption. It's about us giving thanks to those who have lived before us."

Tickets can be purchased via visitarmagh.com or on 028 3752 1821

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