| 10.7°C Belfast

Armagh rail disaster: Sunday school outing to seaside in 1889 ended in horror with loss of 89 lives


The debris-strewn slopes where the unsecured carriages crashed

The debris-strewn slopes where the unsecured carriages crashed

The debris-strewn slopes where the unsecured carriages crashed

It is a date that marks one of Armagh's darkest days. On Wednesday, June 12, 1889 some 89 men, women and children died in what has gone down in history as our biggest rail disaster.

What compounded the tragedy was that the victims were enjoying the traditional Armagh Methodist Church Sunday school excursion to Warrenpoint. The deaths included many young people – 19 of the victims were under the age of 15.

The usually fun trip to the seaside was a highlight of the year for Methodists and the hundreds of other people of different religions and classes who would join the special train on its relatively short journey.

That morning around 1,200 people gathered, full of anticipation, around Abbey Street Church before following the band of the Royal Irish Fusiliers to the railway station.

The train was packed as it pulled away from the station at 10.15am, but around three miles out of the city a nightmare unfolded as the train was trying to pull up the slope out of Armagh, but was pulled back by its weight.

A decision was taken to decouple the front four carriages, move them to Hamiltonsbawn, and then to return for the remaining eight carriages.

Stones were placed behind the wheels of those carriages, but they rolled backwards, crushed the stones and began to build up speed as they continued back down the slope. The runaway carriages crashed into another train, resulting in the loss of 89 lives. All denominations suffered – Catholic, Church of Ireland, Methodist and Presbyterian.

Surgeon-Major Lynn, a leading Methodist layman and one of the trip organisers, described the scenes of utter devastation at the time.

"Many a bitter battlefield did not display such carnage," he said.

The names of all the dead are recorded in the Abbey Street Methodist Church.

Among them is the son of the Rev William R McMullan, then minister of Abbey Street Methodist Church, who was attending the annual Methodist Conference in Cork.

When he returned to Armagh, as well as the trauma of his son lying in a coffin in the manse, he found that his Sunday school superintendent, Samuel Steel, was dead and every member of the Abbey Street Church choir was either dead or injured.

The disaster led to an Act of Parliament to ensure that such a catastrophe would never occur again.

Methodist minister Rev Denis Maguire said people had tried to forget about the 1889 disaster because it was "too painful". "They had learned to cope with it by keeping it hidden and I think the time is right now for a memorial," he said.

"It was the worst railway disaster in this part of the world at the time and it's still the worst railway disaster to have happened in Ireland.

"So I think, after 125 years, it is right to remember those folk who were killed."

Belfast Telegraph