Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland teachers who died on school trip 40 years ago to be remembered at a special service

By Conor Sharkey

A special Mass will be held next week to commemorate two teachers from Northern Ireland who died in a drowning accident while on a school trip to Donegal four decades ago.

Today marks 40 years since Pius McParland (26) and Francis Crilly (22), art and technology teachers at St Paul's High School in Bessbrook, Co Armagh, lost their lives after going to take photographs at Bloody Foreland.

The men were among six teachers who had travelled to Gweedore as part of an Easter Monday trip for pupils in 1978.

But it turned to tragedy when local farmer Joe Sweeney raised the alarm after noticing a green Saab 900 car parked on the headland at Knockfola.

Mr McParland's remains were discovered two days later by Bloody Foreland native Manus Ferry after he spotted what he thought was a fishing net in the water.

It was a further two days before Mr Crilly's remains were found. Mr Ferry was also instrumental in his recovery after spotting his body washed up on the beach at Brinaleck.

Next Thursday, April 5, family, friends and colleagues of the two men will gather for a Mass in their honour in the Church of St Colmcille, close to where the tragedy occurred.

What happened Pius McParland and Francis Crilly is not exactly clear, although their bodies were discovered at the foot of the area's notoriously steep cliffs. At an inquest, pathologist Dr Frank O'Connor found that their injuries, which included severe facial wounds, were likely caused by drowning rather than a fall.

What is known is that the weather was particularly bad at the time, prompting a doctor who also gave evidence at the inquest to note: "Had these two young men taken the precaution of consulting the local people, they certainly would not have gone down to such a place on a night like this."

Danny McSherry was one of the teachers on the trip. Recalling the fateful excursion, he wrote: "Myself, Mr Walter Bradley, Mr Brendan Connolly and Mr Brian Fitzpatrick left St Paul's School to head off to Donegal with a group of pupils. Fifteen minutes earlier, Mr Pius McParland and Mr Frank Crilly had departed with three pupils in their car.

"They couldn't wait on the rest of us and we didn't meet up again until we arrived in Bun Beag. Leaving Letterkenny on the main road and then branching off on a side road to cross the mountains on that infamous twisty, bumpy road, Pius remarked on the signpost that read Doon Well - 'Of course we're doing well, we are way ahead of the rest and we will be doing even better when we arrive at Gallagher's in Bun Beag'.

"Little did Pius or Frank know that their optimism would be short-lived. On Wednesday evening teachers and pupils were returning to our guest house when there to greet us were the gardai with news that we couldn't and didn't want to believe."

Mr McSherry and Mr Connolly accompanied gardai to Letterkenny to identify Pius McParland's body, a journey he described as "long, but even longer for Mrs McParland and Mrs Crilly and their families to Bun Beag that night".

"No two nicer, more sympathetic and understanding mothers have I ever met," added Mr McSherry.

Exactly one year later, on Easter Monday 1979, family, friends, colleagues and members of the Donegal community who had helped in the recovery effort, gathered at Knockfola to unveil a granite memorial stone dedicated to the two teachers.

Next Thursday, flowers will be laid at the memorial by members of the McParland and Crilly families. Among those gathered also will be retired vice-principal of St Paul's High School, Anne O'Connor.

Mrs O'Connor took up her post in September 1978, six months after the drownings.

She said that staff had always been very appreciative of the assistance they had received from the people of Donegal in the aftermath of the tragedy.

Mrs O'Connor has helped organise the Mass in the Church of St Colmcille. She said everyone is invited to join the families and friends of Mr McParland and Mr Crilly.

Belfast Telegraph

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