05 Oct 2022

GALLERY: Donegal fishing tragedy has affected families to ‘present day’

Nephew recalls the heart-breaking events of June 1957

Last week’s Donegal Live ‘lockdown’ reminiscence piece on the Inch Island fishing tragedy prompted a member of one of the families concerned to get in touch.

John Niven, who lost two uncles in the catastrophic event, said the 1957 tragedy had “affected the families to the present day.”

The poignant anniversary of an event which resonated through Donegal's coastal and fishing community, illustrated once again the historically capricious nature of Lough Swilly.

On Saturday, June 22, 1957, four fishermen drowned when their boat ‘Playmate’ a 30-feet long diesel-engined fishing boat was smashed against rocks off Fanad in Lough Swilly.

The men were: Jim (James) Brown (44), of Inch Island; Bertie (Gilbert) Brown (36) of Inch Island, brother of Jim; Thomas Porter (57) of Inch Island and Eugene McGinley (17) of Balleighan, Newtowncunningham. Eugene McGinley’s father was also originally from Inch Island.

Mr Niven, the nephew of Jim and Bertie Brown, said the Brown family had also had another boat called ‘Wallflower’ at the time.

He added: “Most of the generation of the boys that were lost are all gone now. My late mother Violet (née Brown) was of that generation, as was Willie (Brown), her brother, my uncle. My mother died in 1985.

“My Uncle Jim’s wife, Masie (née Gamble), was the daughter of Wilson Gamble. Wilson Gamble was a Director of M and M Scott in the Diamond, Derry. Scott’s was a well known furniture, houseware and jewellery shop up until the early 1970s. Jim and Masie had a two-year-old daughter at the time.

“My Uncle Bertie, whose remains were, thankfully, recovered three weeks after the tragedy, was buried in Rathmullan Churchyard. Bertie was married to a Rathmullan woman, Patricia (née Doyle), daughter of the Very Reverend Canon J E Doyle, Rathmullan. Bertie and Patricia had been married only six months when he was lost.

“Gilbert was a Brown family name. There was mention of a Gilbert Brown crewing a yacht for the Harvey family of Malin Hall in the late 1700s, on the West Coast of Scotland. The author of the book said: ‘I cannot be sure, but I strongly suspect that he was one of the Brown’s from Inch.’ We have always had marine involvement it seems,” said John Niven.

The four fishermen were lost in the early hours of the Saturday morning while fishing for salmon near Fanad Head when the vessel was wrecked in a sudden squall.

The alarm was raised when the ‘Playmate’ failed to return at 9.00am on Saturday morning. 

During the day, searchers were joined by a helicopter from the Royal Naval Air Station at Eglinton, outside Derry. Except for returning to base at Eglinton to refuel, the helicopter remained with searching ships until the search was called off at 7.00pm.

In the afternoon, a fisherman Patrick Coll, of Araheera, saw what appeared to be wreckage on Ballure Strand. Ongoing to investigate, Mr Coll and three another men, Mick Boyle, Francis Friel and Gerry McKinley, found parts of a boat and the remains of James Brown, in a pool of water among the rocks.

Mr Coll was one of the last people to see the crew of four. He had been fishing for pollock in the vicinity when the boat passed on its way to the salmon fishing grounds.

Later that day, nets, some with salmon still in them, were found on the beach and rocks, which were combed by Gardai and scores of local residents for traces of the three missing men.

It was believed the nets had been cast when the sudden squall sprang up at 3.00am on Saturday and, in the darkness, the boat’s crew did not realise they were being carried so close in-shore. The ‘Playmate’ was believed to have been wrecked on a submerged rock.

The inquest on Jim Brown took place on Saturday night and a verdict of death from asphyxiation due to drowning was returned.

Evidence of identification was given by Jim Brown’s brother, Willie (William), whose only other brother, John had been drowned about 30 years previously also on Lough Swilly. 

The remains of Thomas Porter, Grange, Inch Island were recovered near Clonmany the following Monday.

They were discovered by lobster fishermen attending to their pots off Dunaff near Leenan Fort, directly opposite to where the boat was lost.

The lobster fishermen noticed an object floating some distance out in the Swilly, and, on investigating, they found it was the body of a man clothed and wearing sea boots.

At an inquest held that night, the body was identified as Thomas Porter. A verdict of death from asphyxiation due to drowning was returned.

The body of the third of the four victims was recovered a mile-and-a half south of Fanad Head Lighthouse late on the Tuesday night. It was that of 17-years-old Eugene McGinley of Ballyeighan, Newtowncunningham.

Mr McGinley’s remains were seen by Mr John McCarron of Drumnacraig, Portsalon, floating some distance out and it was washed onto a sandy beach.

What happened to the ‘Playmate’ out in the fishing grounds in the early hours of that Saturday morning were never known. At 3.00am there was a heavy squall and heavy rain. It lasted about 15 minutes and in those short minutes, it is believed, the tragic fate of the four men was sealed.

The catch of salmon had been good. 57 salmon were found in the section of net from the ill-fated, salvaged boat.


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